Hamas and the West

“We are willing to open up to everyone except Israel.” So said Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal in an interview with the Qatari-based Al Jazeera Satellite Channel on May 25, summing up the overall approach of the movement. Mashaal also confirmed that Hamas had been holding contacts with international and European parties for some time and said these contacts were never severed, but varied only in frequency in accordance with changing conditions at different periods.

One of Hamas’ most basic and significant goals over the years has been to open lines of communication with the Arab world and convince its neighbors it is a liberation rather than a terrorist movement. This has become especially pressing since Hamas became a major force in the Palestinian street, not just competing neck-and-neck with Fateh, but sometimes surpassing in popularity the traditional Palestinian party of power, as was seen in the most recent municipal elections.

Ever since Hamas’ inception in 1987 with the outbreak of the first intifada, it has been seeking to expand its platform in its Arab and international surroundings. As the movement grew increasingly prominent with the escalation of its military operations against Israeli occupation forces, Arab and international interest in the movement also increased. Soon it became the focus of attention for many observers and analysts, who viewed its emergence as a turning point in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and an indication of a widespread Islamic renaissance, which was becoming increasingly involved in political life. In addition, its victory in the municipal elections, its willingness to participate in Palestinian Legislative Council elections and its ever growing political participation in general, granted Hamas a wider platform to open the door to the West, which had put it on its list of terrorist organizations.

Two years after the movement was established, in 1989, a limited effort by some Hamas leaders abroad to forge relationships with the outside world began. They succeeded in opening some lines of communication with a few European countries eager to understand the nature of Hamas and its approaches.

According to leading Hamas figure in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, Hamas’ policy is based on openness with everyone. Still, Hamas is treading lightly when it comes to opening up to the western world for fear of what it describes as “attempts to contain the Islamic movements in the Arab world”.

As far as the Hamas leadership is concerned, the US follows just such a policy of containment, and Hamas is not interested in speaking to Washington just because it is Washington. The movement is afraid that, as with so many other Arab power centers, it will be forced to “grovel at America’s feet” at the expense of the Palestinian cause.

On the mainstream Palestinian political scene there is now a growing consensus that the West must understand that Hamas cannot be ignored in any attempt to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Hamas leaders will point out that, particularly among European countries, contacts have been ongoing for years, and while ebbing, particularly when the EU put the movement on its list of terrorist organizations, never stopped completely.

Indeed, a former British intelligence officer seconded to the EU, Alistair Crooke, spoke quite plainly about EU-Hamas contacts recently in several articles, and also pointed out that Britain’s Middle East policies are inextricably linked with Washington’s.

It is clear that European countries have greater room for maneuver in this respect, but it is equally clear that the US is keen to understand what Hamas is all about. Indeed, Mashaal has said that at the beginning of 2004, Americans and Hamas sat down to discuss various possibilities, and, according to Mashaal, the US tried to “entice” Hamas to end its resistance with various offers. Only after Hamas refused came the assassinations of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the group’s spiritual leader and founder, and his replacement in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

If that is the perception of the course of events, it will have strengthened the belief within Hamas that the US, unlike the Europeans, does not want to negotiate; it only wants to dictate. And as Hamas gains greater public acceptance in the mainstream among Palestinians, the lack of contact between Hamas and the US will only hinder progress toward a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since Hamas has already declared itself ready for a dialogue with the US, the ball is now in Washington’s court.