Why Hamas Resists Recognizing Israel

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Palestinian Muslims are currently joining the faithful the world over in denying themselves food between sunrise and sundown. But while most Muslims elsewhere break their Ramadan fast with sumptuous iftar meals, those unfortunate enough to live in the West Bank and Gaza are finding that they have less and less to put on the table come nightfall. That's because they remain under a financial siege imposed by Israel, the U.S. and Europe, in the hope of forcing Hamas, the Palestinian ruling party, to recognize Israel. The premise of the siege strategy appears to be that by increasing Palestinian misery, domestic pressure will mount on Hamas to submit or quit.

But such collective punishment may be as misguided as it is cruel; even if it did work, any "recognition" achieved this way would mean little in the pursuit of peace. An authoritative Palestinian polling organization last week released telling findings on Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza. It found 54% of voters dissatisfied with Hamas's performance in government, the figure rising to 69% when it came to financial matters such as payment of salaries. Only 38% would vote for Hamas in an election now. But when asked whether Hamas should submit to the Western demand that it recognize Israel, 67% said no.

Clearly, it's not simply some extreme Islamist fringe that favors withholding recognition — it's a majority consensus that includes many of the voters of President Mahmoud Abbas's own Fatah party. In part, as Israeli commentator Danny Rubinstein notes, that reflects a widely held belief among Palestinians that "Yasser Arafat and the PLO recognized the State of Israel in the Oslo agreement and what did they gain from that? Only suffering and misfortune." In fact, as Rubinstein notes, the settler population in the West Bank actually doubled during the Oslo years.

Even the Arab League proposal that Abbas is demanding Hamas accept as the basis for a unity government offers only conditional recognition — the Arab states would normalize relations with Israel if it agrees to withdraw to its 1967 borders. Hamas likes to dodge the issue by pointing out that Israel has no intention of doing that.

The question of recognizing Israel is difficult for Hamas or any other Palestinian organization, ultimately, because of the meaning of Israel in the Palestinian national story. In the Western and Israeli narrative, Israel's creation is seen as redress for centuries of Jewish suffering in Europe culminating in the Holocaust. In the Palestinian and Arab narrative, Israel's creation meant the violent displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and another Arab humiliation at Western hands. So, while May 15 is celebrated by Israelis as Yom Haatzmaut (independence day), the Palestinians mark the same day as the somber anniversary of Al-Nakbah (the catastrophe), the moment when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost everything.

The idea of the triumph of one people being the tragedy of another is eloquently captured in Sandy Tolan's book, The Lemon Tree — essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the difficulty in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tolan chronicles the true story of Dalia Eshkenazi, whose family flees post-Holocaust Bulgaria in 1948 to live the Zionist dream of building a Jewish state in the Holy Land. The new Israeli government provides them with an abandoned Arab house in the town of Ramla, in which she grows up. One summer morning in 1967, she's sitting in the garden near the old lemon tree, when Bashir Khairi knocks on the gate. Khairi is the son of the man who planted the lemon tree; he was born in the house and lived there until age 4, when he and his family, and hundreds of others, were forced onto buses by Israeli soldiers and driven to the West Bank, where they have lived as refugees ever since. The fraught and complex friendship that ensues between Dalia — a committed Zionist who wants justice for the Palestinians — and Bashir, a Palestinian militant who insists on his right of return to his home, allows for a rare frank dialogue based on mutual respect and an honest acknowledgment of the past, and of the difficulty of resolving the present. There's no happy ending or resolution, but their mutual recognition offers some sort of hope.

It's the clash of narratives described by Tolan that ultimately fuels the controversy over Hamas recognizing Israel. Hamas's dramatic election victory came precisely because the Palestinian electorate judged Fatah to have failed. To simply demand, as Israel and the Western powers are doing, that Hamas now echo Fatah's symbolic recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence is pointless. Fatah recognized the State of Israel only because it had become clear to them that Israel was an irreversible historical fact. But that certainly did not stop Fatah's rank and file from taking up arms during the intifada that began in September 2000. Ask Mahmoud Abbas or any other moderate Palestinian leader whether they would rather Israel had not come into being in 1948, and there can be no doubt of the honest answer.

Many intelligence professionals eschew torture because they know that it tends to yield the answers that the suspect thinks his interrogators want to hear — not necessarily the truth. In some respects, there may be a similar effect in trying to throttle the Palestinians into submission. It's not inconceivable that at some point Hamas might find a formula for recognizing Israel in order to put food on Palestinian tables. But such a recognition would speak more to the boot on their necks than to any change in their hearts.