For almost seven years, since its victory in the Palestinian general elections in January 2006, Israel has used every possible means to topple Hamas’ rule in Gaza. Israeli measures included assassinating Hamas leaders and activists, detaining its deputies in the Palestinian Legislative Council and trying to turn the public against the Islamic movement by imposing a blockade on Gaza, preventing food, fuel and medical supplies.
When all these measures failed to produce any substantial change, Israel opted for a full-scale attack on Gaza in late 2008. However, that too failed to break the backbone of Hamas or, at least, loosen its grip on power. Over the past week, Israel made another attempt, but to get exactly the same result.
In all these attempts, Israel was banking on western scepticism of Hamas’ democratic credentials and the lack of sympathy towards its popular legitimacy. This factor was, in fact, key in encouraging Israel to attack Gaza time after time.
From the very beginning, western circles have championed the claim that nothing fundamental would change concerning Hamas’s domestic and regional agenda. On the contrary, they insisted, Hamas’s electoral victory had the paradigm quality of the Iranian revolution that brought Shiites to power in Tehran. Furthermore, with Hamas in power, they believed, the question has moved from nationalism and territorial compromise, which could be negotiated, into religious conviction that dispute the very existence of the state of Israel. Change could only have come about if Hamas had accepted the conditions put forward by the Quartet — the US, European Union (EU), Russia and the United Nations. These conditions were — recognising the state of Israel, forswearing violence and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Until Hamas complies with these demands, western powers thought, there was no point in talking to the Islamic movement.
In fact, upon its arrival to power, Hamas made several reconciliatory messages towards the West, signalling its wish to play politics. For instance, it accepted a request by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, to postpone a vote of confidence on its first government, well until after the Israeli elections in February 2006. By doing so, Hamas had effectively contributed to the victory of the then Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and his Kadima Party, which came out ahead in the Israeli election. Hamas has also implied that it may support the 2002 Saudi peace initiative. This was synonymous to recognising Israel without having to say so. Hamas has also offered an indefinite ceasefire with Israel, which was tantamount to “forswearing violence”. Hamas has gone even further to demonstrate its commitment to the political process. After the formation of its first government, Aziz Dweik, then speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a Hamas member, stated: “My message to Israel is to put an end to the occupation and then there will be no fighting”. This was in effect the key issue in former US President George W. Bush’s roadmap to peace in the Middle East: Land for security. In all that Hamas was trying to convince sceptics that it was as pragmatic as any other party in politics seeking to survive and succeed.
Yet, the West decided to ignore these gestures and stick to a policy leading to forcing the Islamic movement into total submission. Worse still, some in the West have come with a new argument to undermine Hamas’s legitimacy. Ralf Dahrendorf, a former European commissioner, cast doubts on Hamas’s commitment to democracy. “What if Hamas has no intention of abiding by the rules that are part and parcel of the democratic process? One remembers Hitler, who, while his own party did not quite get 50 per cent of the vote, could base his ‘seizure of power’ on a parliamentary majority”, he argued in an article published by the EU official website.
This sort of argument, to say the least, was destructive. It alienated the moderate elements within the Islamic movement and pushed them towards taking more radical positions. Gazi Hamad, a Hamas leader, once warned against exclusion and cutting off aid. “A hungry man is an angry man”, he said. “We hope the world will not allow the Palestinian people to suffer, because this will only make them more radical”. Hamad was a voice of reason within the Islamic movement. He was expelled from the leadership of Hamas for his moderate views.
Instead of taking advantage of Hamas’ pragmatic views, most western governments have in fact taken part in a strategy that led to more radicalisation within the Islamic movement. Furthermore, these governments have technically provided Israel with unlimited political cover to do what it pleases against Gaza. In the latest Israeli attack, Gaza was once again paying the price of western complicity with Israel’s attempts to finish off any sort of resistance by the Palestinians.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.