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Hamas: Agents of terror, partners in peace, or both?

A Palestinian boy carries a toy gun spray painted green, the color of Hamas.

Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail/heidi levine The Globe and Mail

Shmuel Gillis was on his way home that evening from Hadassah Hospital, where he practised as a hematologist. Coming up to the Etzion Junction, halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron on the West Bank, the British-born physician called his wife, Ruthi, to say he was only a few minutes from their home in the small settlement of Karmei Tzur.

As he hung up and started down the hill south of the intersection, his car was overtaken by a Palestinian vehicle, police say. Someone in the vehicle opened fire on the 42-year-old father of five as they passed, fatally wounding him and leading his car to plunge off the side of the road.

"Shmuel never arrived," Ruthi Gillis recalled this week. "We heard on the radio there had been an attack." The couple's five children were aged 3 to 13.

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Hamas was thought to be responsible, though no one was ever caught and charged with the killing. It was February, 2001, the early months of the second, more deadly intifada, and this area was a Hamas stronghold - the group had carried out several drive-by attacks just like the one that killed Dr. Gillis.

Almost 10 years later, Israelis remain riveted by Hamas, but for entirely different reasons. The militant Islamists best known in the West for suicide attacks against civilians made news earlier this month for their reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. The pact between the two groups - one committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, the other moderate and secular - has reignited a global argument about the way to a final Middle East peace.

There is fierce debate on all sides, perhaps none more so than on the question of whether to include in negotiations an organization decried for its terrorist tactics. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred publicly over the preconditions for restarting talks.

The Palestinian Authority has a controversial plan to declare statehood at the United Nations in September. Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has denounced the reconciliation between the rival factions. He says Mr. Abbas must choose between negotiating a peace agreement with Israel and forming a partnership with "the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda." The U.S. and the rest of the world agree that unless Hamas is capable of fundamental change, it remains beyond the pale.

Yet it would be unrealistic to think that Hamas will fade away. The group has withstood years of isolation, arrest and deadly military attacks. Many people in Gaza are frustrated by its inability to deliver a better life, and others in the West Bank may not want to jeopardize the good life that some are now enjoying. But there is no denying the group's appeal to large numbers of Palestinians.

Over the past several months, The Globe and Mail conducted extensive interviews with more than 30 Hamas figures in both the Gaza Strip, where the group has ruled since 2006, and the West Bank, where Hamas MPs have to be careful to refer to themselves as belonging to the "Reform and Change Party" in order to avoid arrest by Israeli forces.

Throughout the conversations, it became clear that Hamas's covenant, its refusal to recognize Israel and its use of violence may be insurmountable hurdles to engagement and, ultimately, to a lasting peace. And while the group's leadership has shown its willingness to renounce violence for specific periods of time and honour its commitments, its rhetoric concerning Israeli civilian casualties remains deeply disturbing.

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Should Israel and the West continue to shun Hamas, or is this the time instead to consider recognizing the organization and dealing with the interim Palestinian government it supports?

Rules of engagement

It was acting Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert who set current policy in 2006 when Hamas was elected to office. Israel "will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if its members include an armed terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel," he declared.

Subsequently, the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia (collectively known as the Quartet) said that, before they would deal with it, all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, acceptance of previous Palestinian agreements and obligations, and recognition of Israel.

As Mr. Obama made clear in his recent Middle East policy speech, the Quartet has not changed its view. "The recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel," he said. "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?"

Ephraim Sneh, a retired brigadier-general and former Israeli cabinet minister, rejects the idea of a long-term truce, or hudna. " Hudna, schmudna," Mr. Sneh said. "The long-term reality is that Hamas is never going to tolerate a Jewish state because it is against its religious beliefs."

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Most Israelis, traumatized by dozens of suicide bombing attacks ushered in by Hamas in the 1990s and early 2000s, share his view. But some have begun to say that if peace is to be achieved, perhaps not all three of the Quartet's principles are necessary.

Efraim Halevy, a former director of Israel's Mossad intelligence organization, was among the first to advocate talking to Hamas. "They're not very pleasant people," Mr. Halevy said, "but they are very, very credible." He described the first two of the Quartet principles as "reasonable and imperative," but he said the requirement of recognizing Israel is "superfluous."

In mid-May, in the wake of the Palestinian factions' reconciliation, even Israeli President Shimon Peres said negotiations with Hamas should not be ruled out, though he indicated that Hamas should be willing to renounce terrorism.

Indeed, if Hamas ever is to be broadly acceptable as a negotiating partner or a recipient of Western assistance, it will have to convince Israel and the Quartet that it has ended its use of violence and especially the acts of terrorism with which it is so widely identified.

A history of violence

When the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in the winter of 1987-88, Hamas organizers sent young men into the streets with stones to confront Israeli soldiers and tanks. It was a scene not unlike those now witnessed elsewhere in the Arab world where young people employ relatively non-violent tactics to confront military dictatorships.

But in the intifada, as Palestinian fatalities mounted and time wore on, stones gave way to firebombs, then to small arms.

By late 1992, Hamas's deadly hit-and-run operations against Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza had become so effective that Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli prime minister, had more than 360 Hamas leaders (along with about 50 Islamic Jihad personnel) rounded up and expelled through Israel's northern border.

It was in 1994 that Hamas first launched its campaign of suicide bombings targeting civilians inside Israel. The first such attack took place in Afula, in central Israel, when a 19-year-old bomber blew himself up at a bus stop, killing eight Israelis and wounding 34 others.

The date was April 6, exactly 40 days after an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, a physician and reserve army officer, entered the mosque at Abraham's tomb in Hebron and killed 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding dozens of others. That was the event, Hamas leaders say, that crossed "a red line" and changed the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Rabin was horrified by the attack. He called Yasser Arafat to offer personal condolences and saw to it that the extremist Kach party to which Dr. Goldstein belonged was banned.

It didn't matter: If Palestinian civilians at prayer could be attacked, Hamas reasoned, Israeli civilians would be considered targets too.

A week after the Afula attack, another bus was targeted in nearby Hadera, killing five Israelis. Six months later, 22 Israelis were killed by a suicide bombing on board a bus on Tel Aviv's busiest street. On and on the attacks went, throughout the mid-1990s, and again during the second intifada of the early 2000s.

Although Hamas officially denounced the tactic in 2005, many of its members still justify attacks on Israeli civilians. "When the Israeli planes hit a neighbourhood full of civilians because they want to arrest a wanted person and kill 30 or 40 people by using a one-ton bomb, isn't that excessive use of force?" asked Ayman Batniji, the imam at a major Gaza City mosque and spokesman for the Hamas police.

"So, when we send a person to perform an act of martyrdom [suicide bombing] and he wants to kill 10 or 20 Jews … we achieve advantages and pressure because we equate power with causing fear in others," Mr. Batniji said , sitting cross-legged on the floor as several wide-eyed young men looked on. "We don't have power, but we have the ability to strike fear."

Naif Rajoub, a prominent Hamas West Bank imam, notes that Islam "does not agree with the killing of civilians ... except in cases where they are reactions [to attacks on Muslim civilians]in order to deter others from targeting civilian Muslims."

The last suicide bombing inside Israel for which Hamas was believed responsible was carried out in August, 2004. It was in Beersheva and 16 Israeli bus passengers were killed.

The group carried out two more attacks in January, 2005, inside the Gaza Strip, targeting military and settler checkpoints. Other groups, chiefly Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, continued to carry out sporadic suicide bombings for four more years.

Hamas's decision to cease suicide attacks was made by Khaled Meshaal, the group's Damascus-based political chief, soon after becoming Hamas's ranking leader in 2004 (following the assassinations of his two predecessors, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both killed in a four-week period that year).

Mahmoud Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas and its political leader in Gaza, said the decision to abandon the "martyrdom operations" was made because the group had succeeded in forcing Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli prime minister, to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

As he talked, Dr. Zahar, a Gaza surgeon,motioned to the spot in his garden where his oldest son was killed in a 2003 Israeli aerial attack intended for him.Another son, a militant, was killed in early 2008 by an Israeli air strike.

Others said the decision was made because the cost to Hamas's image had become too great. Some suggested it was to improve the party's electoral chances.

But if its new policy helped the party in the 2006 vote, it didn't do anything for its post-election status, as Israel and the Quartet refused to have anything to do with a new government that included Hamas.

"We were shocked," said Ghazi Hamad, recently appointed the Hamas government's deputy foreign minister. Mr. Hamad met with representatives of various European countries immediately after the election. He pleaded for time to show what kind of government Hamas would lead.

" 'Hamas is not Taliban,' " Mr. Hamad said he told everyone. "Hamas is a moderate organization. We never used violence against people outside of Palestine [including Israel]"

Although Israel and the Quartet remain unconvinced of Hamas's commitment to non-violence, the move has won it plaudits from people such as Munib Rashid Masri, the wealthy Nablus businessman who helped to broker the Hamas-PA reconciliation. "When they make a decision, they stick to it," Mr. Masri said of Hamas. "I respect that."

Written in blood

If Hamas is to be a partner in negotiations, the group must do more than renounce violence. It seems it must recognize Israel as a legitimate state. And that is where Hamas's 1988 covenant looms so large.

In all the interviews conducted with Hamas members, no one deviated from the lengthy covenant that had been drafted just after the first intifada broke out. That was when, in the winter of 1987-88, Hamas was created as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Its leaders, led by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a charismatic, almost blind quadriplegic preacher, pledged to follow the Brotherhood's largely non-violent methods and wrote out the covenant to make the group's goals clear.

The primary points of this 36-article document are:

  • All of Palestine (including modern-day Israel) is deemed to be an Islamic waqf (land protected for religious purposes).
  • It is the duty of Muslims to wage jihad to regain possession of all of Palestine.
  • Not only must Israel not be recognized, it must be "obliterated."

With all that, "I don't believe in Hamas becoming moderate," Mr. Sneh said.

Aziz Dweik, the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and leader of the Hamas-affiliated Reform and Change in the West Bank, insisted in a recent interview that, despite its importance, Hamas's covenant "is not the Holy Koran."

"It can be adapted," he said.

"If they do change it," a doubtful Mr. Sneh said, "and if they accept the rest of the Quartet's principles, we will give them credit.

"That would be sufficient," he said. "I would deal with them."

Israel held to similar ground before it would deal officially with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. That group had declared in 1988 that it accepted the principle of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel within its June 4, 1967, boundaries.

But it wasn't enough as far as Israel was concerned. It insisted that the group renounce violence and recognize Israel.

So, in September 1993, before Israel would formally accept the already negotiated Oslo Accords, Mr. Arafat sent prime minister Rabin a letter stating: "The PLO recognizes the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security."

To that, Mr. Rabin replied that Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and the agreement then was endorsed.

There is no indication Hamas is about to take similar steps.

"Who needs the recognition?" an incredulous Mr. Hamad asked, noting that Israel is recognized as a member of the United Nations. "They [Israelis]want us, the victims, to recognize them."

Mr. Batniji said the Jewish community has the right to exist "in the world and in its own places: Romanians can be in Romania, and Russians can be in Russia, and Americans can be in America."

As for Israel existing in historical Palestine, Mr. Batniji was cutting. "Just because he's Jewish, the land is his and he has the right to evict the others, by force or killing?" he asked.

Others held to more moderate interpretations. Ahmed Yousef, until recently the deputy foreign minister in Gaza's Hamas government, advocates a binational state in all of Palestine, a state in which all the people of the book - Muslims, Christians and Jews - could live together.

For most Israelis, that is a non-starter, as it would destroy the Jewish character of their country.

Several others imagined a future in which two states, Israel and Palestine, would live side by side, with a truce (a ceasefire, not a treaty) between the two sides for a lengthy period of time.

But, on one point, everyone interviewed agreed: They still would not recognize Israel's right to exist.

That was the position spelled out by Hamas's senior political leader, Mr. Meshaal, when he spoke in early May in Cairo at the ceremony marking the reconciliation.

"Our aim is to establish a free and completely sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whose capital is Jerusalem, without any settlers and without giving up a single inch of land and without giving up on the right of return [of Palestinian refugees]"

Can they change?

So, is Hamas still so wedded to armed resistance that it can never accept a political solution?

There is another way to view the group, said Alastair Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution and a member of the Mitchell Report on the causes of the second Palestinian intifada.

"Hamas sees resistance as the means to generate the feelings that go into building community cohesion and self-respect," Mr. Crooke said.

The group "does not believe that their armed resistance, per se, can bring about the defeat of Israel militarily."

Rather, by "refusing subservience," he said, Hamas seeks to create "a psychological balance with Israel that may eventually facilitate a political solution."

In an interview with Mr. Crooke, Mr. Meshaal explained that Israel "needs to understand that, in Hamas, there is a tough negotiator, but one that, unlike others, stands by its commitments when given.

"We in Hamas," he said, "like most of the Palestinian factions, have accepted the idea of a state with the borders of 4 June, 1967. However, we have said that we will not recognize Israel."

Why is that? "It is because the Palestinian people are convinced that the land which Israel occupied is their land.

So, while they accept a state with the borders of 1967, they do not want to give legitimacy to those who occupied their lands 60 or 70 years ago."

The Hamas formula, Mr. Meshaal said, is simply this: "If through politics we come to agree to a Palestinian state with the borders of 1967, why should we be forced to renounce our beliefs and feelings too, by recognizing Israel?"

Back at the Etzion Junction, at least one of Hamas's victims remains skeptical. Ms. Gillis is now 48 and remarried.

Shortly after the night her then-husband was killed, she decided to erect a living monument to him in the form of a rest station for Israeli soldiers serving in the area. All day, every day except Saturday, the Sabbath, the soldiers file in for free coffee and assorted cakes.

"We want to believe them," Ms. Gillis said this week about Hamas. "We really do. But we can't.

"They don't have a place in their hearts for us," she said. "They're committed to destroying us."

Patrick Martin is The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent.

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