Hamas and the need for Palestinian unity

Nathan Brown writes: Hamas has always boasted of its pragmatism. It continues to claim to be a “wasati” movement — the term means “centrist” and is used by Islamists who want to communicate their responsiveness to the interests of the public rather than their devotion to the strictest version of religious teachings. And it is clear that in the first few years after winning elections in Gaza in 2006, some Hamas leaders, confronted with intense regional pressure and a fiscal crisis, and the knowledge that they would have to face the Palestinian voters again in 2010, took initial steps in a more moderate direction.

Unfortunately, the elections they were anticipating were never held (and the primary culprits in that regard were President Mahmud Abbas who threatened constantly to use an utterly imaginary authority to dissolve the parliament and Western actors who supported him in those threats). When a Palestinian civil war erupted in June 2007, the governments in the West Bank and Gaza became more explicitly autocratic, to the detriment of Palestinians in both territories. Hardly anyone harbors expectations any longer of free elections: On those rare occasions when Hamas and the leaders of the West Bank have had half-hearted conversations about reuniting, elections haven’t been a meaningful part of the negotiations.

Any hopes since then that Hamas would moderate have been squandered. The changing regional environment after the Arab upheavals of 2011 seemed to offer brief hope that Hamas would reposition itself away from the “resistance” camp in the region and toward the camp of Islamist movements in North Africa that were dedicated to making political Islam the basis of a practicable governing system. That would have required taking reconciliation with Israel a bit more seriously, interpreting “resistance” a bit more flexibly to encompass popular mobilization more than armed action, and presenting a friendlier diplomatic face to the rest of the world. But the effort, led by Khalid Mish’al, was derailed by Hamas leaders who didn’t want to risk their hold on the government in Gaza.

There is a possible path forward out of this dreary political landscape. The most promising way to force Hamas to become more moderate is to force it to be more responsive to its own public. (As a leading Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian in neighboring Egypt told me when I asked him whether Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution: “They will have to. Their people will make them.”) And the most promising way to ensure such responsiveness is to speed up the reconciliation between the governments in the West Bank and Gaza, so that those governments can agree to hold elections rather than jealously hold on to their own fiefdoms in a fit of paranoia. But that, in turn, will require that Israel and the international community show a greater willingness to countenance Palestinian reconciliation.

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