Hizballah today, Hamas tomorrow

British MP and member of the Viva Palestina aid convoy George Galloway receives a Palestinian passport from Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City, March 2009. (Mohama al-Ostaz/MaanImages)

On 20 March, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced that he would not use his authority to override a decision by Citizenship and Immigration Canada to bar British MP George Galloway from entering the country. Due to speak in Toronto at a public forum entitled “Resisting War from Gaza to Kandahar,” hosted by the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, Galloway received the news of his inadmissibility to enter Canada during a speaking tour in the United States. During the tour, Galloway called for a single-state option in Israel/Palestine, one between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians could live as equal citizens.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper deemed him a threat to Canada, first citing his opposition to the Afghanistan war, and later Galloway’s material and financial support of Hamas. The decision to ban Galloway on the basis that he represents a threat to national security was sparked by his participation in the Viva Palestina aid convoy bringing medical and pharmaceutical supplies, electrical generators, food, clothing and toys, ambulances and a fire engine to the besieged and devastated Gaza Strip. In fact, some of the non-medial supplies were unloaded and transferred via the Egyptian Red Cross through the Rafah border crossing under Israel’s control after being checked by the Israeli occupation forces.

Immigration minister Kenney’s refusal to override the ban on Galloway came after having received a letter on 16 March by Meir Weinstein, leader of the extremist Jewish Defense League of Canada, calling Galloway a “hater” and accusing him of being a fascist because a poster promoting one of his speeches in 2006 used the colors red and black, as Rabble Online reported on 30 March. While such uncorroborated and baseless accusations are usually ignored, Rabble Online added, Kenney used it as a focus for his refusal, supporting the decision of the Canadian High Commission on the grounds that “Ottawa believes he is a member of a terrorist organization, Hamas.”

Like most Western governments, the Harper government rejected the Hamas leadership from the moment of its sweeping victory in 2006 in the democratic Palestinian elections. But the attitude of pouting in the face of ideological and political opposition from elected groups is an outdated policy that has proved largely ineffective. The reality is that Galloway’s meeting with Hamas is part of a broader political current that is increasingly seeking to engage organized parties in the Middle East previously marginalized and alienated from the international political arena. In fact, a growing chorus of high-profile voices in Europe and North America urge the inclusion of elected representatives in the Middle East holding strongly contrasting ideological and socio-political positions to the West.

Political evolution of Hizballah as example

In early March, the Guardian (UK) reported British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell’s announcement that the British government would authorize “carefully selected contacts” with the political wing of Hizballah represented in the Lebanese parliament. The British move to re-evaluate its position toward Hizballah and open a channel for direct talks with the political wing of the organization did not come without serious condemnation from their American allies. This was quickly diluted with the realization of the inability to ignore a party representing a significant part of the population of a country. In response to the surprising shift in policy by the British, Hizballah’s deputy leader Sheik Naim Kassem welcomed the new approach, stating that the political group “has convinced the West it is a popular, authentic, and important movement that cannot be ignored,” as the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on 15 April.

The reality is that Hizballah has developed at a high level, both politically and intellectually. Its political evolution from an isolated and obscure organization into a larger party with strong popular backing concerned with its public domestic image is a direct result of Hizballah’s inclusion in the political process. Such engagement changed Hizballah from a secluded revolutionary party that once sought to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon, into a group engaged in daily governmental politics, social concerns, domestic economic development and the demands of its supporters’ organized unions.

While maintaining a firm stance in solidarity with the Palestinian national movement and keeping its independent arsenal and militia, Hizballah now deals with a range of issues including the economic development of rural areas, privatization, financing basic goods and services, and distribution of resources, and has developed alliances with Christian leaders and secular groups, including the Lebanese Communist party. The political and intellectual evolution of Hizballah serves as an important precedent where, rather than applying a policy of alienation, international parties must instead engage popular political groups in serious dialogue. This too must be conducted in ways respecting and recognizing how intensely reflective the ideological and political platform of groups such as Hizballah is of their wide and mainly grassroots support base. Indeed, while denied by British officials, their meeting with Hizballah sets a precedent for future engagement with Hamas.

Global political momentum post-Gaza war

Pleas to include Hamas in the political process are wide-ranging, and have gained momentum at a high-level since the 22-day Gaza onslaught. As reported by Haaretz, on 31 February, former British prime minister and current international Quartet envoy to the Middle East Tony Blair argued that Hamas must be brought into the peace process, stating “my basic predisposition is that in a situation like this you talk to everybody.” The “situation” Blair is referring to is the political reality that by boycotting Hamas, the global community is also sidelining the needs of the entire population of Gaza; not to mention neglecting Hamas’ strong popular base among the Palestinian people as a whole. A similar plea was made by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari on 15 April, who argued that the international community cannot choose its negotiating partners if it is serious about achieving peace. Further, in letters to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 27 European Union foreign ministers, Human Rights Watch recently called for the endorsement of the United Nations fact-finding mission, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, investigating allegations of serious violations of international law in Gaza, and urged cooperation between the international community, Israel and Hamas.

The growth of such appeals to include Hamas in the political process has caused a deep concern among the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Fatah organization. “Three years of the siege against Hamas is ending,” a senior PA negotiator was quoted as saying by World Net Daily on March 11, admitting concern that “Hamas is starting to be a legitimate player in the equation of the Mideast and the PA.”

While neither Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor any other US official expressed direct support for opening American dialogue with Hamas, recent support for a unity government between Hamas and Fatah has been expressed by the Obama administration. The PA negotiator also pointed out that “This is the first time the US has supported such a unity government. There was no objection from the US about Hamas joining the PA.”

Hamas tomorrow

To some extent, political and cultural figures are already talking to Hamas. Some observers trace the group’s recent international dialogue to Jimmy Carter’s first visit in April 2008, whereby the former US president met with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Damascus. By the time Carter met with Meshal in December for a second time, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had confirmed that Paris held talks with Hamas, Norway’s deputy foreign minister, Raymond Johansan, admitted meeting with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and World News Daily reported that Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum confirmed meeting with delegations “from the European Parliament: from France, Italy, and Norway.”

Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu followed suit in May 2008 by meeting with Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip where he led a UN fact-finding mission into the killing of 19 Palestinian civilians in a 2006 Israeli artillery attack. Most recently Northern Irish Republican leader Gerry Adams also held talks with the Hamas prime minister, and urged international dialogue with the organization after describing a scene of human and infrastructural devastation with destroyed hospitals, schools and homes.

As reported by the Guardian (UK) on 9 April, Adams pointed to Hamas’ massive popular support as a reason to politically engage the group, stating “The refusal to recognize the outcome of the ballot box in the Palestinian territories is bizarre; that they challenge people to go into elections and then when they go into elections they don’t recognize it.”

At a parliamentary level, serious European attention is also directed to the question of politically engaging Hamas. The European Union added Hamas to its list of terrorist organizations in 2003, and while keeping direct ties with the political party, it froze their assets in Europe. However, although official EU policy is to boycott Hamas, it has been reported that members of parliament from France, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe have held direct meetings with Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip, Damascus and Beirut since the second half of 2008. Considering the extent of coordinated global efforts at weeding out the organization, these meetings are conducted at a high level and are intended to encourage more Europeans to recognize Hamas as a movement with democratic legitimacy that needs to be included in any political solution aimed at alleviating the devastating situation of the Palestinian people. As stated by Irish EU parliamentarian Chris Andrew after having attended a meeting on 14 March in Damascus, and reported by Deutsche Presse-Agentur, “the more the delay, the more the suffering.”

In addition to such visits, European parliamentarians are also finding ways of bringing Hamas into European political spaces, most recently in the form of a video-conference from Damascus address by Meshal to the British parliament, organized by former Labour Cabinet minister Clare Short and Liberal Democrat representative Lord Alderdice.

Compared to European circles, the debate around political engagement with Hamas has been less seriously engaged with by political players in North America. That said, US Senator John Kerry’s visit to the devastated Gaza Strip in February received limited visibility, particularly after it was revealed that the former presidential candidate accepted a letter for President Barack Obama. Unlike claims by hysteric mainstream media outlets in the US, the acceptance of the letter is far from “legitimizing Hamas;” it did however open a space for discussion on political engagement with the organization. Also, The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the Obama administration indicated a potential financial engagement with Hamas, by asking Congress for minor changes in US law allowing federal aid to continue to Palestinians should Hamas officials become part of a reconciled Palestinian government, however unlikely.

Since Kerry’s visit, The Boston Globe reported on 14 March, nine former senior US officials and one current adviser are urging the Obama administration to talk with leaders of Hamas to determine whether the group can be persuaded to disarm and join a “peaceful” Palestinian government. However limited the compromise, calls for deeper international engagement with Hamas by top US military officials and political advisers is a major departure from current US policy, one which took root during the latest Gaza war. During the last days of the recent Gaza attacks, President Obama was urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine dialogue as an alternative to the counter-productive policy of ostracizing Hamas, according to the Guardian (UK). Similar to the secret process through which the US engaged with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s, the Guardian added, initiating contact between Hamas and US intelligence services through “secret envoys [or] multilateral six-party talk-like approaches” is being considered by the new administration.

Despite its growth, the move toward engaging Hamas is taking too long. Present dialogue is far from the political involvement necessary to meet the needs and satisfy the just claims of the Palestinian people, particularly those in the Gaza Strip. Reluctant Arab and Western governments must recognize that high-level dialogue with Hamas is going to happen. It must. At both a humanitarian and political level, there is no way of providing the required aid to the besieged population of Gaza, or of prompting the stalled dialogue on a Palestinian state without Hamas. In fact, the raw aggression of Operation Cast Lead generated massive popular support for Hamas from the Palestinian population across the dividing borders. The results of the public opinion poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in January 2009 found a rise in Hamas’s popularity, particularly in the West Bank. Public trust in the Hamas movement, faith in its leadership, and satisfaction of the performance of its government swelled after Israel’s latest Gaza operation. Rest assured, Hamas isn’t going anywhere.

At this point, it’s just a matter of playing the costly waiting game.

Shourideh Molavi has worked with numerous Palestinian-Arab civil society organizations located in Gaza City, the West Bank and inside Israel proper. Her most recent post was at MADA al-Carmel - the Arab Center for Applied Social Research, an independent research institute located in Haifa, Israel.