The Islamist radical movement Hamas – designated a terrorist organization by Canada, Japan, the United States, European Union and Israel – made headlines that it is in favor of “non-violent, popular resistance.” On December 17, Fatah leader Mohammed Shtayyeh declared that Hamas has decided to renounce violence and will embrace the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
If this unprecedented announcement is true, Hamas would now satisfy two of the three demands which the Middle East Quartet (US, UN, EU, and Russia) insist are a necessary requirement to negotiate with the Islamist movement. The remaining precondition, that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, is a demand not only from the Quartet but also by Turkish President Abdullah Gul. However, Hamas would most likely only recognize Israel’s de fact0 – not de jure existence after an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is reached.
While some pundits and analysts have welcomed this sudden shift in Hamas’ policy, the United States should proceed with caution. On December 14, just three days before Hamas’ supposedly nonviolent shift in tactics, a Hamas rally in Gaza celebrated the thousands of rockets launched into Israel and the number of fatalities and injuries it has inflicted. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh advocated that a pan-Arab army “liberate” Jerusalem and Palestine “from the river to the sea.”
In this instance, Hamas appears to be mimicking a pattern of double-speak reminiscent of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. During the weeks preceding the 1967 War, Nasser and his state-run media repeatedly called for the liquidation of Israel. Yet after Egypt’s humiliating defeat, a more humbled Nasser advocated “liquidating the consequences of aggression” – a more abstract concept which ostensibly implied liberating the territories Israel occupied during the war including the West Bank, Old City of Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Sinai, and Golan Heights. While not rejecting the possibility of eventually eliminating Israel proper, Nasser maintained the flexibility to depict Israel as an illegitimate, artificial colonial outpost since its independence in 1948 – which he referred to as al-nakba (the catastrophe).
The Oslo Accords during the 1990s hoped to usher in a new era of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but Arafat frequently repudiated in Arabic the moderate declarations he voiced in English to a Western audience. While purportedly condemning terror attacks against Israel, he never abandoned armed struggle and violence.
It is too early to judge whether Hamas has adopted a new strategic policy which the United States and Israel should take seriously or if its decision to embrace popular, non-violent resistance represents merely another tactic to gain favor with the West. What is clear is that Hamas has become politically and militarily weakened after the following events:
- a major setback and defeat by Israel from Operation Cast Lead (2008-09);
- expulsion from its political headquarters in Damascus for not publicly supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal anti-regime crackdown;
- realization that Gazans may become emboldened to turn against Hamas in response to the Arab Spring, in which citizens have successfully deposed dictators from Tunisia and Egypt and have lynched Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Therefore, a comprehensive examination of Hamas’ rhetoric and actions both in Arabic and English must be thoroughly scrutinized to prevent past mistakes.