It looks like the topelected officials in the Palestinian Hamas party are
signaling that they accept Israel's right to exist. Last week the
highest-ranking Hamas leader, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, told Israel's
most prestigious newspaper, Ha'aretz: "If Israel withdraws to the 1967
borders, peace will prevail and we will implement a cease-fire [hudna] for
A hudna is more than just a "cease-fire." An erudite article in the
Encyclopedia of Islam tells us that "hudna in Islamic law is equivalent to
'international treaty' in modern terminology. Its object is to suspend the
legal effects of hostilities and to provide the prerequisite conditions of
peace between Muslims and non-Muslims, without the latter's territory
becoming part of dar al-Islam.'"
Those last words are the most important. The devout traditionalists of Hamas
take Islamic law seriously. They know that the law divides the whole world
into two categories: dar al-Islam, the territory ruled by Muslims, and dar
al-harb, the rest of the world. For centuries, the land that became Israel
was part of dar al-Islam. Only in 1948, when Israel declared its
independence, was it claimed by dar al-harb. That's a big part of what galls
If Hamas is now willing to offer a hudna, it means not merely accepting the
existence of Israel (you can't negotiate with a country that doesn't exist),
but treating Israel as part of dar al-harb. As the Encyclopedia explains,
Muslims don't make a hudna treaty with anyone inside the dar al-Islam. It
all goes back to the example set by Mohammed, as recorded in the Quran. He
made treaties with Jewish communities who came under Muslim rule. But they
are not called hudna. By offering a hudna, Prime Minister Haniyeh is
implying that he'll accept the land inside Israel's 1967 borders as gone
from Muslim rule for good.
Israel does not demand "diplomatic recognition" from the Palestinians. It
demands a public promise that the Palestinians will always accept Israel as
a state with a Jewish majority. That is, always was, and always will be the
crucial issue for Israel's government and for most Israeli Jews. The hudna
offer seems to carry that promise.
Haniyeh is not alone. Other Hamas government officials echoed his
conciliatory talk in a clearly coordinated peace offensive, timed to
coincide with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington.
Transportation Minister Ziad Zaza described the hudna as "the cease-fire
that will be renewed automatically each time."
For politicians guided by Muslim law, that's a crucial point. A hudna is always agreed on for a
temporary period. Critics of Hamas might seize on that to see the offer as a
trick-a way to give Hamas breathing time to build up its strength for more
attacks on Israel. The promise of an automatically self-renewing hudna is
meant to scotch that suspicion. It's another sign that Hamas is moving
toward accepting a Jewish majority state within the 1967 borders.
Hamas has been under tremendous international pressure to make this shift.
But the real turning point was publication of the "prisoners' document," a
peace plan developed by members of the rival Hamas and Fatah parties. The Israelis took
these two sets of prisoners, who normally might not talk to each other, and did them the
favor of throwing them together in the same prison. That gave them the time and space to
develop a common vision of a Palestinian state. It would occupy the whole of the West Bank
and Gaza, devoid of Israeli settlements, with its capital in East Jerusalem, living peacefully
side by side with a Jewish state.
Ha'aretz reported Haniyeh's first tentative response that the
plan "must be studied further, but it contains worthy principles to which
agreement is possible." Like any elected official, he has his finger up to
the political wind. Recent polls show that a huge majority of Palestinians
would support the plan.
Hamas leaders can't publicly embrace the plan yet, because they don't want
to split apart their party. Some powerful figures in Hamas don't accept it,
or the hudna idea. Haniyeh acknowledged that when he told Ha'aretz
journalist Danny Rubenstein: "Leave Hamas aside now -- I am speaking to you
as the leader of the Palestinian government, the government of all the
Palestinians, and not as the leader of a movement."
Still, as a European diplomat told the Jerusalem Post, "it appears that
Haniyeh realizes the importance of devising a new style and content and
ideology to deal with the new situation. We realize how hard it is for a guy
elected on a radical platform to steer his constituency toward accepting
what for them is heresy. This is significant because he said it on the
record and can't take it back."
Even the supposed hard-liners who run the Hamas party from their exile in
Syria may be softening. "Hamas has not and will not negotiate (with
Israel)," Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, told
the Associated Press. But "he said his group would not oppose talks between
Israel and Abbas." That's probably the compromise in the works. "There is
an idea among Palestinians to give Abu Mazen [Abbas] a chance, if it works
why not?" said Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, the top Hamas government
official in the West Bank. He talked about "a national task force that would
support negotiations with Israel."
If Abbas heads the negotiating team, Hamas can effectively be part of the
talks without officially recognizing Israel's right to exist. In fact, Abbas'
threat to put the "prisoner's document" to a popular referendum may be part
of the compromise. It was reported here as a power play to undermine Hamas,
and the Hamas leaders in Syria have publicly rejected it. But it may be
their way of getting the plan onto the negotiating table without any
explicit endorsement. They can say that Abbas forced their hand and their
elected officials had no choice but to accede.
Perhaps that's why some Hamas officials, like parliament speaker Aziz Dweik,
supported the idea. "Returning to the people is one of the most important
principles in democracy," Dweik said. "The 'prisoners' document' is a good
basis for dialogue." Hamas and Fatah leaders are now in talks to work out a
common position. Early reports from those talks have both sides reporting
But what happens next will be determined less in the West Bank and Gaza than
in Jerusalem and Washington. The Hamas officials are doing what any
government might do-using a peace offensive as a test of the other side's
willingness to reciprocate. Cabinet Secretary Ghazi Hamad publicly affirmed
the offer of a hudna and held out the possibility of even more: "With time
we will suit our positions to reality and change." But, he warned, "under no
circumstances will we do so under the pressure of a siege and only to get
money." Hamas legislator Mahmoud Ramahi rightly complained that so far Hamas
was "not being offered anything in return" for recognizing Israel. All it
gets is continuing harsh occupation and tightening financial screws.
This is a tragic mistake on Israel's part, as a few influential voices in
Israel have already made clear. Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy was the
first senior Israeli security official to propose that Israel and Hamas
should reach an understanding based on their mutual desire for a long-term
In Ha'aretz last week, several analysts expressed the same view. Danny
Rubenstein noted that you don't have to love the Palestinians to see the
value of their peace moves: "Those who are not asking for any favors from
the Palestinians -- who don't care if they recognize Israel and will be
satisfied if the Palestinians get used to coexistence without violence --
should adopt a positive attitude toward Haniyeh and his stance."
Gideon Samet worried that Israel is "missing a window of opportunity"
because the "prisoners' document" was "brushed aside by Jerusalem as a
feeble trick." Gideon Levy urged that the hudna offer "should have sparked a
wave of positive reactions from Jerusalem, just like the 'prisoners'
document.' But Jerusalem's ear as usual is blocked to any sound that might
advance the peace process." What the Israelis are offering is merely "a
plan to perpetuate the occupation, only under conditions more convenient for
Israel. Moreover, at the end of the convergence plan, if it is ever
executed, even more settlers will live in the occupied territories than live
And George W. Bush largely supports Olmert's demand that the Palestinians
accept his plan or continue to suffer dire consequences. Levy rightly
described the two leaders as "bullies who think they are allowed what most
of the world is forbidden. Why? Because they are strong." More precisely,
they are bullies because they want to look strong. Their chief aim is to
create an image of overwhelming power, in order to mask their own
deep-seated insecurities. The terror they are fighting comes not from beyond
their borders, but from inside their own hearts and minds.
When it comes to military power, Israel is incomparably stronger than
Palestine. But all that military strength can't stop angry individuals from
slipping into Israel to set off deadly bombs. Now Israelis and the Bush
administration must be strong enough to overcome their fears, their
stubbornness, and their pride in military power. They must see that it's up
to them to decide which way to encourage the Palestinian debate.
The Palestinians have pride, too. They want to be treated as equal
negotiating partners with equal rights. If Israel and the U.S. expect
military and financial pressure to force Hamas to capitulate to an unjust
peace, they are sadly mistaken. Indeed, a Ha'aretz editorial noted, the
Israeli government's "siege on the Hamas government is not weakening it. On
the contrary, it is boosting support for it." As Gideon Samet wrote, it's
now up to the Israelis (and, he might have added, their patrons in
Washington). There is new reason for hope. But if the Israeli government
"sinks into the destructive, meaningless routines that characterized its
predecessors, the rest of the decade will turn into a disaster zone."
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado
at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.
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