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Hamas Getting on Board Peace Train

The most important developments in the Middle East peace process are often the ones that get the least notice in America's mass media. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's visit to Washington this week got a bit of notice, even though there wasn't much news to report. In a joint statement Barak and U.S. envoy George Mitchell said "they had discussed the full range of issues ... constructive and would soon continue," blah, blah, blah.

Meanwhile the more important events, which got even less coverage in our mass media, were happening in Palestine. The major political parties there are once again struggling to create a unified government that can negotiate with Israel. It's too early to be overly optimistic, but the signs may be encouraging.

The two major Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, have been doing a delicate negotiating dance for weeks now. Reports of the talks are hopeful one day, disappointing the next. That's not surprising, given all the blood that's been shed between the two sides. It's kind of like the old joke about how two porcupines make love:  very carefully! The two parties are hardly going to rush into an unreserved embrace.

But actions speak louder than words.  Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader  Mahmoud Abbas recently released over one hundred Hamas prisoners from Fatah jails. A few hours later he gave a cordial reception to a top Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who had just been released from an Israeli jail. 

Dweik came out apparently in the mood to promote peace. "We have to grasp this opportunity ... so that there will be a generation which will put aside any kind of dispute and reconcile,"," he told Reuters.  Does he mean it?  Watch this video interview with him and decide for yourself if he fits the picture of the "bloodthirsty Hamas terrorist" so common in our mass media.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the Dweik-Abbas meeting reflects a growing Palestinian move toward peace:  "The meeting, as well as the release of the Hamas men, is seen in the context of Abbas's goodwill gestures toward Hamas designed to boost the prospects of ‘national reconciliation.'"  The Palestinians know that Israel has stalled peace talks for years, claiming they have no "partner for peace," because no one set of negotiators could speak for all the Palestinian people. The reconciliation process may aim to deprive the Israelis of that excuse.

So somebody involved in the negotiations came up with a smart idea. Rather than take on the arduous task of creating a full national government run by both Hamas and Fatah, start with a relatively easier project:  a joint security force for Gaza. The two sides are scheduled to meet in Egypt in late July to try to work that out. 

Of course none of this is really easy. There are strong factions in both Hamas and Fatah trying to block progress. The same Jerusalem Post article also noted:  "Fatah representatives said that despite Abbas's goodwill gestures, Hamas's security forces had arrested hundreds of their supporters in the Gaza Strip over the past three days."  Fatah may well do the same to Hamas operatives in the West Bank any day. But the movement is clearly in the direction of reconciliation.

An even more surprising and encouraging sign is that Hamas is bringing another group into the process: the once militantly rejectionist Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine. Israelis know about this too, from the newspaper Ha'aretz, which reports an "overall effort by Hamas and senior Jihad officials to merge the two movements and create a joint leadership coalition in preparation for the possible reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and the formation of a national unity government." 

According to Ha'aretz analyst Zvi Bar'el, the move "attests to the new direction Hamas adopted following the Cairo speech of U.S. President Barack Obama and the deepening ties between Syria and Washington. [Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramadan Abdallah] Shalah and Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political leader in Damascus, are already preparing the organizational foundation for the next stage, and judging by Meshal's declarations it is moving closer to the positions of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with regard to a negotiated solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."


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What has Meshal declared? "Hamas has accepted the National Reconciliation Document," he recently told the New York Times. "It has accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem ... This is Hamas's program regardless of the historic documents. Hamas has offered a vision. ... It's not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago."

Should we believe him? Two scholars from the United States Institute of Peace (one Jewish and one Muslim) think it makes perfect sense:  "Although Hamas, as an Islamic organization, will not transgress shari‘a [Islamic law], which it understands as forbidding recognition [of Israel], it has formulated mechanisms that allow it to deal with the reality of Israel as a fait accompli. These mechanisms include the religious concepts of tahadiya [short-term calming period] and hudna [longer-term truce] and Hamas's own concept of ‘Palestinian legitimacy.'"

A Jewish scholar at Israel's top-ranked Institute for National Strategic Studies gives a deeper look at what's going on inside Hamas: "The supposed split between Damascus-based radicals and Gaza Strip-based moderates is a false distinction. There are apparently moderates and radicals in both places, and Mashal himself is not necessarily aligned with the radicals. ... Hamas is willing to accept a process of negotiations with Israel, as it was when it endorsed the National Reconciliation Document."

Though they won't come out and say it, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders must know the profound import of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent conversion to support for a two-state solution.  The peace train is leaving the station. Like all big clumsy trains, it starts moving very very slowly.

But eventually it gathers speed and gets going so rapidly that anyone not on it has no chance to catch up and jump aboard, no matter how fast they run.  Hamas leaders know that. They want to make sure they've got a seat on the train -- that is, at the negotiating table -- when the deal is cut. Ditto for Islamic Jihad. Barack Obama and his administration deserve a significant part of the credit for this movement.

Of course there is no guarantee that the peace train will ever move very far down the track.  Some powerful leaders in Hamas and Islamic Jihad their movements are resisting the change. Perhaps they fear that their organizations will be swallowed up by the new unified government. Perhaps they also fear that their own power will be diminished, and with it maybe even their source of income.

Money is bound to be a key issue here.  In Palestine, a new state will mean new money coming from around the world, including the U.S. When Egypt and Israel made peace in 1978, the U.S. agreed to shell out something like $5 billion a year in aid to the two countries, which we are still paying regularly. A similar deal (though with more modest numbers) is likely to come out of the Israel-Palestine peace process. Someone on the Palestinian side will be receiving and then disbursing a sizeable chunk of cash.

Is it too cynical to assume that one reason for moderation in Hamas is fear of being left off the gravy train if they don't jump on the peace train?  Is it too cynical to assume, too, that Fatah's resistance to Hamas is motivated in part by the mouth-watering prospect of controlling all that money itself? Is it too cynical to assume that the same prospect of lavish rewards is a big carrot leading all the Palestinian factions toward the unity that is the prerequisite for independence?

For whatever reasons (and they surely go beyond the money), Hamas is clearly moving toward peace, while Fatah, Hamas, and now even Islamic Jihad are moving toward a unified Palestinian government.  Jewish scholars and readers of the Israeli press know it. It's about time that Americans who get their news from the mass media know it too. 

But before we get our hopes up too high, let's keep in mind how much bad blood there still is among the Palestinian factions -- and how consistently Israel (sometimes with U.S. help) has worked to break up Palestinian unity by provoking violence, which strengthens the hand of the Palestinian hard-liners and blocks the path to peace. If these latest Palestinian moves provoke Israel to some kind of attack, our mass media will no doubt put that news on the front page, without telling us the motive that lies behind it.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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