The “Arab Spring”, as we now have come to know it, has seemingly changed the nature of politics and the balance of power in the Middle East forever.
The West was caught off-guard, and after initially grappling with the new situation is now dealing with Islamist parties whom they had vowed never to sit at the same table with.
Prior to the Arab Spring, all the branches of the “menacing” Islamic Brotherhood were outlawed, and legitimate targets in the worldwide “war on terror”. The outsized blanket of Islamophobia seemed to smother anyone of Middle Eastern origin, let alone an Islamist. Much to the surprise of the world, however, since their coming to power in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the Brotherhood have been welcoming and willing to deal with the rest of world in a refined, professional manner. To the dismay of the fear-mongering neoconservatives, they turned out to be moderates prioritising stability, security and prosperity in their countries, even if it meant relinquishing power and adopting a power-sharing strategy with their former oppressors. Slowly but surely, an increasing number of Western countries have begun to deal with them and found them to be the moderates they always were, much to the chagrin of neoconservative extremists in the West, as well as extremist factions in the East, and continuous efforts to undermine the new Islamic governments and instigate instability within these countries — a trademark of the first years since the Arab Spring.
One group, however, with the exact same moderate ideology and principles, has been excluded. It has always been willing to meet and deal with Western governments. It is the Muslim Brotherhood group in Palestine better known as Hamas.
Hamas’s popularity in the Middle East knows no bounds. As analysts like Ed Hussein and others have noted, not only Christians and Muslims in the West Bank support Hamas’s resistance; it is the general thinking pattern of the majority of those residing in the Middle East, be they Christian, Muslim, secular or Islamist. If the West wants popular opinion to swing in its favour (which they always claim they are trying to do) they should “accept the facts on the ground” and open dialogue with Hamas. It is in the best interests of the West to have the newly emerging democracies as well as the 300 million Arabs on their side if they intend to have any influence in the region.
Even the occupying Zionist state that normally fans the fire of separation negotiated with Hamas (in both official and unofficial capacities) to secure the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. They also negotiated a ceasefire with Hamas during the last war in 2012, via the Egyptian government.
What the West fails to comprehend is that although Hamas’s image has been portrayed as extremist, they are — and have always been — moderates. If dialogue isn’t opened with them, their more radical counterparts will be tougher to deal with. The West must understand the ideological difference between the extremists on the one hand, who have no political vision and who attack indiscriminately in public areas, and on the other hand an Islamist political movement that participates in good faith in free and fair elections. Hamas has never struck anywhere outside the theatre of the occupation, for their objective is only to liberate the occupied lands.
The branding of Hamas as terrorists may have worked in the past, but today it is — to a large extent — falling on deaf ears. History bears testimony that even renowned leaders like George Washington and Nelson Mandela, together with their parties, were regarded as terrorists to suit the occupiers’ needs, whereas the world now hails them as symbols of freedom. Hamas has also come a long way and are different to the Hamas of the past. They have in recent years structured a well-run government dealing with all issues facing their society, from security to road maintenance. They have been responsive to the criticism of NGOs and human rights organisations alike. They have negotiated ceasefires, accepted the 1967 borders, abandoned suicide attacks and have generally become more flexible in their viewpoints. Far from being a failed state or “Hamastan” as critics initially purported, Gaza is safer today than it has ever been since the occupation began.
Analysts like Helena Cobban and others have noted that, “Western governments already engage in intention-probing diplomacy with many international actors whose actions are far more damaging than those of Hamas [such as North Korea].” So the question is asked for the umpteenth time, why not Hamas?
Even the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, noted that, “Hamas has demonstrated a will and a capacity to think and act pragmatically when it believes it useful or necessary. There’s no better example of this than its governance of Gaza. Yes, it continues to play the role of peace-process spoiler when that role suits its interests. But Hamas has also demonstrated a serious capacity to exercise responsibility and restraint when that role suits its purposes. It has demonstrated its ability to control Gaza effectively, to both enforce a long-term cessation of hostilities and to withstand the combined efforts of the United States, Israel, and Egypt to bring it to its knees.”
He also remarked that dialogue with Hamas is the only way forward.
Hamas itself has been willing to negotiate right from the beginning. In a letter addressed to the International Quartet very soon after their electoral win in 2006, members stressed that they, “urge members of the Quartet to intensify their diplomatic efforts to bring both sides to the negotiation table in order to discuss and forge as equal partners a solution to the ongoing conflict that is based on international law and various UN resolutions passed in this regard.” They went on to say that they, “appeal to all peace forces around the world to heed our call for dialogue, peace and justice. We call on the international community to ponder what we perceive as a fair and reasonable stance. And we urge the Quartet to engage us in direct and intimidation-free dialogue. Our ultimate object is to achieve peace for our people, and dialogue has proven the only harbinger for true peace.”
It really isn’t as if the phenomenon of Islamists and the West working hand-in-hand is something totally alien to the modern world. They worked very well together in Afghanistan and Bosnia against the invading forces, both having the same interests, which produced results that both sides were pleased with.
Is it not high time that the age-old East/West divide is bridged? Can the West afford to contrive on this cultural collision course? Will they carry on in this manner for the next millennium, or can they see that there is a better strategy in sight?
The writer is head of the Board of Trustees of the House of Wisdom, a Palestinian independent think tank in Gaza.