The more things change, as they say, the more some things stay the same – especially when it comes to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In fact, things have probably gotten worse.
With a severely comatosed two-state solution on life-support, Palestinians and Israelis remain as far apart as ever, locked in a peace process that neither side truly believes can deliver. Meanwhile, Israel’s appetite for occupied Palestinian land remains insatiable as it slowly gobbles up East Jerusalem and the 43 per cent of the West Bank controlled by Israeli settlement authorities.
Amidst this, an already severely dislocated Palestinian society has been torn apart by internal divisions within the Palestinian liberation movement since the victory of Hamas (an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections which, despite comparing favourably to international standards, saw severe financial sanctions orchestrated by the Quartet slowly strangle a nascent Hamas-led government.
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Six years on, Palestinians have no democratically elected Prime Minister, a President whose term has lapsed, and a Palestinian Legislative Council that has ceased to function as a result of the detention of nearly a third of its members by Israeli authorities.
Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip has been left to fester. Six years of economic blockades and two Israeli wars have destroyed much of the Strip’s infrastructure, leading to severe humanitarian suffering amongst the population.
But far from being weakened and forced onto its knees, Hamas has seemingly gone from strength to strength. It has succeeded in consolidating its rule over Gaza, stood up to Israel militarily and, thanks to the Arab Spring, gained badly needed diplomatic and financial support with the emergence of a new regional order that is no longer beholden to Western interests.
That their current policy has failed has not been lost on European diplomats, many of whom privately acknowledge that were Hamas to be elected to power within the current regional context the EU would be hard pressed no to recognise the results. In spite of this, European governments have so far proven reticent to re-evaluate their current policy paradigm against the backdrop of a profoundly transformed regional landscape.
This is a mistake. While Europe should not over estimate its capacity to sway the movement, or indeed Hamas’ willingness to be co-opted, engaging with Hamas with the help of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar could pay dividends. In fact, the aforementioned triumvirate have already contributed towards rehabilitating the movement within the Sunni Arab fold and cleave it from the Iran-Syria “axis of resistance” – undoubtedly to the satisfaction of the US.
Engaging with the movement would also contribute towards a lasting solution for Gaza and help create favourable conditions for a resumption of negotiations with Israelis and Palestinians.
Active European involvement would provide a considerable boost to current stalled intra-Palestinian reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, a milestone on the road towards restarting a meaningful Israeli/Palestinian peace process. While much of the political wrangling that has deadlocked talks has centred on the technicalities of new elections and the choice of interim Prime Minister, European assurances that it would deal with a Palestinian national unity government that included Hamas would go a long way towards injecting some badly needed momentum.
It would also address Israeli complaints over the futility of negotiating with a Palestinian Authority which only represents half of Palestinians. In a Catch-22 follow up though, Israel frequently asserts that it refuses to negotiate with a movement that does not recognise its right to exist. In this regard, Israel’s stance mirrors the three conditions laid out by the Quartet for the recognition of a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, namely: recognition of Israel, the renunciation of violence and adherence to previous diplomatic agreements.
There is however a clear precedent of Israeli and Palestinian governments advancing elements of the peace process and Quartet principals that have not been explicated agreed upon by the ruling party. While Israel has committed itself to the Oslo peace process the ruling Likud party has in fact never issued a political platform endorsing a two-state solution to end the conflict.
As such, widening the current PLO umbrella to include Hamas would potentially provide the group with sufficient cover (and ambiguity) with which to participate in negotiations on the basis of the Quartet principals. This could occur despite Hamas’ refusal to explicitly acknowledge Israel’s right to exist without winning substantial concessions from Israel. Something the movement often accuses Fatah of not having achieved.
In fact, Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshal has repeatedly hinted at his ambition of taking over leadership of the PLO along with the possibility of abandoning violence in favour of negotiations for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. As he explained in an interview with Christiane Amanpour:
“Either there’s an international will, led by the U.S. and Europe and the international community and force Israel to go through the way of peace and a Palestinian state, according to the border of 1967 with the right to return…But if Israel can continue to refuse this, we force them or resort to resistance. I accept a state of the 1967. How can I accept Israel? They have occupied my land. I need recognition, not the Israelis”
It is true that Hamas is neither homogenous nor transparent and it is difficult to ascertain the kind of traction the above statement has within the movement, in particular amongst rank and file. Yet it is also true that the group is at a crossroads. While its leaders sense that the Arab Spring has given them a strong hand, debate remains as to the wisdom of showing their cards now, or playing the long game as the Palestinian Authority slowly crumbles and the chances of a two-state solution vanish.
If Europe and the international community is serious about restarting negotiations and reaching an agreement that benefits from a broad consensus amongst Palestinians, it must open a dialogue with a broad spectrum of Palestinian political groups – even those with blood on their hands. This should not be seen as whitewashing the group’s history of violence, but rather as introducing an element of realpolitik into Europe’s policy. Europe should therefore exploit current openings such as the above and Hamas overtures towards Europe.
Moreover, only a Palestinian government that enjoys popular legitimacy will have the political capital necessary to conclude negotiations with Israel. Besides pursuing Palestinian reconciliation, Europe must invest itself in putting Palestinian democracy back on track through the holding of free and fair legislative elections and the resurrection of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Two things which would also pull Hamas back into the arena of mainstream politics and potentially convince its leadership of the benefits associated with moderation and pragmatism.
Examples of peace-making in the Northern Irish and Turkish/Kurdish conflicts have highlighted the difficulties of bringing to the negotiating table “terrorist” groups more use to violence than negotiation; but these peace initiatives have also proven that effective mediation and engagement by third parties can play a critical role in helping overcome deep seated enmity, and that a historic peace agreement can be reached, even in the most intractable of conflicts. As Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker once observed: “You negotiate peace with your enemies not with your friends”.
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