Thursday 25 December 2008

What Next with Hamas?

So, Hamas has declared that the ceasefire is now over. Many claim "what ceasefire?", and with some justification. Things have certainly been quieter since the ceasefire was implemented. But attacks have, nonetheless, continued throughout the period. Besides a short-term convenience for both sides, to what extent has the ceasefire contributed to a longer-term peace in the region? or not? And what happens now that the ceasefire is over? In order to answer the question completely, it is necessary to examine Hamas in more depth.

Hamas was formed in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Mohammad Taha. Although there are a number of differing theories about the exact meaning of its name, it is generally accepted that it is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. Immediately after its formation, the first intifada broke out, which popularised the use of suicide bombings in addition to other attacks on civilians and security forces. Some of the most notorious suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, including the Dolphinarium attack and the Passover attack, were carried out by Hamas during this period. The Hamas charter calls for a destruction of Israel, a point which its leaders choose to emphasize and de-emphasize according to the political game being played at any given point in time. Although Hamas is first and foremost an armed resistance movement that aims to achieve its goals through Islamic Jihad, it also runs an extensive social network. It has gained huge popularity throughout the West Bank and Gaza in running hospitals, libraries, educational institutions and other welfare organisations. Ironically, this aspect of its activities can be paralleled with the manner in which the Shas party also achieved great popularity in its constituency.

There is no escaping the fact that Hamas, in its charter and in its actions, has as its primary objective the destruction of Israel. As such, the concept of a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is a contradiction in terms. The Israeli government and nation need to internalise that Hamas will never live peacefully alongside Israel. Any tactics that may be adopted along the way, such as a temporary ceasefire, are only tactics to assist Hamas to achieve its final objective. A ceasefire, even though it brings a respite for the citizens of southern Israel, is also a useful tool for Hamas to allow it to take a break and rearm itself. This should not be interpreted to mean that Hamas is becoming more tolerant towards Israel, or may be considering acceptance of Israel's right to exist. This is totally contrary to what Hamas believes in, or stands for.

The only way to deal with Hamas is to declare it an enemy terrorist organisation, and deal with it accordingly. This is made extremely difficult by the humanitarian responsibility that Israel currently has towards the citizens of Gaza. Whilst it has been a useful switch for Israel to use in modulating pressure on Gaza, Hamas and its citizens, the truth is that it is impossible for Israel to be both an enemy and responsible for the welfare of the citizens. This latter responsibility should be relinquished at the earliest opportunity to allow Israel to treat Hamas as the enemy that it is.

Olmert is quoted in the press in recent days encouraging the citizens of Gaza to reject their Hamas rulers. This is the equivalent of requesting that lower-class religious Jews of Middle Eastern extraction to reject Shas as the party that best represents their interests. Barring some extreme occurrence, it will not happen any time soon. In addition, the Israeli government's policy of acting to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah party in an attempt to weaken Hamas also appears misguided. This policy has cost hundreds of Fatah prisoners released from Israeli jails after being held on counts of terrorism and other criminal activities, and delivered no tangible results that the government can point to. Let us not forget that the Fatah party remains the same one led by Yasser Arafat, who was exposed as a liar and a cheat. Despite signing a declaration to remove the call for the destruction of Israel from the Fatah charter, Arafat found every way to try to present that this had been achieved despite the fact that it was not. To this day, the Fatah charter remains unchanged in this respect, and Abbas has made no effort to take any action on this point.

But this is all in the medium or longer-term. Right now, rockets are falling indiscriminately on southern Israel and are aimed at any and every civilian location in range. Israel is obliged to respond accordingly in defence of its citizens. And the dirty tactic of placing civilians in the way of possible military action should not deter the Israeli response. Whilst it is clear that Israel makes every effort to prevent "collateral damage" in the war that it is forced to wage, this risk should not be an obstacle in the job that has to be done.

The medium-term political game needs a greater level of thought applied to get it right. For now, though, a short, sharp and highly effective strike on Gaza is required to put a stop to Hamas and its bombing tactics.

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