BEIRUT—The debate over whether Israel and the West should negotiate with Hamas often misses a crucial point: Hamas is an important political and social force, and no settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without its involvement.
More important, the West’s strategy of isolating Hamas is backfiring—and not just because it has failed to turn Palestinians against the group.
By keeping Hamas isolated, the United States and Europe are helping Hamas’ external leaders—those who live in exile—to dominate the group, at the expense of leaders inside the Palestinian territories. To survive underground, groups like Hamas cannot encourage internal dialogue or dissent. They must remain hierarchical and highly disciplined. But once they have political power, there is a chance for some leaders within these groups to become more pragmatic.
When a rift develops between leaders on the ground and those in exile, eventually the balance of power shifts to those on the ground. But Hamas has not undergone that transformation because its isolation has made it highly dependent on those external leaders.
Most day-to-day decisions within Hamas are made by its political bureau, which has eight to 10 members who mainly live in exile in Syria. The bureau is chaired by Khaled Meshaal, a soft-spoken former physics teacher. On Friday, Meshaal met with former president Jimmy Carter in Damascus.
The political bureau in Syria draws its strength from being Hamas’ main fundraising arm. With internal Hamas leaders cut off from the outside world, they are dependent on the exiled leaders to raise money.
And those external leaders tend to be the most hard-line: They do not want a settlement with Israel, and they insist on refusing to recognize the Jewish state. Those leaders, living in comfortable exile, can afford to be uncompromising. They don’t answer to any Palestinian constituency, and they don’t live among average Palestinians.
Hamas has many facets: a religious movement, a network of social services and a group that engages in terrorism. Above all else, it is a guerrilla movement and it functions in the secretive, shadowy way of most insurgent groups, even after they gain political power.
Officially, Hamas is run by a Shura Council, an internal parliament made up of about 50 members who live both inside and outside the Palestinian territories. The council has final say on major policy decisions, such as a change in Hamas’ stance toward Israel or whether the group would enter into peace negotiations.
But the council generally cannot meet in one place because many of its members are unable to travel into the Palestinian territories—the West Bank and Gaza Strip—for fear of arrest or assassination. So the leadership consults through e-mails, faxes, cell phones and coded messages.
The 52-year-old Meshaal is typical of the hard-line, exiled Hamas leaders. He was born in the West Bank, but his family fled during the 1967 Middle East war, when he was 11 years old. He has not been able to return to the Palestinian territories since then.
In 1997, while Meshaal was living in Jordan, two operatives of Israel’s Mossad spy agency injected him with poison. But they were quickly caught by Jordanian intelligence. While Meshaal lay in a Jordanian hospital, King Hussein forced Israel to provide the antidote and to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Mossad agents.
After surviving the assassination attempt, Meshaal rose to prominence in the Hamas leadership. He became the group’s top leader in 2004 after Israel killed Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel-Aziz Rantissi.
Since Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the international community has worked to isolate the group. It is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Israel and the West demand that Hamas renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and promise to abide by past peace agreements such as the 1993 Oslo Accords. Hamas leaders have refused.
Israeli officials have ruled out any dialogue with Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings since the mid-1990s. After the Hamas-led government took office in 2006, Western leaders cut off aid. More than half of the Palestinian Authority’s $2 billion annual budget comes from foreign donors, with the largest portions from Europe and the United States.
Last June, an internal conflict between Hamas and the Fatah movement led by 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 sealed off Gaza and its 1.3 million residents in an attempt to turn Palestinians against Hamas. That hasn’t worked, and Palestinians instead directed their anger at Israel and Abbas.
Before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the West had a chance to engage with several internal Hamas leaders who were more open to dialogue than the exiled leadership. Those leaders include Ismael Haniyeh, the deposed Palestinian prime minister. Since the mid-1990s, Haniyeh served as a liaison between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza. There are other pragmatic Hamas leaders who were receptive to dialogue: Nasser Shaer, the former deputy prime minister and a professor of Islamic law, and Abdel-Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a geography professor from the West Bank.
In its 1988 founding charter, Hamas called for the destruction of Israel and creation of a Palestinian state, not just in the West Bank and Gaza—lands occupied by Israel after the 1967 Middle East war—but covering the entire area of British-mandate Palestine, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. “The land of Palestine is an Islamic endowment for Muslim generations until the Day of Judgment,” says the Hamas charter. “It is prohibited to abandon it, or to concede any part of it... No Arab state, or all Arab states, or all the kings and presidents combined have that right.”
Israelis fear that even if a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas would still refuse to give up its arms and would fight for its larger goal: the elimination of Israel.
That fuels the current impasse in which Israel—backed by the United States and Europe—refuses to deal with Hamas until it disavows violence and recognizes the Jewish state. Hamas, on the other hand, refuses to give up the bargaining chip of its arms before Israel commits to withdrawing from all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Hamas’ foreign protectors encourage its exiled leaders to maintain their hard-line positions. The Syrian regime has allowed leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel to operate from Damascus for two decades. In turn, Hamas’ election victory bolstered Syrian President Bashar Assad in his own confrontation with the United States.
In recent years, Hamas has also developed close ties with Iran. In 2006, Iran pledged to make up for $50 million in tax revenues that Israel withheld after Hamas took control of the Palestinian government.
The longer Hamas remains isolated, the more it will depend on funding and support from Iran and Syria. And the more intransigent its exiled leaders will become.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.