All Writings
October 22, 1994

Hamas Won’t Die A Natural Death

Hamas's terror attack in downtown Jerusalem, its kidnapping and murder of soldier Nahshon Wachsman and Wednesday's bus bombing in the heart of Tel Aviv raise a number of daunting issues about the prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Both Israel and the PLO must address the real challenge that Hamas poses and tackle it directly and decisively.

It is a mistake to think that Hamas is a bunch of disorganized hoodlums with no strategy and no agenda. Hamas wants to achieve power. The only way it remains politically relevant is by challenging the PLO's authority and by defying Israel.

Throughout the Israeli-PLO negotiations in connection with the Palestinian elections, Israel has insisted that no Palestinian group that opposes the Israeli-PLO agreement participate in the election.

Though the Israeli demand seems justifiable on the face of it, it is hardly consistent with either democratic principles or the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The Rabin government cannot possibly exclude any of the Israeli opposition political parties from the electoral process simply because they oppose the Israeli-PLO agreement. By what logic then can they bar Hamas? Unlike the Israeli political parties, the rationale goes, Hamas is a violent organization bent on undermining the peace. It has therefore forfeited its right to be a part of the democratic process.

The problem here is that Hamas isn't going to die a natural death. Yes, Hamas's violent acts must be met with stiff and immediate countermeasures by Israel, but in particular by the Palestinian Authority.

PLO leaders cannot afford to do less if they want to strengthen their waning authority in the eyes of Israel and those Palestinians who support the peace. But cracking down on Hamas will not, by itself, resolve the long-term problem.

Many thousands of Hamas's members have legitimate grievances. They have been at best ignored by the PLO. They are not participating in any of the newly developing social and economic institutions, and thousands of their comrades are still languishing in Israeli jails. Their growing political power and numbers warrant more deliberate attention. A policy of both the carrot and the stick should be applied simultaneously.

Israel and the PLO must use this spate of Hamas terror as the catalyst for new approaches. They must resist Hamas's violence, but tolerate its political opposition to the peace process. Hamas's leaders should be made to realize that relinquishing violence would open the door to their political participation.

Under the same conditions, Israel could release, in stages, many of Hamas's prisoners, in particular Hamas's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who beseeched Wachsman's captors not to kill him. Such a unilateral step by Israel could change the whole complexity of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

This wouldn't be appeasement, but a realistic assessment of changing conditions and the need to articulate a new strategy. It would be no less daring than the opening of a dialogue with the PLO more than two years ago.

Only a fool would think Israel was acting out of weakness. Hamas knows that it cannot destroy Israel; it also knows that the only way to legitimacy is through the political process that Israel must recognize.

The problem is that both Israel and the PLO fear Hamas may gain further political notoriety through democratic election. But what is the alternative?

Suppose Hamas wins a majority in a Palestinian election. It will have to either honor the Israel-PLO agreement and continue with the peace process, or continue its violence, facing the prospect of losing whatever the PLO has gained and possible destruction.

The answer to Hamas will not be found by delaying the Palestinian election, denying Hamas the right to participate in the political process, or systematic persecution.

Those Israelis and Palestinians who nurture the faint hope that a dramatic improvement in the Palestinians' socioeconomic condition will in time render Hamas irrelevant are misreading the movement's real political pulse.