The recent Guardian debate between Hamas and Israel is a small but important step forward.
The Guardian has achieved what recent politicians, academics and diplomats have failed to do – it has created a forum for debate by bringing together two sides of a six-decade long conflict by printing Khalid Mish’al’s article and the subsequent response by Zvi Heifetz, the Israeli ambassador in London. This is a small, but under the circumstances, significant achievement.
The past year has been an experience in new depths of pain for the Palestinian people. While Israel has vehemently worked to disfranchise Hamas since its inception, this reached new intensity following Hamas’ election victory in January 2006.
Mr Heifetz’s response to Mr Mish’al is telling of Hamas’ reality: a party that has not only been given a mandate by its people but is slowly being acknowledged by almost all of its neighbouring states as a legitimate authority over Palestinians.
Even President Abbas, who has resisted conceding to the Hamas mandate for so long, both acknowledged Mr Mish’al as the rightful leader of Hamas and accepted Hamas’ terms recently in Mecca. This admittance by President Abbas consequently meant that the summit between US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, President Abbas and prime minister Olmert became all but insignificant on the ground.
This is an indication of the waning influence of those present and the absence of the real power broker for the Palestinians – Hamas.
In his comment, Mr Heifetz presumes a failure in Hamas’ achievements over the past year. Yet their success lies in the reality that a year ago neither he nor any of his contemporaries would have bothered to respond to Mr Mish’al publicly, especially if it was only an article in a newspaper.
However, Hamas in the past year has not only provided the Palestinians with a transparent, accountable and honest government but has further spelled out two significant points: the Palestinian struggle for liberation will continue despite Israeli, US and European sanctions and will verify that political Islam and democracy can go hand in glove.
While accusations against Palestinians for their refusal to recognise Israel are rife; a quick glance over Israel’s own history, even prior to its inception in 1948 shows a state that has been unwilling to recognise even the existence of a Palestinian people.
From the pre-Israel “land without a people” propaganda, to politicians like the late Golda Meir stating “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”, there are innumerable examples of a failure to recognise an entire population. However, these facts are rarely mentioned when Israel demands that Palestinians recognise its existence, while simultaneously refusing to clarify the exact boundaries of the state it is being asked to recognise. Even after the Oslo Accords of 1993, Israel finally recognised the Palestinian people but not Palestine.
Since coming to power in January 2006, Hamas has also been faced with numerous provocative Israeli military strikes against the Palestinian people, including the Beit Hanoun and Gazabeach massacres, and in total over 600 were killed. It also faced the arrest and imprisonment of its ministers and MPs, but it constrained its right to retaliate.
Yet the international community, which should have allowed the Hamas government to dedicate its efforts in ameliorating the dire situation of its people, instead catapulted it into a political abyss by imposing sanctions and boycotts. The US went as far as funding Fatah’s leader, Mr Abbas, in recruiting a presidential guard which would sow the seeds of a civil conflict leading to over 100 Palestinian deaths.
Despite these alarming efforts by Israel, the US and European powers to destabilise Hamas, since coming to power it has made phenomenal concessions. Hamas leaders such as Ismail Haniya have confirmed that peace and security for Palestinians comes before their own positions in government. Thus, they have obliged the international community in its demand for the formation of a unity government and accepted to have only nine ministers out of a total of 19.
Most recently, Mr Mish’al stated in the Guardian that Hamas is willing to establish a “sovereign and independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967”. This statement from a government whose leaders have sacrificed their personal standing and interests over their nation’s freedom needs to be taken seriously. It is high time the international community called upon Israel for once to prove its commitment to peace by abiding by international law and dozens of UN resolutions dating as far back as 1948.
As a first step and a goodwill gesture, perhaps Israel can begin by demolishing the wall that is being built deep in the 1967-occupied territories, deliberately creating new facts on the ground and pre-empting the creation of any viable Palestinian state outside the green line border. Maybe then the world will start to believe Israel is serious about peace.