Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Controlling Hamas
The agreement reached in Sharm el-Sheikh between Abbas and Sharon yesterday is another historic milestone on the rocky road(map) to peace in the Middle East. It is an agreement that has been made possible by a change in PLO leadership, and is an opportunity that if missed, may not come around again for another decade. The spanner in the works is again Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other militant groups that have delayed any committment to a ceasefire.

The agreement states that both parties have agreed that "all Palestinians will stop all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere and in parallel, Israel will cease all its military activity against all Palestinians anywhere."

It seems though, that Abbas may have significant difficulties in keeping the Palestinian side of the bargain. Hamas says that it cannot commit to a ceasefire before it has spoken further to Abbas, as the two demands that they had set for peace had not been fulfilled: the freeing of Palestinian prisoners and the cease of military activities against Palestinians. Just hours after the handshake between Abbas and Sharon, the Israelis announced that they would be releasing 500 Palestinian prisoners as from next week. And Sharon's committment to pull troops back from Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Tulkarm and Qalqilya and cease military activities speaks for itself. Even the Palestinian authorities are saying that Hamas has no reason to boycott.

One has to consider the premise of Hamas' existence to see the reasoning. Hamas has built its existence on a stoic committment to militancy against Israel, rhetoric that borders on hate-speech, a drumming up of young militants to lay down their lives for the cause and the continued pledge to terrorist activities. Without their militant cause, the group has a fragile reason for existence.

Abbas has understood this well, and offered Hamas the opportunity to move from a militant operation to a political movement, with a negotiation ploy of offering a place in the Palestinian political environment for a committment to peace. With their successes in local elections, it is hoped that Hamas will seize the opportunity, but with the political process being so foreign to them, one wonders about its merit.

Hamas itself is at a crossroads. It has to decide whether it is a terrorist organisation fighting in perpetuity against Israel, or a true player in Middle East peace. It has to decide on the true antecedents of its militancy, a simple hatred for Israel, or a struggle against occupation that ends with the Palestinian people's release. It is often difficult for groups that are set in such a militant mindset to see the wood for the trees and realise that their central cause is finding a negotiated solution. The natural instinct is to continue shfting the goal posts. Their position will undoubtedly be adopted by the rest of the Palestinian militant groups and now that the opportunity presents itself, Hamas' decision will define its existence and its historical perception for decades to come. We can only hope that their lack of committment to the agreement is merely a stalling tactic to allow them to do some soul-searching.

It leaves the peace process at a markedly fragile juncture. As an Israeli official very accurately postulates "One can only have a cease-fire with a state or authority that controls security. You can't have a cease-fire with armed terrorist groups, because you give them a veto over peace. What we have today is a cessation of violence, and it can become something more if Abbas moves to crack down on the militants, take away their weapons and destroy their mortar and rocket factories."

There is a long road to travel, and we have had these hopes before. The critical wild-card is Hamas, and their decision to support the ceasefire will be the catalyst for change, or the continuation of the status quo.