NEW YORK — It’s time for Israel to end its three-year blockade of Gaza and for the international community to abandon its failed policy of trying to isolate Hamas.
After Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007, Israel imposed a tight economic blockade on Gaza’s 1.4 million residents. With support from the United States and other Western powers, Israel claimed that the siege would prevent Hamas from firing rockets at Israeli towns and would turn Palestinians against the Islamist group. But this policy of collective punishment was morally inexcusable and ultimately futile: it has only harmed the people of Gaza and made them more dependent on Hamas.
Whether U.S. and Israeli officials like it or not, Hamas represents a significant segment of the Palestinian population. No viable settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without its involvement. Dialogue will not be easy. There will be false starts and conflicting messages from Hamas leaders.
For example, Hamas leaders and clerics continue to call for the destruction of Israel, as is stated in Hamas’ founding charter. And Hamas continues to defend suicide bombing as a legitimate weapon of resistance against Israel. But just last week, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said the group would end its armed struggle if Israel withdraws from the land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
Clearly, Hamas is not an entirely cohesive organization: there is a political wing living in exile, a political wing inside the Palestinian territories and a military wing. Each wing represents a different trend within Hamas and much of the power rests with the exiled leaders, who tend to be the most hard-line. Once it achieved political authority by winning the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas needed to make compromises and play politics. It has not yet reached that stage.
One reason is that Hamas’ foreign protectors — Syria and Iran — encourage its exiled leaders to maintain their uncompromising stance. Hamas sometimes takes actions that are more geared to the interests of Syria and Iran, and less to the needs of its Palestinian constituency. The West also bears some blame for this trend. By keeping Hamas isolated, the United States and Europe are helping its external leaders dominate the group, at the expense of leaders inside the Palestinian territories.
The internal leadership, cut off from the outside world, is dependent on the exiles to raise money and to help the group survive. Those external leaders, living in comfort away from Gaza and the West Bank, can afford to be inflexible. They don’t answer to any Palestinian constituency and they don’t live among average Palestinians.
Different factions within a group can have different interests: the exiled Hamas leaders are eager to continue fighting, while some of the internal leaders are open to dialogue. It’s possible to divide these factions from one another. But the United States and Europe will never know unless they try.
While Hamas remains isolated, the hard-liners led by Meshaal — head of the Hamas political bureau, who lives in Syria — will continue to dominate. Ever since Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in 2004, the group has no longer had one supreme leader. Hamas is not like the Palestine Liberation Organization, dominated by Yassir Arafat for decades. Today, Meshaal is the one who comes closest to a controlling figure, but he does not have the same stature as Sheik Yassin.
Before the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the West had a chance to engage with several internal Hamas leaders who were more open to dialogue than the exiled leadership. Those leaders include Ismael Haniyeh, the deposed Palestinian prime minister. In the 1990s, Haniyeh served as the Gaza liaison between Hamas and the PLO’s Fatah faction (now led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas). Among the other Hamas leaders who were receptive to dialogue was Nasser Shaer, the former deputy prime minister and a professor of Islamic law from the West Bank.
For years, Israeli and U.S. officials argued that the Palestinians would eventually oust Hamas from power. But as long as the movement remains isolated and Gaza lingers under siege, Hamas will be able to use the West’s ostracism as an excuse to deflect attention from its own shortcomings. How can the Palestinian people judge Hamas as a political failure if it never has the opportunity to actually govern?
Instead of turning Palestinians against Hamas, the blockade makes them more dependent on the group. For example, after Israel severely restricted fuel supplies to Gaza in May 2008, most traffic came to a halt. Palestinians adapted by walking or riding bicycles. Sensing a fresh opportunity to generate public sympathy, Hamas began using police cars to ferry civilians around Gaza. The group even pasted orange stickers on its patrol cars proclaiming, “We are ready to drive you for free.”
Hamas controls access to hundreds of tunnels under the border between Gaza and Egypt. In addition to weapons, smugglers use the tunnels to bring in food, medicine, fuel, construction material and other supplies depleted by the blockade. Hamas officials use this “tunnel economy” as another way to consolidate their grip on power.
In the 1980s, U.S. government officials and scholars used to argue that the Palestinians would grow tired of conflict and find an alternative to Arafat and his PLO. Unfortunately, the alternative that emerged was even more militant and intransigent: it was Hamas. The group succeeded in positioning itself as an alternative to the corrupt, inefficient and largely discredited PLO leadership. Today, the danger is that while Hamas remains cut off, an even more lethal force will emerge in the Palestinian territories: Islamic radicals motivated or inspired by Al Qaeda. By failing to deal with Hamas, the West is making the same mistake it made in the 1980s.
Moreover, those who advocate excluding Hamas do not offer any solutions for ending the current stalemate. Israel refuses to lift the blockade, and to stop its air raids on Gaza. In turn, Hamas refuses to end its rocket barrages on civilians in southern Israel or attacks on Israeli soldiers stationed at the border. How can the West help negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza without engaging, directly or indirectly, with Hamas?
To his credit, former President Jimmy Carter realized the importance of dialogue with Hamas and its benefactors. “The present strategy of excluding Hamas and excluding Syria is just not working,” he said after meeting in April 2008 with Hamas leaders in Damascus. Unfortunately, the Hamas exiles sent Carter home empty-handed, and they squandered a crucial opening. But it’s well worth trying again.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.