Hamas had a historic opportunity this week. During marathon meetings in Damascus, the former US President Jimmy Carter urged the group’s leaders to declare a one-month unilateral ceasefire. By sending Carter home essentially empty-handed, Hamas allowed Israel and the Bush Administration to declare his mission a failure—and squandered a crucial opening.
This was a tactical mistake by Hamas, which needs all the international legitimacy it can muster. The meetings with Carter gave the Hamas leadership a small measure of legitimacy, which could have begun to erode the international boycott of the movement. But by rejecting Carter’s pleas, Hamas made itself unlikely to be the beneficiary of another lone mission by Carter or others like him. Freelance diplomats are likely to ask themselves: “What is the value of negotiating with Hamas leaders?”
On Monday, Carter made one last-ditch attempt to convince Khaled Meshaal, head of the Hamas politburo, to declare a one-month halt to rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel. Carter called Meshaal from Jerusalem, hoping to convince him that a unilateral truce would help Hamas cultivate international goodwill. “I told them: ‘Don’t wait for reciprocation, just do it unilaterally. This would bring a lot of credit to you around the world, doing a humane thing,’” Carter said. “I did the best I could. They turned me down, and I think they’re wrong.”
Hamas needs to make more political accommodations. As a guerrilla movement, it could afford to always take a hard-line position. But once it achieved political power by winning the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas needed to make compromises and play politics. It has not yet reached that stage.
One reason is that Hamas’s foreign protectors—Syria and Iran—encourage its exiled leaders to maintain their hard-line stance. Hamas sometimes takes actions that are more geared to the interests of Syria and Iran, and less to the needs of its Palestinian constituency. The West also bears some blame for this trend. By keeping Hamas isolated, the United States and Europe are making a serious mistake: they are helping its external leaders—such as Meshaal—dominate the group, at the expense of leaders inside the Palestinian territories.
The internal leadership, cut off from the outside world, is dependent on the exiles to raise money and to help the group survive. Those external leaders, living in comfort away from Gaza, can afford to be uncompromising. They don’t answer to any Palestinian constituency and they don’t live among average Palestinians.
Usually, when a rift develops in a movement between leaders on the ground and those in exile, the balance of power eventually shifts to those on the ground. But Hamas has not undergone that transformation because its isolation has made it highly dependent on its external leaders.
Since Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature, the international community has sought to isolate the group. It is designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union. Israel and the West demand that Hamas renounce violence, recognise the Jewish state, and promise to abide by past peace agreements such as the 1993 Oslo Accords. Hamas leaders have refused.
Hamas is a not an entirely cohesive organisation: there is a political wing abroad, a political wing inside the territories, and a military wing. “Each of these wings represents a different trend within Hamas. But much of the power rests with the exiled leaders,” an Arab diplomat in Damascus told me in 2006, shortly after Hamas won the parliamentary elections. “The political bureau makes most decisions by itself. These are decisions that need to be made quickly, and they need to be decisive. There’s no time for bickering.”
Hamas political leaders such as Meshaal go to great lengths to explain that they do not issue orders to the group’s military wing, which carries out suicide bombings and other attacks. That is a classic tactic of guerrilla movements, although it caused difficulties for Hamas after it won the elections. The political leadership does provide broad strategy for the military wing: for example, allowing the use of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, one of the tactics that earned Hamas its designation as a terrorist group.
It would be difficult for Hamas to maintain some of its hard-line positions without its foreign protectors. The Syrian regime has allowed leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel to operate from Damascus for two decades. Hamas’s election victory strengthened the Syrian President, Bashar Assad, in his own confrontation with the US.
Last June, an internal conflict between Hamas and the Fatah movement led by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, turned into open warfare. After Hamas took control of Gaza by force, Abbas deposed the Hamas-led government. The two factions now run separate administrations in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel and the United States resumed negotiations with Abbas, while Israel imposed a tight economic blockade on Gaza and its 1.4 million residents. Israel claims the siege is intended to turn Palestinians against Hamas. Of course, that hasn’t worked, and Palestinians instead directed their anger at Israel and Abbas.
In the end, Palestinians are left in a stalemate, where Israel refuses to stop its air raids and attacks on Gaza, or to lift the siege. In turn, Hamas refuses to end its rocket strikes on southern Israel or attacks on Israeli soldiers stationed at the border. Carter offered a small step out of this endless cycle of attack and retaliation. It’s a shame Hamas did not take him up on it.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.