“The next logical step” for the Israeli government “will have to be a decision whether to target the top political leadership” of Hamas. So said an Israeli official quoted in The Jerusalem Post. Tzahi Hanegbi, a senior member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party and chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, echoed the call, arguing that “There’s no difference between those who wear a suicide suit and a diplomat’s suit.” Following a cabinet meeting on 10 February, Israel’s Interior Minister Shimon Sheetrit specifically called for the execution of Ismail Haniyeh, the democratically-elected Hamas prime minister, and added that for good measure “We must take a neighborhood in Gaza and wipe it off the map.”
Last September, Yossi Alpher, the co-founder of the European Union-funded publication Bitterlemons, wrote an article advocating “decapitating the Hamas leadership, both military and ‘civilian.’” Alpher, a former special adviser to Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak when the latter was prime minister, worried that Israel would “pay a price in terms of international condemnation,” for “targeting legally elected Hamas officials who won a fair election,” but that overall it would be well worth it.
Executing democratically-elected leaders may require more chutzpah than even Israel has shown, but the possibility and its disastrous consequences have to be taken seriously given Israel’s track record. Israel executed Hamas’ elderly, quadriplegic and wheelchair-bound co-founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in 2004, followed shortly afterwards by the execution his successor as the movement’s leader, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Aside from the United States, Israel is the only country where the murder of foreign leaders is openly debated as a policy option.
Israeli official propaganda presents all its recent actions as defensive and necessary to stop the rockets fired by Palestinian fighters in Gaza. But if Israel’s goal was to achieve calm and a cessation of violence, the first logical step would not be to contemplate new atrocities, but to respond positively to Hamas’ repeated ceasefire proposals.
When it was elected in January 2006, Hamas had observed a unilateral ceasefire for more than a year. After the election, Hamas’ leaders offered a long-term total truce, tentatively following the political path of other militant groups including the Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose 1994 ceasefire paved the way for the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. (In December, US President George W. Bush received Martin McGuinness, former second in command of the IRA, and now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, at the White House.)
Last December, Haaretz reported that Hamas had secured the agreement of all factions to end rocket fire on Israel, provided Israel reciprocated. Hamas was also engaged in indirect negotiations for the release of Palestinian political prisoners in exchange for an Israeli prisoner of war held in Gaza.
Olmert rejected the December ceasefire offer. “The State of Israel,” he said, “has no interest in negotiating with entities that do not recognize the Quartet demands.” In other words there could be no ceasefire until Hamas unilaterally accepted all of Israel’s demands before negotiations could even begin.
The problem was not that Israeli officials did not believe Hamas could deliver. Barak was reported to be in favor of considering a hudna — a renewed truce, and a “senior Israeli security official” told Haaretz that “There’s no doubt that Hamas is capable of forcing a let-up on Islamic Jihad and the other small factions in the Strip … It won’t be a 100 percent decrease, but even 98 percent would be a big change.” (“Olmert rejects Hamas cease-fire offer,” Haaretz, 25 December 2007).
If even Israel believed that Hamas could reliably enforce a truce, why does it refuse to accept one? Why has it refused to engage with Hamas, as American and British policy-makers did with the IRA?
For Israel the potential that Hamas could turn to politics presents a threat, not an opportunity. Israel has no interest in facing Palestinian leaders who are at once committed to basic Palestinian rights, capable of delivering, and enjoy popular legitimacy and support.
So instead of engaging with Hamas, the US and Israel announced a complete boycott which was intended to turn the Palestinian population against the movement.
At the same time, the peace process show relaunched in Annapolis last November, followed by the international donors meeting in Paris where pledges of cash were showered on the Palestinian Authority to elevate the unelected, Israeli-backed Ramallah “government” of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad in the eyes of Palestinians. With this renewed patronage and prestige, Abbas and company were to be pushed to sign a deal giving up Palestinian refugee rights and agreeing to a Palestinian Bantustan under permanent Israeli domination.
Of course much more than Hamas stands in the way of the fulfillment of this Israeli fantasy. The Palestinian people would unite against such a deal. But Hamas is the most visible and well-organized obstacle.
Rather than breaking under pressure, Hamas has made some impressive tactical gains, even as Gaza’s agony increases. Even the dubious opinion polls that come out of EU-funded non-governmental organizations showed Hamas enjoying an upsurge of support after the breach of the Gaza-Egypt border. But with Israel and its backers steadfast in refusing to grant Hamas a political role, not even in operating the border crossings, the movement has no way to translate these tactical victories into strategic gains. Except for one: in the arena of world public opinion.
Israel and Egypt, the two countries most responsible for the blockade of Gaza, were deeply embarrassed by the popular surge that temporarily broke the siege. No recent event has done as much to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians and expose Israel’s crimes to international scrutiny. But one such action is not enough; already, Israel and Egypt with support from the quisling regime in Ramallah, the EU and the US are trying to reimpose the blockade. (In a repulsive echo of Yitzhak Rabin’s infamous order to Israeli soldiers during the first Intifada to break the bones of Palestinians, Egypt’s foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit promised to do the same to Palestinians if they continued to enter Egypt.)
Some Hamas leaders appear to understand the necessity and indeed the risks of mass, nonviolent resistance. “The next time there is a crisis in the Gaza Strip, Israel will have to face half a million Palestinians who will march toward Erez [crossing with Israel],” said Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisor to Ismail Haniyeh. “This is not an imaginary scenario and many Palestinians would be prepared to sacrifice their lives.” Properly planned, repeated mass actions of this kind could galvanize public opinion in Arab and European countries and even North America forcing some governments to abandon the pro-Israel consensus.
But here is where the great danger lies: with its escalation in Gaza and refusal to accept a ceasefire, Israel may be trying to provoke more rocket attacks and force Hamas into abandoning its political strategy altogether to provide the needed pretext to “decapitate” the organization. Unfortunately, there are signs that Hamas is jumping into the trap.
Some Hamas political leaders appeared to have been taken by surprise when the movement’s military wing took credit for a suicide attack inside Israel for the first time since 2004. The attack in the Israeli town of Dimona on 6 February killed an elderly woman as well as the bomber. As a consequence of Israel’s and the “international community’s” rejection of all of Hamas’ political initiatives, those within the organization advocating a resumption of full-scale armed struggle may be gaining the upper hand.
If they make such a tragic miscalculation, Israeli leaders may breathe a sigh of relief. After all, Israel is much more comfortable with rockets falling on Sderot, than it would be with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians marching on the checkpoints in Gaza or the West Bank.
The next logical step is for all Palestinian leaders still loyal to their people’s cause to work together to mobilize the population, not to gain factional advantage, but to expose Israeli apartheid to a sustained and irresistible surge of people power.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).