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Khalidi: Is Hamas' Terrorism Permanent Or Can It Change?

Interviewee: Rashid I. Khalidi
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 2, 2006

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Rashid Khalidi, an expert on Palestinian politics, who is the director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, says Hamas' overwhelming victory in the Palestinian legislative elections was due largely to the "ineptitude" of Fatah, the party that had run Palestinian affairs for many years. "It was not just in terms of corruption," says Khalidi, who is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies. "It was also the fact that Fatah failed to improve people's conditions. They failed in their negotiations with Israel. They ended up getting the Palestinians a terrible deal. So a lot of people who do not subscribe to Hamas' charter or many of Hamas' ideas want a much tougher negotiating stance vis-à-vis Israel."

How surprised were you by the results of the parliamentary elections in Palestine?

I was not surprised that Hamas did extremely well. I have been watching the declining fortunes of Fatah for a very long time, more than just the last two or three or four years. And in a sense this has been expected by anybody who's been watching the two trajectories, downhill for Fatah, and uphill for Hamas. I did not, however, expect the level of ineptitude shown by the Fatah campaign, though that should have been predictable. Nor did I realize the degree to which the electoral system would affect the outcome, so that in the half of the seats that were distributed according to proportional representation, Fatah and Hamas were almost even, 44 percent against 42 percent. But in the seats that were distributed on a constituency basis, the most votes winning a district, Hamas cleaned Fatah out. And I don't think anybody fully expected that.

When I interviewed Khalil Shikaki, the leading Palestinian pollster, he said the polls all showed the people voted for Hamas because of their feeling that Fatah was corrupt, not because of any desire to destroy Israel or anything like that. But, of course, the fact that Hamas is now going to be able to form a government has aroused a lot of international concern and a certain amount of confusion. I just wonder what you think will happen.

The polling is consistent across several polls, not just his. All of them show the same thing. People voted for Hamas for several reasons. One is the corruption of Fatah. The second is the ineptitude of Fatah on negotiations with Israel, and the fact that fifteen years of negotiations and of peace processes and of establishment of the [Palestinian] Authority, and then the intifada, have left the Palestinians much worse off than they were before. So in a variety of ways they were trying to "throw the bums out." It was not just in terms of corruption. It was also the fact that Fatah failed to improve people's conditions. They failed in their negotiations with Israel. They ended up getting the Palestinians a terrible deal. So a lot of people who do not subscribe to Hamas' charter or many of Hamas' ideas want a much tougher negotiating stance vis-à-vis Israel.

And that's one reason they voted against Fatah. Now, you asked a bigger question: What is going to happen? I could say two or three things. One is that starving the Palestinians will have the same result that it's had in the past, which is to create more problems. That's not a solution, whatever the solution may be. The second thing I would say is that, as far as what's going to happen, a lot has to do with how people deal with the Palestinian political system.

There are people making sweeping statements: "The president has no importance; what's important is the prime minister. If you have this kind of a legislature, then you have this kind of a state," which have no basis in reality. This is not the British constitution. This is not the American constitution. This is not a political system that's been there since [France's] Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic. This is a system in evolution. The role, authority, and prerogatives of the president, of the prime minister, and so forth, of the legislative branch, the executive branch, are not defined.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has indicated the United States has not really decided what it's going to do, except to say it wants to prevent starvation and help the people through nongovernmental organizations but not through direct grants to a Hamas government. Is that possible?

Well, American aid is so minimal it really doesn't matter. The only question is whether the United States is going to prevent other donors from giving money to the Palestinian Authority. American aid does not go generally to the Authority anyway. It goes multilaterally through the World Bank, through AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], or through the United Nations. And I don't think, frankly, given the pittance that the United States gives, that that aid, in and of itself is that important. However, that said, multilateral institutions over which the United States has influence, like the World Bank and the European Union, Japan, and even donors in the Arab world, may well be influenced by American pressure one way or another. And that will be decisive, because without that external funding the very precarious structure of the Palestinian Authority and what's left of the Palestinian economy will really collapse.

Let's talk a bit about Hamas. The Europeans have put Hamas on the terrorist list just as the United States has. Now, how terrorist is Hamas?

Well, I'm not particularly comfortable with any of these categories. I think that American law, and for that matter European law, which bans dealing with people because of a certain kind of action, is probably in the last analysis self-defeating. I think there are ways of weaning people away from undesirable actions, including terrorism, which are probably more intelligent than the ways in which we're going about it.

If you want to solve this, you have to deal with a group that has won an election, whether they have done things that are terrorist or not. Now, how terrorist is Hamas? Suicide bombing, in the last decade and a half, was pioneered by Hamas. I don't know how much more terrorist you can get, if you're talking about violence directed against civilians. That and aerial bombardment are the worst you can get. But talking more narrowly about what Palestinians do since they don't have fighter planes, or helicopters, or drones, there's no question that Hamas has not just been engaged in this, Hamas has in many ways been the motor of a specific kind of terrorism directed at Israeli civilians. It's been very narrowly directed against Israelis and not outside of the boundaries of Israel-Palestine, but it has been not just a contributor to this. Hamas initiated this in the Palestinian arena in the mid-90s.

On the other hand, it should be said that the only reason there's been a ceasefire for the past year, with all of the breakdowns that have occurred in it, the only reason you've not had multiple attacks inside Israel of a massive nature against large numbers of civilians has been because Hamas has held its fire. They've been much more committed to this than any other group, whether it's Islamic Jihad or for that matter the military wing of Fatah.

A lot depends on whether you think of terrorism as some kind of indelible human stain or you think of it as a behavior that can be stopped. If you think of it as a behavior that is unacceptable and heinous but which can be stopped, then I think what people should be doing is not just looking at whether Hamas carried out terrorism in the past, which certainly it did, but whether it's amenable to stopping it permanently in the future.

And I think we have to look at other examples. We have to look at Ireland and we have to look at Israel. We have to look at two of the most distinguished prime ministers in modern Israeli history, who were bloodthirsty terrorists according to their opponents. I'm talking about Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzak Shamir [Begin was a leader of Irgun, and Shamir of the Stern Gang, both regarded as terrorist groups by the British mandate powers]. Their groups shot down a UN mediator [Count Folke Bernadotte], shot down British officials, blew up Arab cafes, blew up Arab markets, blew up the King David Hotel [in 1946, killing ninety-one people]. I mean, we could go on and on and on. But they changed. They became statesman. The same is true of the IRA [Irish Republican Army].

I wonder about this semi-religious use of the term "terrorism." The implication is once a terrorist, always a terrorist, and the only way to deal with them is to extirpate them. There is that messianic strain in the Bush administration. There are some Israelis in positions of power, who seem to have that attitude, and then there are other people in Israel who have a much more nuanced understanding of this.

In other words, what everyone is asking is that Hamas renounce terrorism, accept Israel's right to exist, and a two-state solution. These are not impossible goals. But I suppose Hamas will not do it under pressure?

Well, it's not only that, it's a matter of where you put the benchmark. If your benchmark is a lasting cessation of violence, that might be possible to achieve with Hamas. Are you going to get them to renounce violence under any circumstances? No. They have an interpretation of this that is actually closer to the view of most Palestinians and most people in the Arab world than to the American or Israeli interpretation, which is that the overwhelming majority of the violence that goes on daily is the violence of the occupation, and unless and until that stops there's going to be resistance.

Now, I don't think Americans are going to accept that, but it's really up to Israelis, whether they think they want to go back to war to the death with Hamas and the Palestinians, or whether establishing a long-lasting truce, which would be much more stable than anything we've seen to date, is a worthwhile objective. Now, the Israelis want to be able to maintain their occupation and have the Palestinians abjure any form of violence. That's a lovely sentiment; it means you can do anything you want as the most powerful party, and that what you do is not bad and that anything they do is unacceptable.

But it's not going to happen. Even if you get another Fatah that agrees to do something, which Palestinian popular sentiment doesn't fully accept as long as the occupation continues, it won't last. If you tame Hamas, there will be something else that will come up and which will represent the fact that occupation will breed resistance, whether you have Hamas doing it or whether you have some other group coming up from the grassroots to do it.

And the Israelis understand this in a certain sense. And it's a hard call for the Israelis. They thought that they had gotten from the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization], in effect, a renunciation of violence without the quid pro quo that Palestinian popular sentiment demands, which is a renunciation of the occupation. I don't see it happening in the foreseeable future. So, I would say that's your first stumbling block, before you get to the issue of recognition, before you get to the issue of a two state-solution. And that's, by the way, the most important thing for Israelis, if they can get a real truce. A real truce is something we don't even have right now. Whatever this is, it's unsatisfactory in many respects. You have a dozen Palestinians dying a week, some of them are bystanders, but there's a war going on inside the occupied territories between the Israeli security service and the Israeli military and the Palestinian population and various militant groups. Mainly now it's Islamic Jihad and Fatah that are the ones who are being targeted.

Do you have any sense that if the [newly founded] Kadima party dominates in the election, [acting Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert would be amenable to some kind of understanding with Hamas?

My very hesitant response would be a lot will depend on who the second and third parties are in a Kadima coaliton, and how big his plurality will be. And that in turn will depend a lot on what may happen between now and the end of March [when Israel holds its elections]. There seem to be people in the Israeli security services who are pushing the Palestinians as hard as they can to get a reaction. If they do get that reaction, unfortunately, I'm not sure we can predict what the effect of that on the Israeli voter will be.

So a lot will depend on the numbers on the day. And a lot I think will depend on Olmert himself, and how strong he looks at the end of that election process. If Kadima has done much worse than the projections—which are high thirties, low forties—if it does low thirties, or even mid-thirties, he may be in a very weak position as leader of that very embryonic coalition. It's not really a party and the history of these things in Israeli politics is not good. Those people I know who are experts in Israeli politics have pointed out that coalitions put together in the way that [Ariel] Sharon put this together before his stroke have not had a great history after their first election. So a lot will depend on that. I think his instincts are similar to Sharon's instincts, which is to not negotiate with the Palestinians, which is to impose a unilateral solution, and in my view, therefore, to prolong the conflict. But Olmert has shown his ability to think outside the box. He may go beyond the limits of Sharon's thinking.

Talk a bit about [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas' role in this. Is he weak? He obviously is in favor of trying to continue discussions with Israel. But is he going to be forced to resign?

Palestinian politics is real politics. You have to a have a platform and a strategy. And to its credit, Hamas had all of those things. It had a very sophisticated platform, they had great organization, they had a lot of money, and they were fortunate in having a relatively clean election. And any election in which one side has those things and the other doesn't, the side that has them is obviously going to benefit, and that's what happened.

Whatever he does, if there's not a reformed Fatah, I would say Abbas is going to have serious problems. The second thing is, if he continues to be treated as he has been treated by almost everybody in the world community, there's no way that he can have any impact. There's no way that a structure like this, which is so dependent on the outside, so dependent on others, can possibly be sustained without external support, by which I mean real political support.

And I'm not just criticizing the Bush administration in saying this; I'm criticizing a number of other actors, including the Israelis, but also including the Europeans and others. If you want this thing to succeed, you have to treat it as if it is worthwhile supporting. And that means saying to the Israelis, "You have to negotiate." That means saying to the Israelis, "You cannot do things unilaterally." And I think this is extremely unlikely to happen. So my expectation is that he's going to continue to decline in importance because the world community basically is not willing to do the things necessary to give him importance. He's got to be able to go back to his people and say, "I've gotten you something." How is he going to get it?

Should Fatah change its mind and join a government?

I don't know what Fatah should do. If I were Fatah, I would be focusing on reorganizing myself. I think that Fatah is not going to exist for much longer as a major force if it doesn't do that, whether it joins the government or not. I think it is urgent to have the entire old guard drummed out of Fatah. I assume they will keep Abbas as a figurehead, but if Fatah has not fully renewed, it's worthless, it's good for nothing, it will have no impact on Palestinian politics in the near future, nor will it deserve to.

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