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Ignoring Hamas will imperil the
peace process: Jeroen Gunning

A Rangarajan

The Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio has for sometime now threatened to spill over into a larger conflict in the region that could have serious repercussions for the world at large. With Israel continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, blockading Gaza and carrying out punitive raids on Palestinian militants, and Palestinians continuing their rocket attacks (at least until the recent tenuous ceasefire) and other forms of violence whilst being torn apart by the factional strife between Hamas and Fatah; the international community can ill afford to ignore the situation. The approaches called for now, to resolve this crisis, have to get away from the beaten path and need to be increasingly creative and inclusive in order to succeed. That is perhaps why the findings and perspectives thrown up by the work done by people like Dr Jeroen Gunning and The Centre for the Study of ‘Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence (CSRV) have to come to attract the focus they deserve.

Dr Gunning is the Deputy Director of the CSRV, and he lectures and guides research at the Department of International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. His own field-work and research led him through over a 100 interviews with Hamas leaders, supporters and critics and was backed by extensive field work in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. His recent book ‘Hamas in Politics’ (Hurst 2007) has been acclaimed for bringing in first hand critical perspectives to this unfortunate tangle and for the insight into a complex phenomenon such as Hamas it provides. Dr Gunning in this interview reminds the international community that shunning Hamas, both dramatically lessens the chances of a political settlement being reached and risks alienating the large numbers of Palestinians whose interest and aspirations Hamas represents. Far from adopting this intransigent approach of looking at Hamas as a monolith Dr. Gunning urges the EU, the US and others to not only engage with Hamas but to see the various constituencies within and strengthen the hands of the pragmatists to bring about a settlement more quickly. There is a definite need for urgency here.

Part of the fresh wind that Dr. Gunning and fellow researchers bring stem from their ability to critique the methods of research and policy analysis that are based within the constructs of a Westernized Social Sciences frame work. Not only is the study of the social phenomenon (be it a movement, organization etc) important, but of equal importance are the methods and conceptual frameworks used to study it, he points out. This he opines is critical to our ability to be adequately responsive to situations such as these that are dynamic and ever-changing. The CSRV is also home to the Journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism of which Dr Gunning is a co-Editor.

Q. Your work on Hamas and the political process quite clearly brings out that Hamas is not a monolith and that it is a multi layered organization. What are the key layers, their historical backgrounds and how do we strengthen the realists within so that the peace process can be set on track in this trouble torn area?

A. Hamas is not a monolith and to treat it so is a recipe for disaster. The tendency is to look at the more extreme elements and treat them as the sole identity of Hamas and on that imperfect understanding is then built a response that is neither conducive nor helpful. The leadership of Hamas is distributed both in a geographic sense and by their roles. There is the political leadership in the occupied territories – in Gaza and in the West Bank – and an exiled leadership in Damascus, Syria. Then there is the military wing or the Qassam brigades and you also have a large part of the Hamas leadership in Israeli prisons. The local political leadership on the ground is in closer touch with their grassroots constituencies and must therefore live more directly with the consequences of their actions. Despite the ideological congruence that exists across all these layers, the exiled leadership is removed from their constituencies and thus more amenable to influences from outside, in particular the Syrian government and its Iranian allies. The military leadership, for security reasons, is more underground and thus less influenced by grassroots opinion.

Historically speaking one should remember that Hamas is a fairly recent phenomenon and its own origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood that started in Egypt in the 1920s and later spread across the region. It came to Palestine in the 1940s and Hamas emerged in 1987 at the time of the first Intifada. Therefore large constituencies within Hamas bring in the institutional legacies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Charity, social work, welfare, health, education, augmenting the role of Islam in society etc. have been an integral part of this. Leaders of these institutions are keen to see their institutions survive and, though they share Hamas’ ideological commitment to the liberation of all Palestine and thus the removal of Israel, they have other core objectives as well, such as increasing social welfare and augmenting the role of Islam in society. Tensions arise when the objective of liberating all of Palestine jeopardizes the fulfillment of their other objectives. It is no surprise that most pragmatists within Hamas have come from these institutional backgrounds and that they have repeatedly argued in favour of accepting a long-term ceasefire in return for (domestic) political gains. Pragmatists can also be found among those elected to municipal or legislative offices, or those who find their power base in professional unions.

Q. The most contentious issue while negotiating with Hamas is the question of ‘Liberation of all Palestine’, including the territory that is modern day Israel. How do you think a common framework for peace negotiations can be set with such a major stumbling block? That is why Hamas does not support the Oslo accord because the two-state solution is the basis there. Is it not? Can the other core goals then weigh in?

A. Readings from the past suggest that the Hamas leadership is open to political compromise if the conditions are right. Both in the 2003 and 2005, ceasefires were negotiated in the context of increasing Hamas’ (formal) political role in Palestinian affairs and a shift in public opinion towards declaring a ceasefire. Under these conditions, the pragmatists could convince the hardliners that compromise would lead to political dividends while continued intransigence would result in political marginalization, and thus an end to Hamas’ dream of shaping Palestinian domestic politics forever. Moreover, polls conducted in Palestine over the past five years suggest that there is a constituency among Hamas’ supporters which favours a political settlement. Even in 2003 a poll showed that nearly 60 percent of Hamas supporters favoured a two-state solution as a way to a political settlement. And the exit polls after the 2006 legislative election, which led to Hamas’ landslide victory, showed that 40 percent of those who supported the peace process had voted for Hamas. They did not see Hamas as an immovable obstacle to peace, and voted for the movement for domestic deliverables, such as an end to corruption, improving government accountability and a return to law and order. So domestic issues do weigh in considerably on the whole situation and for Hamas leadership. That Fatah and the international community have prevented Hamas from reaping the fruits of its electoral victory brings into serious doubts the future viability of elections in Palestine, though, as do the violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah, and Hamas’ violent take-over of Gaza in June 2007.

Q. And now to the middle ground on that difficult question…….

A. This is where we are entering into difficult waters. Pragmatists have consistently said that they are willing to give up violent resistance and accept the two-state solution – and thus de facto accept Israel’s existence – in return for an electoral power-sharing arrangement with Fatah. They are not willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist or accept the usurpation of parts of Palestine by Israel as legitimate. However, they have also consistently hinted at the prospect of the next generation of Hamas leaders being able to start thinking about a full and comprehensive peace if they grow up in a Palestinian state in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank with sound economic opportunities and a normal life without the humiliation of roadblocks etc. The current leaders and elders cannot bring themselves to give up their right of return to their ancestral lands. But they are willing – to use the words of Menachem Klein [an Israeli academician] – to make the question of ‘liberating all of Palestine’ a credo rather than a political agenda. What could be agreed upon is a ‘hudnah” or a long term ceasefire leading to a political settlement based on a return to the 1967 borders and an end to violence (this figured in Carter’s peace initiative with Hamas as well). This, of course, falls well short of Israel’s demand for full recognition of its right to exist (that deep rooted concern, by the way, has its origins in part in the centuries of anti-semitism in Europe and the Holocaust that followed; thus, quite apart from its role in helping to create the structural conditions for the Arab-Israeli conflict as erstwhile colonial powers, Europe bears a fair amount of responsibility for the intransigence of the conflict). Returning to the ‘hudnah’, Israel fears that Hamas will use it to prepare itself for the eventual destruction of Israel. These fears need serious attention. But not to explore the hudnah option carries more risk as it will strengthen the hardliners in Hamas and increase the incentive to scupper any political settlement. Fatah, moreover, lacks the strength and popular legitimacy to implement any peace deal or political settlement on its own it and needs to bring Hamas on board for a lasting solution.

Q. Looking at the troubled situation on the ground one is inclined to ask- while the International community is quick to condemn the rocket attacks from Gaza and other violence inflicted by Palestinian groups, Israel’s continued settlements on the West bank does not get a commensurate reprimand. Do you see this dichotomous response and is there not imbalance here?

A. To be fair to the international community, there have been many condemnations of the Israeli settlements from several quarters. But, they could do more and be emphatic on the need to not just freeze settlements but dismantle them. In the Palestinian view, the settlements, blockades, the wall etc., are a form of violence that is being perpetrated against them. In academic terms, it could be called, in Johan Galtung’s phrase, ‘structural violence’. The international community could do more in calling equally for a halt to both forms of violence, rather than focus just on the explicit forms of violence.

Q. You spoke about ‘hudnah’ a little earlier on; I am inclined to ask you about your interviews with Ismail Abu Shannab who was very vocal about the idea. I understand that you also interviewed Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi and Ahmad Yassin. And how did it feel when you learnt that they were all killed as part of the targeted assignations of Israel?

A. Abu Shannab was one of the key thinkers giving flesh to the notion of a ‘hudnah’. Yassin was one of the first to articulate the idea although he was more hawkish than Abu Shannab. Abu Shannab was, in my view, the potential Gerry Adams of Hamas [Adams was one of the IRA/Sinn Fein leaders who championed the political route in Northern Ireland]. He was acceptable to Fatah members, to the various Marxist factions as well as to the Christians of Gaza. He was trusted by many and played an active role in the Engineers’ Union. In interviews, he presented the ‘hudnah’ as a first step on the road to eventual peace – not because he wanted to make peace (he believed that peace could only be made by the next generation, if at all, and that too only if Israel allowed a Palestinian state to flourish), but because he recognized that Israel was a fait accompli and that a two-state solution was more or less the writing on the wall. At the same time, he believed that violent resistance was necessary to achieve a two-state solution since he did not trust Israel to hold its side of the bargain without the threat of continued violence. When he was assassinated, I was particularly saddened because he was the kind of leader who could have hastened the process of convincing Hamas’ hardliners of the necessity for compromise – and perhaps even prevented some of the worst intra-Palestinian fighting. Every assassination of someone one has interviewed and met face to face is shocking news, however condemnable their actions may have been. None of the people I interviewed were inherently ‘evil’ – a term I think is unhelpful anyway. Even though I personally strongly disagreed with them regarding their chosen methods, I could understand, within a social science framework, why they had adopted these tactics within the context of occupation, violence (both state and non-state) and economic strangulation they had grown up in. They chose to ‘live by the sword’, therefore they increased the risk of ‘dying by the sword’. But in Abu Shannab’s case there was the added blow to the prospects of compromise and an end to the conflict. The fact that, unlike Rantisi and Yassin, he had not generally been regarded as closely involved with the Qassam Brigades, made his assassination all the more bewildering.

Q. A full fledged discussion on the rift between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in West Bank is beyond the scope of this discussion. But then the enclaves of unchallenged spheres of influence are deeply polarizing and would it not hurt the Palestinian cause in ways more than one?

A. That is true. To start with, having two functionally separate enclaves – one in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, the other in the West Bank, administered by Fatah – takes away the types of challenges that are essential for the checks and balances needed for democratic institutions to mature and flourish. The population as a whole stands to lose as abuse of power increases as a result of increasing reliance on coercive tactics. A divided Palestinian leadership also seriously affects the ability to negotiate effectively. Part of the reason for the grim chances of success of the Annapolis Peace talks, initiated by President Bush, is because it is assumed that Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas can alone represent the Palestinians, whilst in reality they lack the grassroots support that is needed. Recently, President Abbas has shown more willingness to resolve the differences between the two parties but there is still a long way to go on both sides.

Q. Israel is in a position of strength now and it need not make painful concessions for the sake of peace. Its opposition is divided and weakened yet you seem to hold that if peace does not come about it would hurt Israel in the long run. Why do you say that?

A. There are two issues here. If Israel keeps a population under these conditions, more radical groups are likely to emerge and violence could snowball into something more volatile. Of course the advocates of repressive policies would argue that the answer lies in being more repressive. Numerous studies and history suggest that repression does not work in the long run. Thus, at some point, repressive measures have to arguably give way to accommodative policies if peace is the objective. Besides, for now, Israel enjoys the support of the US. The US could become weaker or it could lessen its support in the distant future. Who knows? Unless Israel gains some kind of acceptance in the region, it places itself in serious jeopardy being a small state in a hostile region. Then there is the whole moral dimension. There are many Israelis who strongly feel that when you are an occupying force for a long period you end up corrupting yourself. They do not see being an occupier as a part of their own Jewish identity and recognize the serious moral implications of occupation. They similarly recognize the moral implications of gradually usurping the remaining land on which Palestinians hope to establish their state.

Q. You are now making the departure from being a pure academic by entering into the domain of policy recommendation. If your policy recommendations fail it might cast a shadow on your academic record. Does this prospect intimidate you?

A. Of course I am concerned because when you make a recommendation you are asked to make predictions. And you are only as good as your last prediction in this kind of a work! In addition, the closer one’s relationship with the policy world, the easier it is to become sucked into the logic of state-building and defending the status quo, and thus losing one’s critical distance. At the same time, though, I believe that, as academics, we have both a moral and institutional responsibility to make policy recommendations. Staying aloof is not an option. Taking a long term perspective, we are able to see the structural and seismic shifts happening below the surface and it is our role to bring them to the fore. As independent analysts, I also believe it is our duty to expose abuse of power and stand up for the cause of ordinary humans, wherever they are. Being policy relevant does not necessarily mean being pro-status quo or serving the interests of the state. States are human constructs that have come to dominate our affairs only in the last few hundred years. Their preeminence is neither morally nor practically a foregone conclusion. For me, as for our Centre (CSRV) here at Aberystwyth, human beings and humanity at large are the central concern. As long as a state serves humanity’s interests, it has a useful function. But if it serves only the interests of a selected few, or threatens the livelihood of others, it deserves to be challenged. To say that state or national security comes above all else is to betray humanity. Rather, the goal is to increase the security (and freedom) of human beings. So advising a civil society organization could be as policy relevant as advising or criticizing governments.

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