How Israel’s leaders have misread Hamas

Zvi Bar’el reviews, Lehakir et Hamas ‏(Getting to Know Hamas‏), a new book (in Hebrew) by the Gaza-affairs correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 News, Shlomi Eldar. The book explains how Israel’s leaders have squandered peacemaking opportunities because their ideological inflexibility has led them to ignore Hamas’s pragmatism; that their insistence on viewing the movement as a terrorist organization whose leadership could be decapitated has resulted in a failure to understand Hamas’s political maturity; and that the timing of Operation Cast Lead, the war on Gaza in 2008-2009, was determined by domestic Israeli politics, not a breakdown of the ceasefire.

“Hamas offers two alternatives: 1. A separate track, dealing only with the release of Gilad Shalit in return for 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners. 2. A release of prisoners will take place in the broader context of a strategic approach ‏(as follows‏), and the number of prisoners released will not be in the hundreds.”

That is an excerpt from an extraordinary document its authors called “Hamas and Israel: Peaceful Coexistence.” Its publication for the first time, in the fascinating book “Getting to Know Hamas” by Shlomi Eldar, the Gaza-affairs correspondent for Channel 10 News, is more than a journalistic coup. According to Eldar, the document − composed by Khaled Meshal, the political chief of Hamas, after Shalit was seized by Palestinian militants in a 2006 cross-border raid, and sent by messenger to then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert − represents the first demonstration of strategic thinking on the part of Hamas: thinking that Israel does not recognize and does not want to get to know.

The detailed document, whose existence and transmission to the prime minister were denied completely by Olmert’s office at the time, constituted an offer by Hamas to conduct a multilevel dialogue with Israel, beginning with discussion about a cease-fire and the building of long-term trust, and ending with a coexistence agreement to last 25 years, and the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders.

The document does not mention recognition of Israel or a peace agreement per se. It does, however, stipulate not only a cease-fire ‏(“tahadiyeh” in Arabic, which literally means “lull” but has come to mean a “temporary truce”‏), but also cooperation on the civilian front, such as the opening of border crossings and a renewal by Israel of tax-money transfer to the Palestinians.

The coexistence document represents the high point of repeated attempts by Meshal to build a system of practical cooperation with Israel, an effort that began after Hamas was swept into power in general elections held at the beginning of 2006. Such attempts are confirmed in the book, both in documents cited by Eldar and in descriptions of talks Eldar had with Hamas leaders. And it is here that the profound importance of the book lies. Along with a series of tactical and strategic decisions made by Hamas during this period, Eldar acquaints us not only with that organization but also with Israel’s ideological, strategic outlook in its struggle against it. [Continue reading…]

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