Ira Chernus  



The U.S. news media have always treated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a morality tale of good guys versus bad guys. Now the Hamas Party is cast as the villain. But when lives are at stake, we should not rely on news “stories.”  We should rely on facts.

The fact is that Hamas, like most political parties, is a big tent where internal debates rage all the time. The latest debate is over a peace plan drawn up by Hamas members together with Fatah members in an Israeli prison. Their “prisoners’ document” envisions a state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza living peacefully alongside the state of Israel.

When the prisoners’ document was made public in May, the top elected Hamas official, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said that it “contains worthy principles to which agreement is possible." He and other Hamas officials told Israeli journalists they wanted a long-term cease-fire with Israel that would give a chance to negotiate a permanent peace. It would be automatically be self-renewing as long as no one broke it.  They clearly implied what Hamas leaders have often said before: Israel is a fact that they are prepared to live with, side by side. 

But there are still some Hamas members who believe that they should not accept the existence of Israel.  Hamas is a party divided, with a military wing that can act independent of its political wing. Haniyeh is a politician, trying to hold the party together. So he added that the document “must be studied further,” and he made it clear that he was speaking on behalf of his government, not his party.

Haniyeh is also in fierce competition with the opposing Fatah party’s leader, President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas threw his full weight behind the prisoners’ plan, calling for a public referendum on it that he assumed would pass. He probably figured that would pave the way for his party to regain control of parliament in the next elections. Hamas understandably resists a referendum that would make Abbas look more powerful.  The two sides are still negotiating to see if they can hammer out a common platform.

The outcome depends largely on Israel’s response. As Israeli commentator Gideon Levy wrote, the Hamas peace moves “should have sparked a wave of positive reactions from Jerusalem, just like the ‘prisoners' document.’ But Jerusalem's ear as usual is blocked to any sound that might advance the peace process.” 

In fact, the Israelis have tried to destroy the peace process. On June 9 they assassinated Jamal Abu Samhadana, a top-ranking Hamas security official. That was just the beginning of an Israeli offensive announced the same day by Defense Minister Amir Peretz. The next day the offensive exploded, leaving more Palestinians killed than any time in the last a year and a half, including a number of civilians picnicking on a beach. (Human Rights Watch discounted Israel’s effort to disclaim responsibility for that attack.)

Hamas quickly threatened retaliation and rejected the referendum idea outright.  Haniyeh and other moderates had to step back from their peace offensive temporarily to save political face. The internal split in Hamas grew sharper. Abbas still insisted he would have the referendum; though public support for the prisoners’ document has dropped considerably, it remains above 50%. So tensions between Hamas and Fatah rose precipitously, too.

The Israeli government surely foresaw all these results when they decided to respond to the Hamas peace offensive with their own military offensive. They tried to justify it by pointing to the small wing of Hamas militants who fire crude (and usually harmless) rockets into Israel. But when it’s in their political interests, the Israelis often ignore such attacks.

Now, when Hamas was moving -- however slowly and stumblingly -- toward negotiating peace with Israel, the Israeli government tried to stop the process in its tracks. Why would the prospect of peace not be in Israel’s interests?

If the Israelis had to negotiate on the prisoners’ document, they would come under immense pressure to accept some of its terms, including an end to the occupation and dismantling even some larger settlements. Israeli journalist Danny Rubenstein explained that, for the Israeli government, “it is best that the Palestinians remain extremists because then no one will ask the government of Israel to negotiate with them. How do we ensure that the Palestinians remain radical? We simply strike at them, over and over.”

The Israelis have always feared a unified Palestinian government. They once helped to create Hamas to prevent the PLO from getting sole power. Now they are provoking Hamas and arming Fatah to spur civil strife.

Israel’s government intentionally shot down its best chance yet for peace. Surprisingly, they have a second chance. This week, Haniyeh’s political strategist said that Hamas would still consider a 50 to 60 year truce. “We are talking of a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries,” a Hamas government spokesman said. “We are talking of a political solution.” But he made it clear that Hamas will return to the peace process on if Israel finally shows a real desire for peace. Israel’s future lies in its own hands.