Middle East Meltdown

Hamas never gave itself a chance to succeed

Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister, sounded like a broken record when he spoke at a Hamas rally last week. “I tell you with all honesty,” he said, “we will not recognize Israel, we will not recognize Israel, we will not recognize Israel.”

At least he was being honest.

The war between Israel and Hezbollah is over—Israeli troops pulled out of southern Lebanon on the first of the month, as promised—but there is no end in sight to the war between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic organization responsible for years of suicide bombings in Israel and for the June 25 kidnapping of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, which precipitated the most recent conflict in the Middle East.

Hamas, widely considered to be a terrorist organization, tried to reinvent itself earlier this year as a legitimate political party dedicated to serving the Palestinian people. With promises of “change and reform,” the group won a landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections last January.

I was in Jerusalem that week (intersession), and the mood among Israeli Jews was sour. If they were skeptical that Israel could achieve real peace with the Palestinians before the elections, they were even more pessimistic afterward. The trouble is that Hamas wants to destroy, not negotiate with, Israel.

As I sat in my hotel room and watched live coverage from Ramallah, where Hamas supporters in green hats were dancing in the streets, and from Gaza City, where members of the rival Fatah party were firing guns into the air and calling for Fatah loyalist Mahmoud Abbas to resign as president of the Palestinian Authority, I remember saying aloud, “This is not good.” I was thinking about Israel when I said it; I didn’t know how bad the Hamas victory would be for the Palestinians, too.

In the nine months since Hamas gained control of the parliament, the group has started a war with Israel and allowed Palestinian communities to crumble. Hamullas, or gangs, now rule the streets of Gaza. Children have been killed in clashes between Hamas and Fatah security forces. Corrupt policemen only contribute to the chaos. Government salaries have not been paid for months and families are struggling to buy food and other necessities. Surely this is not what the Palestinians wanted when they voted for Hamas.

Some believed that the group would become more moderate once in power. That hasn’t happened. By repeatedly refusing to recognize Israel, renounce violence, and honor previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements—the conditions set by the West for restarting the flow of millions of dollars in aid and the transfer of taxes collected by Israel to the Palestinian Authority—Hamas has prolonged the suffering of the Palestinians and showed the world just how extreme it has become.

Mamhoud Abbas is said to be considering whether to call for early elections, use his presidential powers to dismiss the cabinet and set up an emergency government, or put a referendum before the Palestinian people about what to do. In reality, he has only one viable option. Palestinians have already expressed their outrage at the government through mass protests, and organizing new elections will take time. The longer Hamas retains control of the parliament, the longer aid will be frozen and the more volatile the situation will become.

Efforts by Abbas to form a unity government with Hamas have floundered for months because, as the Palestinian prime minister said over and over again, Hamas simply will not recognize Israel. Clearly, Hamas is more committed to fighting Israel than to protecting the welfare of the Palestinian people. How can diplomacy succeed under these circumstances? Enough is enough. Abbas should form a new government without Hamas. If the group threatens to retaliate, the United States and European Union must be ready to help Abbas contain the violence.

The argument that Hamas was never given a chance to rule effectively is wrong; Hamas never gave itself a chance to succeed. The West imposed sanctions, yes, but Hamas boasted that other Muslim countries would provide the necessary support. Iran, it seems, was too invested in Hezbollah’s activities this summer to prop up Hamas as well. And while it’s true that Israel detained dozens of Hamas lawmakers, hindering their ability to legislate, they were seized during the war and they were actually charged with crimes (belonging to an illegal organization), something even the United States fails to do from time to time.

In a sign that life is returning to normal following the war in northern Israel, the 22nd Annual Haifa Film Festival opened this past weekend to big crowds. When life returns to normal in Gaza, children will be able to attend school without fear. This is the sad state of affairs at the present moment in the Middle East.

Andrew C. Esensten ’07 is a literature and African American studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.