‘Western countries should engage with Hamas...’

Published: 31 August 2007
Briefing Number 201

Click to Printclick here to print page

The increasing calls to engage with Hamas

The USA and the European Union refuse to deal with Hamas until it recognises Israel , agrees to comply with past agreements, and renounces violence.

However, an increasing number of voices in the West are calling on Western governments to ‘engage' with Hamas. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi recently stated: “Hamas exists. It's a complex structure that we should help evolve… one must push for dialogue so that it happens, and not shut anyone out….” (reported in Israel Insider, 15 August 2007 )

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the UK

Meanwhile, the all-party Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British Parliament issued a report on British Middle East policy in August 2007 which called on the British government to engage with “moderates” from Hamas. Mike Gapes, the Labour MP who chairs the Committee, claimed that “isolating” Hamas had been counter-productive, and that “engaging” Hamas through dialogue would encourage Palestinian change, and enable Hamas to become “a true partner for peace” (Guardian, 13 August 2007 ).

The Northern Ireland analogy

Gapes argues that there is an analogy with the situation in Northern Ireland : “I think from experience in Northern Ireland , that sometimes you have to engage with people in a diplomatic way, sometimes quietly….” (quoted in the Jerusalem Post, 13 August 2007 ). Gapes is referring to the last twelve years during which the British Government engaged with Sinn Fein even though the IRA, associated with Sinn Fein, had a long record of past terrorism.

The analogy given by Gapes is often cited as a successful example of “engagement” with former terrorists. If Sinn Fein / IRA, then why not Hamas?

Here are some reasons why the calls for “engaging” with Hamas is flawed. These arguments build on recent work by Prof Barry Rubin at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya ( https://gloria.idc.ac.il ), and by senior Jerusalem Post analyst Herb Keinon:

Hamas advocates the dismantling of Israel - there is no basis for engagement:

•  Hamas does not merely demand that Israel departs from territory. It rejects the concept of Israel 's existence, and its legitimacy. That makes the idea of engagement impossible. The ‘ground rules' for engagement do not exist

•  If Sinn Fein /IRA had advocated not merely a united Ireland , but the destruction of Britain , the British Government could not have ‘engaged' with Sinn Fein/IRA, either

Hamas is building up its military capabilities – to engage with them would just encourage this further:

•  Hamas is militarising Gaza . It is building up supplies of medium-range missiles smuggled in from Egypt . Giant amounts of guns and ammunition, and explosives, are being brought in (see Beyond Images Briefing 191)

•  Hamas is training hundreds of of its men in Iran , and permitting the growth in Gaza of groups affiliated to the Al Qaeda network, such as the Army of Islam, and the Army of the Nation (see the recent report from the JCPA thinktank by Jonathan Dahoah-Halevi, Vol 7 No12, 7 August 2007 – www.jcpa.org )

•  A Hamas-affiliated group is holding kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and Hamas rocket squads continue to fire Qassams rockets into Israel

•  This is not the moment to engage with such an organisation: to do so would just encourage a further armed build-up

•  The British Government engaged with Sinn Fein only after extensive proof that the IRA were ‘decommissioning' their arms (ie placing them verifiably out of use). If the IRA had been in the midst of a huge arms build-up, the British Government would not have “engaged” with them

Hamas demonises Israel, prepares Palestinian society for war, and practises internal repression of Palestinians:

•  Hamas leaders, religious figures and media outlets routinely demonise Israel

•  Children are incited by Hamas TV and at summer camps to hate Israel

•  Meanwhile, both the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza (see Beyond Images Briefing 198) and its aftermath reveal Hamas readiness to use brutal force and internal repression to advance its domestic agenda

•  Hamas has repeatedly said it will oppose attempts by Palestinian Fatah and the Israeli government to create a two-state solution in relation to the West Bank , hinting that it will use violence to do so

•  Engagement with an organisation is conceivable if it is preparing its people for peace, but not, as Hamas is doing, if it is preparing its people for long-term war

Engagement would emboldens Hamas and give legitimacy to its ideology

•  A key assumption behind the calls for engagement with Hamas is that Hamas extremism is partly caused because Israel and the West are aggressive towards the Palestinians, and the Palestinians are responding. By being conciliatory, the theory is that this would foster Hamas moderation

•  The reality is the opposite. Hamas is fighting an ideological battle to spread the dominion of Islam, and in so doing they reject Israel 's existence and legitimacy. These are deeply held beliefs, and they are ambitious about their achievement over the long-term. Hamas (and their sponsors Iran ) would perceive any engagement as a sign of weakness and that their resilience and willingness to enter into purely tactical short-term ‘truces' is steadily wearing down Israel and Western nations

•  Far from moderating Hamas ideology, ‘engagement' would thus legitimise it, and reward their extremism. They would portray the West as frightened and ineffective (which is how they portrayed Israel in their internal media when it disengaged from Gaza in 2005, and during its war against Hizbollah in 2006)

•  Finally, engagement with Hamas would legitimise the arms build-up and other strategies described above. In the words of the JCPA: “Providing legitimacy to Hamas as an acceptable political partner – without any preconditions regarding its renunciation of terrorism – is essentially a ‘green light' for Hamas to continue to provide sanctuary for Al-Qaeda affiliates in Gaza”

There is an absence of past precedents for successful engagement with Islamist forces or rejectionist Muslim states:

•  In 2002-5 three Western countries – the UK , France and Germany – sought to ‘engage' with Iran over its nuclear plans. This was a complete failure, which just gave Iran more time. Now the UN Security Council and the international community are in a weaker position trying to combat Iran 's nuclear ambitions, because of the time that was lost by ‘engagement'

•  The US sent high-level delegations to ‘engage' with the Syrian leadership between 2001 and 2005, only to discover, according to Syria expert Barry Rubin, that they had been “lied to” (see Engage, Moderate, Split by Prof Rubin, 25 August 2007 – www.idc.ac.il ).

•  Engagement with ideologically driven, Islamist inspired groups ties the hands of the Western powers, because they do not wish to appear to be “breaking off” the engagement

•  And it just gives the other entity respectable diplomatic cover with which to pursue its long-term strategies and consolidate its position

If not engagement with Hamas, then what?

•  In the words of Prof Rubin and others (including the vast majority of analysts in Israel), the only way to deal with Hamas effectively is to prove to the Palestinian people who elected them, and to those international voices who call for engagement, that Hamas strategy is a failure

•  This can only be done by maintaining the refusal to deal with Hamas

•  This strategy will require Western consistency, and a clear understanding of the nature of the religiously-inspired ideology which drives Hamas and its supporters

•  In reality Hamas is leading Palestinian society in Gaza towards economic ruin and diplomatic isolation: “engagement” cannot convey that message

Related Beyond Images Briefings

See the area called Hamas under All Briefings on the Beyond Images website, for several related Briefings