Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hamas...Israel's best chance for peace?

Hamas now faces the biggest existential crisis in its history, the coming reckoning with its political base. How Israel and the international community deal with it may well determine chances for peace for the next ten to 15 years.

Despite Hamas' strong showing in last winter's elections, observers estimate actual support for the movement at between 25-30% of Palestinians. Its strong election showing did not reflect the actual weight of the movement, as it also included protest voters who do not support Hamas' total agenda but instead voted for more capable and effective managers of public affairs.

The leadership of Hamas recognized that they needed swing voters to succeed at the polls, and so downplayed its militant rhetoric and conservative social program during the elections. Hamas instead focused on corruption and the movement's intention to appoint qualified technocrats to run government agencies.

For Hamas, deciding to participate in the elections was a gamble that it lost when it won. Instead of simply winning a significant portion of the vote, and getting control over government ministries responsible for social services, Hamas actually won a majority. Instead of just being a powerful critic that delivers efficient social services, Hamas must now formulate all government policies, including the relationship with Israel.

This is where Hamas' dilemma lies. Hamas must continue to prove to its hardcore base that it will be true to its militant and conservative past, while showing Hamas pragmatists and the Palestinian secular center that it is a responsible steward for all Palestinians. Evidence of this rift shows in the growing contradiction between hints that the movement will recognize Israel if certain conditions are met, and hasty retreats the leadership makes when asked to elaborate.

This schizophrenia is not intended to fool Israel or the international community. It is a real split between pragmatists willing to compromise and make concessions, and militants who oppose efforts to compromise. Hamas faces enormous international pressure to recognize Israel and renounce violence, but it also faces pressure not to compromise from the militants within the movement. This dilemma is exposing fault lines that cuts across Palestinian society. It is also an opportunity to moderate Hamas, and build a strong Palestinian consensus for peace.

A similar split within Fatah, the largest party of the Palestine Liberation Orgaization, contributed in part to Fatah's loss at the polls. Many Palestinians in the territories believe that the old-guard of the PLO, with Arafat at it's head, made too many concessions to Israel, and that concessions were met with expanding settlements and Israeli brute force. The younger leadership that grew up in the territories is much less compromising. They see that compromise achieved nothing for Palestinians, and so they have chosen to fight. The PLO is now also split into moderate center and militant minority bloc.

This split in both the right and left of Palestinian society also creates a dilemma for Israel and the Bush Administration. Played right, the US and Israel can contribute to the creation of a large pragmatic Palestinian center that includes center-right conservatives and center-left secularists who will make tough concessions for peace. Played wrong, it will contribute to a further radicalization of Palestinian society, ensuring decades more conflict.

The dilemma for the US and Israel is to give enough concessions to the Hamas and Fatah pragmatists to encourage their continued moderation and democratization, while finding the right tools to distinguish between them and the militants, both religious and secular. The best way to show that democratization and moderation will be rewarded is to stop the economic blockade and shelling barrage of the Gaza Strip and halt construction of the separation wall.

ReliefWeb, a United Nations news agency reports that Israel has lobbed more than 2200 artillery shells at northern Gaza in the past two weeks, killing 11 Palestinian bystanders, including several children, and wounding dozens more. The Associated Press reports military analysts believe the Israeli barrage is largely driven by the army's frustration and has no direct military purpose. AP says reserve officers in the artillery said the idea behind the massive shelling is to pressure Palestinian civilians.

With John Jing, the head of UNRWA warning about the impact of the shelling on children, and WHO warning of a massive health crisis due to shortages in medicine and basic foodstuffs caused by persistent Israeli closures of the Karni border crossing, Palestinians are unlikely to blame Hamas for their predicament. The blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of Israel and the international community.


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