Could Hamas enter into direct negotiations with Israel?

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West Bank city of Ramallah about the latest developments on the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, on October 1, 2014. (Photo: Abbas Momani)

By: Hani Ibrahim

Published Thursday, October 2, 2014

If Hamas ever decides to enter into negotiations with Israel, it would not be the first Palestinian faction to have fought against and then held talks with the occupation. It was therefore not surprising when Hamas leaders hinted something to this effect, albeit Hamas officially denied it. In Palestinian history, there was a similar experience with the Fatah movement, but what is odd for the Palestinian and Arab Street is that this time, Hamas’ desire to engage in or its non-objection to negotiations follows a “war of liberation.”

Gaza – A long time ago, the Palestinian national liberation movement Fatah was locked in fierce fighting across several capitals, and spared no efforts in its battle. The Israelis knew that it was imperative to draw the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its main component Fatah into an endless political spiral, following the maxim “if you want to thwart a revolution, drown it in money and power.”

Direct negotiations between the PLO and the occupation began through secret channels, preceded by the launch of “test balloons,” so to speak, in the media. In parallel, on the Israeli side, officials paved the way for negotiations in statements explaining Israel had dealt with “stubborn minds” who refused to “work without a gun.”

The overt signs of the launch of the peace process back then began with a Palestinian delegation taking part in the Madrid peace conference in 1991, chaired by Haidar Abdel-Shafi with encouragement from Jordan. This was followed by secret meetings culminating with the Oslo Accord in 1993, with the PLO and Fatah leaving resistance in return for a cardboard state.

Since then, the Islamist movement, represented by factions like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, saw Oslo and its repercussions as a major crime and sin against history and the people, and the two groups repudiated the peace process and direct negotiations categorically. Despite this, Hamas in particular did not hide the fact that it was open to some political proposals, such as establishing a state along pre-1967 borders “without ceding the rest of the occupied territories,” and agreed to the principle of a 10-to-30-year long truce to “create a liberation army.” But Hamas has insisted on rejecting direct negotiations and shaking hands with Israelis.

While Islamic Jihad’s stated position remains unchanged today, it seems that Hamas became more “flexible” compared to when it issued an Islamic law (Sharia) opinion prohibiting negotiations “for forfeiting core issues for the Muslims, including 78 percent of historical Palestine.” The turning point was in 2006 when Hamas decided to take part in the legislative elections. As a result, Hamas now had MPs in the Legislative Council, which is an integral part of the Palestinian Authority regime produced by the Oslo process. Hamas and Islamic Jihad had earlier contended in the municipal elections, but Islamic Jihad made a distinction between municipalities, which are not directly part of the Palestinian Authority, and the Legislative Council.

Shedding further light on that turning point, the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad revealed a few days ago that Hamas had agreed to take part in the legislative elections at the request of his father Hamad, based on an “American desire.” After Hamas ruled Gaza for eight years in a row, during which it fought three wars with Israel, it stepped aside in favor of the consensus government it had jointly formed with Fatah prior to the recent war. Now, its leaders have publicly spoken about the possibility of direct negotiations, especially since they had taken part in several rounds of indirect negotiations with Israel in Cairo to end the war.

Direct vs. indirect negotiations

Recently, the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau Musa Abu Marzouk settled the Sharia-side debate regarding the issue by saying that “there are no qualms regarding direct negotiations.” He then advanced the political and circumstantial argument for direct negotiations by pointing out that Hamas was stuck in a crisis of mediators, whose seriousness in brokering a solution that fulfills Hamas’ demands is questionable, as he said, and whom Hamas was forced to deal with because of the “curse of geography” that made the mediator the only outlet for Gaza – in reference to Egypt.

Yet it appears that this circumstantial situation is not enough for others to justify the kind of dramatic shift proposed by Abu Marzouk. Other leaders in Hamas, such as Mahmoud al-Zahar, stress that the relationship with Cairo, though it has underwent difficult stages, is essential and pivotal, and can be built upon.

But it is hard to escape the fact that Hamas had resorted to direct negotiations with individuals close to Israeli decision-making circles, most notably during the negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit. Leaders in Hamas had indicated that there were contacts between Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad and Israeli writer Gershon Baskin, a close associate of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, between 2010 and 2012. In the end, however, the prisoner swap deal was brokered by Egypt, and so was the ceasefire in 2012.

Based on the above, the “mediator problem” cannot be the main reason for the shift in Hamas’ attitude, although sources in Hamas told Al-Akhbar that the Egyptian mediator often “added conditions to Israeli ones, and delayed delivering messages.” “Egypt even tried to get Shalit released in return for a few prisoners rather than hundreds,” the sources added.

“At that moment,” the sources continued, “retired Mossad officer David Meidan passed on a proposal for direct negotiations with the martyr Ahmed Jabari, but the latter refused.” Baskin also brought a message from Meidan saying “the mediator (Cairo) was at some stages of the negotiations not enthusiastic for the deal to succeed.”

A “test detonation” is the term that best describes the statements of the Hamas leader regarding negotiations, then bearing in mind that until this moment, the media has not carried the full interview from which the excerpt in question had come. Then in a direct interview with Abu Marzouk, he did not offer any direct answers regarding the issue of direct negotiations, while Mahmoud Zahar categorically refuted the possibility of direct talks. Nevertheless, both men agreed that direct negotiations with the occupation does not violate Sharia, but contradicts the political point of view adopted by the movement at the moment.

While Abu Marzouk said that parties mediating between his group and the occupation “were a burden on the Palestinians,” Zahar just said that the alternative is to look for other mediators, in case the existing ones do not fulfill their role, while he continued to deny the possibility of direct negotiations. Both men denied what newspapers affiliated to Qatar and Egypt had published, quoting anonymous sources close to Hamas, who purported that Hamas was carrying out Sharia-based revisions in order to negotiate with Israel. Zahar said that revisions as such were needed within Hamas, but that any revisions regarding the relationship with Israel are out of the question.

Perhaps these hints followed by denials, according to observers, are meant to pave the way for making the issue a viable topic for discussion within the public opinion, with a view to attenuate any decision Hamas could make in the future. Observers also see this as a clear message of warning addressed to Fatah, in the event reconciliation and other issues are obstructed.

About the revisions

Hamas leader and former adviser to the prime minister Ahmed Yousef confirmed that revisions were being made to some strategies at the leadership level in Hamas, “with the aim of crystallizing positions on what could happen at the level of the Palestinian issue, particularly the nature of internal and external relations.”

But Yousef told Al-Akhbar that direct negotiations with Israel were not on Hamas’ agenda at the time, because Hamas as he said does not sense it is in an intractable crisis, while the Palestinian Authority is already handling negotiations. However, he added, “When Hamas joins the PLO, the PLO will be the one negotiating on behalf of all parties and not Hamas.”

Yousef re-emphasized that there is a review underway of the nature of internal national relations, “and the relationship between the Resistance and the consensus government, in addition to Hamas’ position on presidential elections and whether it would participate or put forward independent candidates, all issues that go far beyond the issue of direct negotiations.”

Regarding the position of the parent group, the Muslim Brotherhood, regarding all this clamoring, the chairman of the Shura Council in the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Hamza Mansour, said that direct negotiations with Israel violates Hamas’ principles and charter, adding that it would represent direct recognition of the occupation and its claim to the lands it occupies. Mansour told Al-Akhbar, “Hamas, which is known for its honesty, would not make such a move despite the risks it faces from its Arab and Islamic depth.”

Concerning consultation with the group, he stressed that Hamas would not make any such move “except after consulting all relevant Sharia entities,” and added, “It will not negotiate directly, because its credibility is associated with its jihad, and slipping into negotiations would cause it to lose too much.”

From the perspective of Fatah, which negotiates with Israel directly, “talk about direct negotiations between Hamas and Israel is premature, not because Hamas objects to the principle of negotiations, but because it must be part of the PLO, which would then negotiate on behalf of all parties,” according to Fatah leader Yahya Rabah. Rabah added, “Negotiations now would raise questions and suspicions regarding the concessions Hamas could make,” stressing that Hamas must not negotiate at a time when the Palestinian Authority is confronting Israel’s lies about it.

While the other side, that is Israel, has kept mum over this issue, its position is open to the possibility of agreeing conditionally or rejecting talks in order to get more concessions, if Hamas decides at some point to do what is still a taboo. However, all those close to Hamas see that this path is still far off, and say that talk about it is nothing more than an attempt to put pressure internally and in the direction of Arab regimes.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

THEIR IN BED TOGETHER
THEY COULD DO PILLOW TALK
The whole world has awakened to the fun & games.
It has not been just the Middle East & Israel, it has been that the whole world has been dragged along, You took us all with you & we all have a say.

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