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Special Report
Last Updated: 08/07/2008
Hamas: Behind the masks
Rami Khouri

Key Words: Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Terrorism, Hamas, Negotiation, International Law, Peace, security, Coexistance

Israel, the United States, and some other countries reject dealing with Hamas because they see it purely as a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel's destruction. The reality is more complex.

Hamas certainly has committed acts of terror against Israeli civilians, and it must be held accountable for them — in a context in which all who commit murder and terror in the Middle East are similarly held accountable, including Israelis, Arabs, Iranians, Americans and Britons.

Hamas argues that its actions are legitimate resistance against a much more brutal Israeli war against Palestinian civilians — a war that uses terror, assassination, kidnapping, starvation, imprisonment, colonization, apartheid-like segregation and more. We remain stalemated, but also at war.

This important issue may hold the key to peace. To make progress toward true peace, the world should judge and engage Hamas on the same basis used in the case of other militant or terrorist groups around the world, including the Irish Republican Army, the Viet Cong, the African National Congress, Namibia's SWAPO, and, more recently, the Taliban and "insurgents" of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

This approach typically comprises four critical components: Talk to the group in question rather than shunning it; make clear the objectionable and unacceptable actions that must stop; identify the legitimate demands that can be met; and negotiate as equals to achieve a win-win situation. This stops the terrorism, removes the underlying reasons for it, satisfies all sides' minimum demands and achieves peace and security.

The key to achieving this is to analyze and deal with Hamas in the total context of its actions, not just through the narrow lens of its terrorist acts. This means understanding and addressing the six R's that Hamas represents: resistance, respect, reciprocity, reconstruction, rights, and refugees.

  •  RESISTANCE against Israeli occupation and aggression is Hamas's main task, and the key operative verb in its Arabic-language name: Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya ("Islamic resistance movement"). It resists, defies and actively fights Israel by attempting to delegitimize it and refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy until Israel decides to acknowledge Palestinian national rights and integrity in return.
  •  Achieving RESPECT is an intangible but crucial part of Hamas's battle; it has been achieved in part by Israel's agreement to two ceasefire accords with the group, and a third is likely on the way, perhaps followed by a prisoner exchange.
  •  RECIPROCITY, the application of respect in tangible political form, requires Israelis and Palestinians to deal with each other, and to be treated by the world, according to the same rules and criteria — for instance, on the use of violence, application of the Geneva Conventions, political engagement and implementation of United Nations resolutions. It also applies to reciprocal statehood with Israel, which Hamas now says it will accept if Israel withdraws from the occupied territories and implements UN resolutions on refugee rights.
  •  The RECONSTRUCTION of Palestinian society, and an end to the chaos, corruption, insecurity, abuse of power and political floundering that defined the Fatah-dominated years are key reasons why Hamas has grown in stature and credibility. Its attraction to voters is related to domestic issues, and a quest for dignified, normal daily life, as much as it is to fighting Israel.
  •  A central pillar of Hamas's legitimacy and popularity is its insistence that the Palestinian people have individual and collective national RIGHTS that must be exercised in the form of freedom, sovereignty and security; if they must battle for their rights militarily, then so be it.
  •  A final important aspect of the Hamas political program is its insistence that the Palestinian national struggle comprises several dimensions that together form an integrated whole, including territory, comprehensive individual and national rights, and a just resolution of the REFUGEE issue. Hamas reminds Israel and the world that this conflict is about the events of 1947 and 1948, not just 1967. It says that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is neither a just and comprehensive resolution of the conflict, nor anywhere near compliance with international law and legitimacy.

These six basic aspects of Hamas's world view and political program should be appreciated more clearly by those who claim to seek to promote an Arab-Israeli peacemaking process. They form a coherent foundation for potential negotiations, peace, security and coexistence — but only on the basis of respect, reciprocity and a single rule of law that applies to all.

Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star in Beirut, is also director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.