Peace is Made with Our Enemies not Friends

by Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Frantic responses appeared in the media, including those from concerned politicians, regarding the recent victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections. Only a few voices of reason prevailed. Furthermore, the peace advocacy community remained remarkably quiet. Hamas's victory touches upon the deep-seated fears, which the Bush administration and Israeli politicians have been promoting, especially from the right wing, and certain Muslim "secularists." In this context, several Arab politicians, especially Egyptians, rushed to offer their mediation services in this seemingly emerging crisis or "misbehavior."

On the contrary, conflict resolution and negotiation theories can offer a different perspective to Hamas's victory. This turn of current events might offer a historical opportunity for the Israeli, Palestinian, and international communities to create a significant breakthrough in the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and might significantly contribute to the regional acceptance of Israel. Nevertheless, prior to identifying the potential for constructive outcomes, let us briefly put the issues into perspective regarding this victory.

First, Hamas did not have a "sweeping victory," by converting the majority of Palestinians into believing in their religious ideology, as various analysts and commentators presented. In the local districts, Hamas candidates won the majority of the seats due to internal divisions and political segmentation in Fatah. In reality, if you examine the national list, the results reflect that Hamas's percentage is less than 50%. Those who stressed the high percentages also tried to increase the "shock" and play with the existing fears of radical Islam. Nevertheless, by voting for Hamas, the Palestinians were explicitly stating their basic needs, including the right to defend themselves, the right to funding, and finally the right to statehood. Eventually, the Hamas vote should be viewed as a collective outcry against the corruption, ending the occupation, and a demand for more internal security (protection from the Palestinian paramilitia).

Like any other election, internal and external factors can contextualize or explain the results. If we examine the situation from an average Palestinian person's perspective, the world in 2006 looks like the following:

Internally, Fatah, as the leading party of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was financially, administratively, and politically corrupt. This fact was already publicly acknowledged by the second year of the PNA in 1994. It took, however, 12 years, thousands of Palestinian lives, and sweeping regional development, mainly democratic elections in Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon, to bring Fatah down. Every Palestinian knew that the PNA leadership (Fatah) was mishandling and mismanaging limited funds (Israel and international community have also contributed to this image); yet many Palestinians awaited in hope for the peace dividends to materialize. The eruption of the al Aqsa Intifada was the first mass protest and revolt against the Oslo agreement and its conveners (the Israeli government and the PNA leadership).

Thus, by the 2006 elections, there were more Palestinian deaths and checkpoints, and less internal security in the Palestinian cities due to uncontrolled gunmen and different paramilitaries with small weapons and slow economic development (thus fewer jobs and basic human needs not met) exacerbated this. In terms of external factors, 13 years after the Oslo agreement, Palestinians have less hope of a viable state being achieved through the Oslo agreement or the Road Map, resulting from little serious discussion of the refugees' statuses, alternative solutions, and the further expansion of Israeli settlements.

At the same time, the Israeli people have elected another right-wing government and its prime minister has been implicated in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Several ministers advocated transfer and other radical alternatives. The same Israeli leadership besieged President Arafat, paralyzed him with much humiliation and loss of dignity, and took him out of the political equation. Palestinians perceived the Israeli government as the one who refused to acknowledge President Arafat's role or negotiate with him, despite his wide legitimacy among all factions. The Israeli government insisted on the need to have "genuine partners." After Arafat era and despite U.S. and European support for President Abbas's election, Israeli leaders marginalized his position by failing to meet with him or support him in any significant manner.

Internationally, the U.S. is heavily engaged in a war against Muslim radicals. This, however, has produced consequences that involve the global Muslim community. The Israeli-Palestinian issue, combined with the "war on terror," which has been focused mainly on the Islamic far right as opposed to secular or ethnic terrorists, has resulted in the perception of a conflict between the West and the religion of Islam. Additionally, the American administration is perceived as the most pro-Israeli supporter in the history of the conflict (Prime Minister Sharon visited the White House nine times during President Bush's first term and was often praised as "a man of peace," by President Bush). All sides fail to acknowledge the Palestinian people cry for basic human needs.

Considering the above typical Palestinian view of the situation, why would an average Palestinian person vote for Fatah or any other group other than Hamas? Unknown to the global community, Hamas offered desperately needed social services, relief aid, discipline, and commitment to eradicate the internal chaos and insecurities in Palestinian streets. Hamas also offered to confront and match the violent rhetoric of the Israeli government's narrative. Hamas provided these basic alternatives to a hopeless Palestinian person when little aid was forthcoming from the global community.

Obviously, Hamas's social and religious agendas on the domestic level are major concerns for secular nationalist or democratic organizations. These groups will have to wrestle Hamas forces, which may move to impose stricter social and religious codes on the Palestinian public and private spheres. This battle against restrictive transformation has been fought for many years between Hamas and the more liberal groups, especially since the first Intifada. The various liberal governments and INGOs would need to intensify their help and assistance to these Palestinian civil society groups and opposition forces when Hamas's government begins its campaign to impose Sharia laws or other restrictive measures.

Nevertheless, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, the election of Hamas brings some symmetry to the conflict, which is often a necessary condition for parties to finally engage in a meaningful process of negotiation. Hamas' ideology, interests and positions on many issues are similar if not perfectly reflective of the current Israeli government.

The similarities are striking:

  1. Historically, the Likud Party, or right-wing camp, won the Israeli elections with Begin, Shamir, Sharon, and Netanyahu in 1977, after almost 40 years of unchallenged Labor Party rule over Israeli politics. Factors, such as corruption, the Sephardic Jews marginalization, and the failure to end the Israeli-Arab conflict were cited as reasons for the collapse of Rabin's Labor government. This caused a sweeping victory for the right-wing, which is ideologically and strategically very similar to Hamas currently. In 2006, Hamas utilized arguments and strategies, similar to the Israeli right-wing in 1977, and defeated Fatah after 40 years of dominating the Palestinian politics.
  2. It is true Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist according to its charter. On the other hand, the Likud Party and right-wing leadership in the Israeli government have not recognized the Palestinian right to statehood or their historical rights to the land of Palestine. The Israeli government continues to believe that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, rather than all the Abrahamic faith believers, including the Palestinian Muslims and Christians. The Likud Party and its government offer no explicit, formal recognition of Palestine or the right of Muslims and Christians to the land like the Jewish people. Hamas creates a mirror argument using the religious justification, too.
  3. According to Israeli right wing governments and ideologists' offers, Palestinians will not have a full sovereign independent state and will always remain under some kind of Israeli control (borders, territories etc.), especially in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian entity will have some kind of expanded autonomy. Hamas offers the similar package or conditions, in which the Israeli Jews may stay in Palestine as non-Muslims, or Dhimmis, and they will be treated according to the Islamic rule.
  4. Both Hamas and Israel have used violence and arms in the conflict. Politicians on both sides have often repeated the slogan "They only understand the language of the force."
  5. Hamas is willing to offer a long term truce according to the Islamic terms of Hudna. Similarly, the right wing government in Israel never established its international boundaries and never recognized the Palestinian's historical rights for land, and offers to keep the Jordan valley as part of its permanent arrangement. Eventually, this is nothing but a long term truce arrangement. Even the unilateral separation and containment of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in their cities surrounded by the Wall is viewed as a temporary arrangement by many Israelis and Palestinians. It will be a long term ceasefire because no Palestinian leader or group can buy into such territorial arrangement.
  6. Hamas and the current Israeli government have opposed the Oslo Accords and rejected it throughout the years. When Sharon came to power, he acted with his own unilateral agenda to fully remove the Oslo Accords. Both Fatah and Labor party, the designers and implementers of the Oslo agreement, were ousted by their right-wing opponents, Hamas and Likud.

Based on the above picture, it is clear that lasting peace and genuine arrangements between Israelis and Palestinians must include an agreement between these two currently leading governments, Hamas and Likud. Fatah and Labor have failed to implement solutions and the right wing ideology is too powerful to be ignored in either society. Thus, the U.S. and international community can step in and facilitate their talks in this historical opportunity. Any agreement they might produce would be more sustainable and respected among the majority in the two societies. The US administration during the Bush I administration in 1991 stepped in and forced Shamir's government to attend negotiation with the Arab countries and eventually PLO. The international community intensively worked to bring to the negotiation table the Israeli right wing when they won the election in 1996 (When Netanyaho defeated Peres) and in 2000 (when Sharon won).

As an alternative to dehumanizing Hamas's leadership by labeling it as "Bin Ladinist," the opening can be viewed as a chance to engage them in the peace process. This is especially important when Hamas has sent many gestures to U.S. and Israel concerning their willingness to accept certain aspects of the Oslo agreement and work with the Road Map. Their leaders have stated on several occasions, "We came to build on what the PNA has achieved and not destroy."

I believe by continuing to provide much needed aid to the Palestinian people and diplomatically engaging Hamas will have far better constructive outcomes than shunning them away and collectively punishing the Palestinian people for their democratic choices. This is the same regional democratic process supported and financed by the current U.S. administration. Hamas may be the opportunity in which U.S. foreign policy can seriously and genuinely begin to repair their negative image around the world which is mainly viewed as hypocritical when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

As a final point, from the peace and conflict resolution perspectives, we already know that drawing the parties to negotiations always produces more constructive results, even if short term gains can be achieved through boycott and more violence. Pushing the actors in this conflict to the corner and shunning them for following the democratic process will leave them with little face saving mechanisms. Ignoring the important cultural elements within an Arab and Muslim traditional cultures will only deepen the conflict on both a regional and global level. Peace is made with enemies and not with people who are already in agreement. I hope we will grasp this opportunity.

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is associate professor at the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC and executive director of the Salaam Institute for Peace & Justice.

is an associate professor in the faculty of Education at Bethlehem University.