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Hamas talks

May 19, 2010

Meetings in recent months between US officials and senior representatives of Hamas signal a US and European backchannel effort to explore ways of drawing militant Palestinians into a renewed Arab-Israeli peace process.

Hamas supporters
US and EU officials want to get Hamas back to the negotiating tableImage: AP

With the US and allied forces battling militants in Afghanistan and Iraq, the contacts are part of a broader exploration of ways to involve militant groups in resolving conflict. They come amid renewed debate about the effectiveness of sanctioning militant groups by putting them on terrorist watch lists and freezing whatever assets authorities can identify.

They also coincide with a discussion in Europe about ways to draw Hamas into peace talks with Israel while continuing to insist that it recognize Israel, denounce terrorism and accept past Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

The peace quartet, which groups the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia in efforts to achieve a Middle East peace, has insisted Hamas meet those conditions before it can participate in a peace process.

In the most recent US contact with Hamas, the State Department gave a rare green light to US diplomat Rachel I. Schneller, to publicly debate Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon who often acts as the group's spokesman, during a forum in Doha organized by the state-run Qatar Foundation.

Schneller's meeting with Hamdan followed discussions in Zurich between Hamdan and Gaza-based senior Hamas official Mahmud Zahar, widely viewed as one of the organization's hardliners, and a group of former US and European officials that included Thomas R. Pickering, an Arabic and Hebrew speaking former US Undersecretary of State and ambassador to the United Nations, Israel and Jordan; Robert Malley, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group's Middle East program director and former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs and former British UN ambassado Sir Jeremy Weinstock.

Describing Hamas as "“a difficult group to deal with," Pickering said the fact that there were far fewer rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel indicated that "Israel and Hamas may understand something" that is "seemingly happening now."

Hamas has not fired rockets at Israel in more than a year. When more radical militants attacked Israel in early April, Hamas made clear that it was pressuring those groups to abide by its de facto ceasefire with Israel. In a statement, Hamas said it was "making contact with the factions to safeguard internal agreement."

The enemy within

The more militant groups, including Hamas dissidents, are too weak to seriously challenge Hamas, but accuse it on the Internet of betraying the Palestinian resistance. The radicals are believed to be responsible for a recent series of bomb attacks targeting Hamas security officials.

Pickering said it "was important to encourage them (Hamas) to deal towards a negotiated solution." The former official suggested that this may be achieved by initially focusing on concrete steps rather than the immediate fulfillment of the Quartet's conditions.

One such step, Pickering said, would be the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas in 2006. In late April, Hamas released an elaborately-produced cartoon aimed at pressuring Israel to restart negotiations for Shalit's release.

Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit
The release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would go a long way to easing tensions between Israel and HamasImage: AP

The cartoon shows Shalit's father with a photo of his son walking past posters of Israeli politicians promising his son's return. Clips of two recordings of Shalit since his capture play in the background. Throughout the cartoon, the father grows progressively older. Toward the end, the father is shown receiving his son's flag-draped coffin at which point he wakes up and realizes he was dreaming.

Speaking to reporters Zahar, one of Pickering's Hamas interlocutors, denounced the video's message. "We have not killed in the past and will never kill captive Israeli soldiers," Zahar said, "Our morals prevent us from doing so."

Another practical step, Hamas and Israel could focus on is agreement on security arrangements that would allow for a freer flow of goods and people across the Egyptian-Gaza border and persuade Israel to loosen its Egyptian-aided economic stranglehold of Gaza - a move seen as crucial to the peace process by the Obama administration.

High expectations

Palestinian officials close to Hamas said the group was interested in engaging with the United States, but believed it should only do so once Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves office. The officials said Hamas did not doubt US sincerity, but believed President Barak Obama had not lived up to the expectations he raised in his tone-setting speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last year.

Hamas, the officials said, had further concluded that Obama's failure to persuade Netanyahu to declare a full halt to Jewish settlement of the West Bank demonstrated US inability to impose its will on Netanyahu.

"Hamas wonders why it should give in now when for sure it will get nothing out of it. The Americans are more ready than ever to go after Hamas if it shows gradual concern. The problem is Hamas thinks this is happening out of US and European weakness," said one Palestinian official who maintains close relations with Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well as senior US and European officials.

Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanjahu
Israel was often left frustrated by the late PLO leader Yasser ArafatImage: AP

Pickering as well as the Palestinian officials noted that the US-Hamas dance in some ways resembled the decade long efforts by the US and Europe to coax the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat into accepting the same conditions they expect Hamas to endorse. Then like now, prisoner exchanges played a role.

History revisited

In the 1980s, Israel worked with German and Austrian intermediaries to exchange Palestinians for Israelis held by the PLO at a time that it refused to deal with the Palestinian movement. Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin went as far as inviting a senior PLO representative to inspect Israeli-controlled prisons in southern Lebanon in a letter reviewed by this reporter. The PLO declined the Israeli invitation.

Similar efforts in recent years to secure the release of Shalit have been mired by the feuding between Abbas and Hamas.

Some analysts believe that arrangements that would ease Israeli isolation of Gaza and improve economic conditions in the Strip would accelerate efforts to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that could bring Hamas into the fold.

Mounting Palestinian criticism of Hamas from within Gaza as well as the group's struggle to fund the administration of the Strip have increased pressure on the group to break the economic stranglehold. Hamas official Jamal Nasser recently warned that the Hamas government was groping with a financial crisis.

Hamas in March, unable to meet the government payroll, seized $400,000 in funds belonging to the Palestine Authority that had been frozen in a local bank.

Europe, as the largest donor to the Palestinians, could play a major role in easing economic hardship and breaking the internal Palestinian stalemate despite the fact that it has painted itself into a corner by funneling funds only to Abbas' Palestine Authority dominated by his Fatah movement and boycotting Hamas, the analysts said.

"European donors should take aid out of the hands of the feckless elites that rule the roost on both the Fatah and Hamas sides. The need is to assist in the bottom-up democratic capacity of Palestinian society, by routing its aid to grassroots organizations. Only this can give citizens a sense of ownership and the incentive to overcome factionalism, as a necessary first step to negotiating terms with Israel," Richard Youngs, director of FRIDE, a Madrid-based thinktank, told Deutsche Welle.

Author: James M. Dorsey
Editor: Rob Mudge