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Hamas: Isolate or Engage?

Discussants: Nadia Hijab, Senior Fellow, Institute for Palestine Studies, and Shmuel Rosner, Chief U.S. Correspondent, Haaretz
Updated: May 11,2006


In January 2006, Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. The ascension of a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Territories has posed a difficult challenge both for Israeli leaders and for other governments with an interest in the region. Some argue engaging Hamas will prompt the group to become more moderate. But to date, Hamas has rejected calls to recognize Israel and denounce violence, bolstering the argument that the group should be isolated until it agrees to cooperate. The United States and European Union have already stopped their aid payments—which constituted the majority of the Palestinian Authority's annual budget—creating a financial crisis for the new government.

In this online debate, Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, and Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, discuss whether or not to engage Hamas.

Weigh in on this debate by emailing the editors at To view other online debates click here.

Latest Update:

Shmuel Rosner 

Shmuel Rosner

May 12, 2006

Palestinians Deserve Better than Hamas

The examples available are plentiful, and the conclusion gloomy. Islamist movements do not usually moderate if conditions do not force them to do so. They can be forced by local conditions, as in Turkey, or violently tamed, as happens in Egypt. The difference between these two countries and the Palestinian Territories is clear. In Palestine no local force is powerful enough to bend Hamas. Take a look at Lebanon—also a country in which law and order are harder to enforce: Hezbollah was able to join the political process AND to keep its weapons and terrorist ideology. Exactly as happened with Hamas, with one significant difference: Hamas not only joined the process, but also got to be the ruler.

Former assistant secretary of state, Saban Center's Martin Indyk, said two weeks ago (PDF) that "the U.S. government cannot by law, and should not as a matter of policy, be funding a Hamas government that does not accept the rules of the game." Funding Hamas—or engaging it—will have the effect of empowering a government of radical ideology. That's why it shouldn't be done.

My partner to this dialog presents the dilemma of Hamas as one related to the greater political question of the occupied territories. I refuse to play this game. Engaging Hamas is not a compensation Palestinians should be handed, as they suffer and deserve better lives—nor is it a tool of punishing Israel for its deeds and misdeeds. The question of Hamas should be decided on its merit, with the desired consequences in mind. Meaning: How to have a Palestinian leadership with which one could negotiate seriously.

A couple of weeks ago, three scholars from the "Washington Institute," David Makovsky, Michael Herzog, and Elizabeth Young, defined the purpose of withholding aid to the Hamas government thus: "1) to compel Hamas to make a choice about whether it will continue to advocate unacceptable policies if it wants to have the economic wherewithal to govern the PA; and 2) to underscore to Palestinian voters, a plurality of whom supported Hamas, that the international community can respect Palestinian democracy but not remain indifferent to the choices that Palestinians make." This can be used, almost in the same words, to explain the purpose of isolating Hamas.

Dr. Nabil Kukali polled Palestinians with this open question: "If you were in the position of counseling the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, which advice you would give him?" The most popular answer he got was "to put an economic program for the improvement of the living conditions." In the same poll, 57.7 percent rated economic conditions in the occupied territories as "bad." This is a situation that should be improved, but it is also an opportunity to send a clear message to the Palestinians: Keep your priorities in mind as you set your policy toward Israel and the world.

Nadia Hijab

Nadia Hijab

May 11, 2006

Reciprocate, or Miss Yet Another Opportunity

The Financial Times called the boycott of Hamas a "sterile and destructive policy" in its lead editorial today. The FT is not from "the region," Mr. Rosner. Yet it mentioned the settlements, the "barrier," and the occupation, and spoke of justice for the Palestinians in the same breath as security for Israel.

Mr. Rosner argues that Israel's policy of targeted assassinations led to the Hamas ceasefire. Not so. Analysts note the Sharon government used it to blow up carefully negotiated ceasefires more than once since the second intifada.

As Yediot Aharanot security correspondent Alex Fishman wrote on November 25, 2001: "Whoever gave a green light to this [assassination of Hamas leader Mahmud Abu Hunud] knew full well that he is thereby shattering in one blow the gentlemen's agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority ... to avoid in the near future suicide bombings inside the Green Line." Fishman then points the finger, "The subject was extensively discussed both by Israel's military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation."

To really answer the "Isolate or Engage" question, you have to ask: Why was Hamas elected? Because both Arafat and Abbas were marginalized by Israel, which kept colonizing the land (and, yes, Fatah corruption and mismanagement).

Hamas has now been democratically elected by Palestinians who, polls consistently show, want a two-state solution and peace with Israel. It is upholding a ceasefire: Israel should reciprocate and fully engage.

In fact, Israel hasn't engaged any elected Palestinian leader. It's betting it can keep as much land with as few Palestinians. Blinded by its military power, Israel appears oblivious to two trends:

  • The growing right of return movement among Palestinian refugees and exiles since 2000.
  • The shift in world opinion on Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, which is now being expressed in articles, grassroots activism, and a divestment movement among churches and others, echoing the movement against apartheid South Africa.

Hamas may not be the last chance for peace. But it may be the last chance for peace in our time and for a two-state solution that favors Israel. When future historians write the last words in this debate, they may describe it as the time when, to misquote the late Abba Eban, the Israelis never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace.

Shmuel Rosner

May 11, 2006

Stick with What Works

Dealing with the full scope of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in 400 words seems to me to be a little bit of an over-stretch, so I will stick to the original subject: engaging Hamas, yes or no. The barrier, the settlements, and the occupation in general will have to wait for another round, as each of them is complicated enough as to justify a separate debate. One of the most problematic habits people in the region have is their tendency to argue on issues concerning the broader history and mythology of the conflict, instead of dealing with the imminent questions on the table.

So back to Hamas, and what I want to discuss today is the demand that the organization renounce violence. "Hamas has upheld a unilateral ceasefire for fifteen months. Why doesn't Israel match it?" asked my partner. Here's the answer: Israel can't declare ceasefire as long as there are people trying to penetrate Israel and kill its civilians. Is it true that Israel sometimes overreacts militarily? Definitely. In an environment in which hatred is a common commodity, these events are regrettable. It is Israel's obligation—both moral and practical—to see that such events are as rare as possible.

But let me take a look at this issue from a different angle. Ms. Hijab mentioned in both her postings that Hamas decided to hold a ceasefire—as if this was a decision they made as part of their newly acquired pragmatism. But is that really so?

Well, not necessarily. A very strong case can be made that Hamas reached this decision as part of a whole different kind of pragmatism. Israel made it clear through its actions—mostly targeted killings—that leaders of Hamas will not be personally safe unless they stop sending terrorists into Israel. And the leaders reacted to this pressure. They found the first available excuse to announce a ceasefire.

Now, not everybody is happy with this line of analysis, but the evidence is there to support it and an important lesson is there to be learned. If Hamas was caving for the reasons I mentioned, then the argument I made in my first response might be also correct: Pushing Hamas in a consistent way can work. And exactly as it was with the targeted killings, the process of isolating Hamas is not easy, nor is it nice. It is ugly, sometimes morally questionable, and sometimes even cruel. But it is necessary. Simply because no better alternatives can be found.

Nadia Hijab

May, 10, 2006

Fool Them Once...

I agree with Mr. Rosner on one point: The issue is simple.

If we move beyond spin to facts, it's easy to understand why Hamas doesn't "simply" recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept past agreements. Every Palestinian saw what happened when the late Yasir Arafat led the PLO down this road. It was a unilateral dead end. Hamas wants reciprocity.

Recognize Israel? The PLO did so and signed the Oslo Agreements in 1993. Israel and the United States then demanded it change its Charter. Arafat wrote a formal letter saying Oslo superseded the Charter. Even this was not enough. He had to convene the Palestinian National Council to amend it in Bill Clinton's presence.

In response, Israel doubled the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank to 400,000 between 1993 and 2000, the years of the Oslo peace process. Land is the Palestinians' lifeblood, the basis of their ability to survive as a nation. Israel is hacking off half the West Bank and its water. This is not recognizing a Palestinian state within 1967 borders.

Renounce violence? Hamas has upheld a unilateral ceasefire for fifteen months. Why doesn't Israel match it? Hamas could then impose the ceasefire on other militant groups and both Israelis and Palestinians would be secure. Since 2000, the number of Palestinians killed is nearly four times higher than Israelis. Attacks on civilians violate international law. So do extra-judicial executions, collective punishment, and home demolitions. Both sides are violating international law. Only one side is occupying the other.

Recognize past agreements? The "performance-based" road map was supposed to lead to an end to occupation. Perhaps more Haaretz correspondents could use the paper's travel budget to tour Israel's illegal Wall from the Palestinian side and see how it abuts the very houses in Palestinian towns and villages—leaving the land on the Israeli side.

The Israelis call it a security fence. If so, why build it in the Occupied Palestinian Territories? In fact—no surprise—Olmert's plan will relocate Israeli settlers on the "Israeli side" of the Wall. That is cementing the occupation, not ending it.

Israel's Wall, settlements, and other actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal. The International Court of Justice says so. The United Nations says so. The Europeans say so. "Everyone" says so. Why doesn't Israel just end its occupation? How much more simple.

Shmuel Rosner

May 9, 2006

Isolation Takes Patience, Resolve

The isolation of Hamas is a logical policy that doesn't need to be changed for one good reason: It might work. People who already call upon the international community to change it fall short on the most basic principal of policy making—that is, to have some patience. It's been only four months since Hamas won the election, and less than two since it formed a government. Declaring at this early stage that the policy is failing is premature and counterproductive, as the success of this policy depends on Hamas' assumption that the policy will not change—hence, the Palestinian leadership will need to change.

My partner to this dialog claimed shrewdly, that "Hamas' path to moderation is strikingly similar to the PLO's"—meaning: You dealt with the PLO in the past, why won't you do the same with Hamas. But this stick can't be held from both ends. True, we dealt with the PLO—but was it so successful? Is it really the example one wants to follow? Thirteen years have passed since the Oslo accords were signed, and Israel has suffered more acts of terrorism and lost more lives than ever before. Are we going to go through the same mistakes that led us to the place we are in now?

A couple of weeks ago, I met with a high-level U.S. administration official as part of my daily routine of journalism. Our biggest failure in this region, he said, was that we weren't insistent enough on a performance-based policy. Yasir Arafat fooled us time and again, he said, but we didn't stop him from doing so, too scared that the "peace process" will come to a halt.

Claiming that Hamas has already started to moderate has no basis in reality. And the chances that this will happen in the future aren't going to increase if the world fails to make the point it was trying to make in its well-crafted demands from the organization.

And just so everybody's on the same page, lets remember what are we talking about—just three very basic acts: Recognizing Israel's right to exist (not its current borders), renouncing terror (fairly obvious), and accepting prior agreements (how can one negotiate otherwise?).

Sounds simple? Because it is simple. The United States said so, the UN said so, the EU said so, and so did the Russians. If Hamas is really in the business of engagement, there's no conceivable reason for it not to act on it in a timely manner.

Nadia Hijab

May 8, 2006

Respond to Hamas' Growing Pragmatism

Engaging Hamas, a strategy initiated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has already paid off. In a radical political evolution, Hamas has upheld a unilateral ceasefire for fifteen months, excluded from its election platform recovery of all mandate Palestine, and indicated willingness to support a two-state solution within the 1967 borders (22 percent of mandate Palestine).

But ever since Hamas was democratically elected to the Palestinian Authority in January 2006, Israel, the United States, and Europe have repeated their three-fold mantra—renounce violence, recognize Israel, embrace existing agreements—backed by sanctions that violate the most basic human rights of Palestinian to life, health, food, and education.

It would be far more productive to respond to Hamas' evolution, as powerfully documented in "Hamas: The Last Chance for Peace?" by Henry Siegman, CFR senior fellow (New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006).

Hamas' path to moderation is strikingly similar to the Palestinian Liberation Organization's (PLO). Both expressed support for a two-state solution before formal agreements, both used violence against civilians in response to the (much greater) violence of Israel's occupation, and both implemented ceasefires when it looked like justice might be achieved through negotiations.

Other important actors echo the view that the Hamas election is a serious opportunity for peace, e.g. the Egyptian leadership, according to Gamal Soltan, senior research fellow at Al-Ahram's Center for Political and Strategic Studies: "A leadership with a credible hard-line legacy is better equipped to sign a peace agreement that might otherwise be labelled a sell-out" (Bitterlemons, May 4, 2006).

Why, then, is Hamas' pragmatism being ignored? The answer: Israel's plan to keep huge West Bank settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, restated by Ehud Olmert at his cabinet's swearing-in ceremony. Israel says it will act alone if it does not find a partner. Yet it had a partner in Abbas—much respected by the United States—throughout 2005. But Abbas was never engaged. Israel left Gaza unilaterally—and kept it under siege even before the Hamas election.

Negotiations make peace between enemies. Whatever the Palestinian negotiating party, Israel will have to give up the occupied territories. Right now, it feels strong enough to have both land and "peace." Israel needs a Hamas as isolated as Abbas was to keep half the West Bank and truncate the rest—a course to more chaos and bloodshed, not peace and justice.

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