After decades of war, hundreds of attacks and thousands of deaths, it is difficult to accept that one’s enemy is changing – for the better. For most, it is virtually impossible. Too much pain and too much hate. But as difficult as it may be, one must always try to leave emotions aside, to forget ideology and personal convictions and try to focus on reality, reassess new situations rationally, and move forward.
Following Mahmoud Abbas’ remarks on Hamas’ agreement to give up armed resistance and accept the 1967 lines as the borders of a future Palestinian state, most Israelis laughed. “Judge them by their deeds, not their words” they say. And for good reason: Hamas is the group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel; the group that makes no distinction between soldiers and civilians; the group that not hesitate to send suicide bombers to nightclubs and restaurants.
Yet if one looks at Hamas’ actions over the past months – and not their words – a clear change is noticeable. While the Islamist movement’s relations have soured with Iran and Syria, it has developed new ties with Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, three countries that are likely to pressure it to fall into line. Moreover, Hamas has not launched rockets into Israel for months; on the contrary, it has exerted all its might to prevent smaller factions from doing so. Though a symptom of Israeli deterrence, this position still reflects a new rationale in the group’s thinking of how to deal with Israel.
Finally, the reconciliation with Fatah, if implemented, will force Hamas to soften its positions. Joining the PLO would mean sticking to the driving principles of the organization and accepting the three following conditions: recognizing Israel, recognizing past agreements and renouncing violence.
It would be foolish to think that the motives for this change are purely ideological; that Hamas suddenly understood that targeting civilians was wrong and that non-violence, dialogue and understanding was the way forward. Arab uprisings, growing pressure from the Palestinian street to reconcile with enemy factions, increasing isolation of the group’s main backers, Iran and Syria, and financial difficulties are all practical factors explaining Hamas’ new stance.
But arguing that today’s Hamas is the same as it was 15, 10 or even five years ago would be equally foolish. And if a group as extreme as Hamas is ready to compromise on the ideology it was founded on, maybe it is worth reconsidering our strategy towards the group.
Welcome Palestinian unity
Instead of continually asserting that “by embracing Hamas, Abbas is walking away from peace,” the Israeli government should keep the pressure on the Islamist movement and on the potential unity government to accept non-violence; the Palestinian government should be held accountable for all violence emanating from the territories, so that both Fatah and Hamas will work to avoid it; Israel should punish violence, as it has until today, but also reward non-violence, through negotiations, dialogue and good will gestures.
More than 20 years ago, Arafat’s PLO embraced pragmatism. While it probably did so more for its own survival than for the sake of peace, the Israeli government took the challenge and embarked on dialogue. It took much time to bear fruit, and 20 years of Israel-PLO normalized relations did not achieve peace. At the same time, today’s security situation in the West Bank is the best it has been in long years.
While the high efficiency of the IDF and Shin Bet should not be forgotten, security experts agree that the Palestinian Authority is Israel’s most vital partner in the fight against terrorism in the West Bank. When assessing Israel-Hamas relations, one should keep in mind how the PLO went from being security threat and archenemy of Israel to a security partner.
Instead of trying to discourage Palestinian unity, Israel should welcome it and shape it to fit its interests. In Israel’s discourse, “by embracing Hamas, Abbas is walking away from peace” should become “by embracing Abbas, Hamas must walk away from violence.”