On June 20, 2007, Hamas leader Ahmed Yousuf published an opinion piece entitled "Engage with Hamas" in the American capital's premier newspaper, the Washington Post. After a brief but bloody struggle with the nominally secular Fatah faction, Yousuf's faction had only days earlier seized control of the Gaza Strip. Now in command of its own mini-state, the terrorist organization felt sufficiently emboldened to make a call for international recognition. "Hamas is stronger than ever," Yousuf gloated.1
In making its call to Washington elites, Hamas sought to encourage the growing number of voices calling for engagement with the terrorist group. Their narrative held that Hamas is pragmatic, even if it is violent, and can therefore be persuaded to make peace.
Ironically, the notion that Hamas could play the role of peacemaker first gained popularity during a period when the group was engaged in one of its most brutally violent campaigns. During the al-Aqsa Intifada, launched jointly by Hamas and Fatah in the wake of failed U.S.-led peace talks in late 2000 and early 2001, Western officials began reaching out to the group. In June 2002, former MI-6 officer and special European Union envoy to the Middle East Alistair Crooke, former CIA operative Milton Bearden, and other Western officials met with representatives from Hamas at the private, London-based Conflicts Forum.
"We need to engage those groups who have legitimacy, and listen to them...not listening and not talking to them prevents us from having the right analysis and the right tools," Crooke said. 2
In an atmosphere of heightened terrorism awareness, it had somehow become insufficient to state that the West should not engage Hamas simply because it is a terrorist group. Nor was it sufficient to state that the group's 1988 charter (mithaq), which was never amended, openly calls for jihad, and further notes that "initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement."3
Even as Hamas's campaign of violence against Israeli civilians intensified, it was somehow banal to state that the organization was responsible for thousands of acts of political violence, ranging from suicide bombings and rocket fire to shootings and stabbings of Israeli civilians. Proponents of engagement with Hamas suggested then, as they do now, that one must differentiate between the military arm of the organization, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and the political bureau or the significant social welfare infrastructure the group has built over the years.
Proponents of engagement cede that the Qassam Brigades may be terrorists, but insist that terrorist activities are not the bulk of Hamas's work. In fact, in 2002, even amidst a heightened Hamas campaign against Israel, the EU added the Qassam Brigades to its list of terrorist groups, but not Hamas itself. 4
The U.S. Treasury Department, however, soon breached this purported firewall between the wings of Hamas. In 2003, one Treasury designation, drawing from declassified intelligence, noted explicitly that "While Hamas may provide money for legitimate charitable work, this work is a primary recruiting tool for the organization's militant causes... Charitable donations to non-governmental organizations are commingled, moved between charities in ways that hide the money trail, and then often diverted or siphoned to support terrorism."5 Soon after a 2003 bus bombing which killed 23 in Jerusalem,6 the EU added both Hamas's military and political wings to its terrorist list.7
Nevertheless, the arguments that Hamas was a pragmatic political entity continued. Calls for engagement intensified when the organization officially entered politics in 2005, and announced that it would participate in the January 2006 elections. In November 2005, the EU announced that it would send an observer mission to monitor legislative Palestinian elections, and that it would have contact with all parties, including Hamas.8
Calls for engagement intensified after Hamas won those elections, which were deemed both free and fair. However, Western countries maintained a united front against normalizing relations with the group, given its refusal to renounce violence and unwillingness to engage in dialogue with Israel. However, these capitols ceded that if Hamas renounced violence, they would begin a process of normalization. Hamas refused.
The coup of June 2007, in which Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah by force – committing gruesome acts of violence against fellow Palestinians in the process9 – was yet another indication that the organization was not interested in dialogue. However, the internecine war also made Hamas a government overnight. In many ways, the organization's new responsibilities as a government forced it to become more pragmatic. Realizing that violence would elicit painful Israeli responses like Operation Cast Lead of December 2008 and January 2009, Hamas has reined in (but did not halt completely) the rocket fire that had terrorized Israelis for nearly a decade. It has, since Operation Cast Lead ended, also ensured that the border between the two territories has remained relatively (but not completely) calm.
While the group began firing projectiles into Israel again in March 2011, Hamas has generally exceeded the low expectations placed on it by the international community. Rather than leading the Gaza Strip into the abyss of violence and all-out war with Israel, as many predicted, Hamas has (until now) stopped just short. It continues to arm itself and occasionally tests the limits of Israeli patience with rocket attacks that don't create quite enough damage to unleash a full Israeli retaliation. Indeed, Hamas for two years has chosen to avoid war. Perhaps this is why European policymakers seek to reward the group with dialogue.10
But to assess whether Hamas has truly moderated, or whether it has only pragmatically chosen to scale back on violence for reasons of self-preservation, one must take a closer look at the views and opinions of Hamas members today. Only this can provide a sense of the organization's future. To this end, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies employed military-grade software last year to gain a better understanding of what the organization's partisans do and say.11
The study found little to support the notion that Hamas has moderated. The study found, inter alia, that Hamas was actively working to reconcile its ideology with Salafists and other radical interpretations of Islam. Hamas and al-Qaeda sympathizers debated religion and politics on many levels, but regarding violence toward Israel, there was no disagreement between the Salafists and Hamas. Similarly, Hamas supporters were unwavering in their support for the aforementioned Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
More importantly, the Palestinian social media environment gives no indication that Hamas is willing to seek peace with Israel. There were no scored posts on this topic on any of the pro-Hamas forums. Nor were there any posts attributed to pro-Hamas users on this topic on other web forums. Indeed, the dominant position among Hamas users was rejectionist.
Of course, online data cannot, in and of itself, make the case against engagement with Hamas. However, it does mirror the unwavering rejectionist, violent, and anti-peace stance of the organization in the public space that has endured since Hamas's founding in late 1987. In short, there is little that might lead one to believe that Hamas is prepared for dialogue with Israel that might lead to peace.
For those who seek to engage with Hamas, however, there is usually another prong to the strategy: tougher policies against Israel. This approach, in recent years, has included a pressure campaign aimed at Israel's policies of expansion in the West Bank, coupled with an initiative at the United Nations that would force Israel to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.
This strategy is as misguided as it is dangerous. It not only rewards terrorism and rejectionism by giving Hamas a free pass, it ignores the fact that Israel's democracy reacts to the threats around it. Right-of-center parties have governed Israel since the outbreak of the intifada in 2000 as a reaction to the rise in Palestinian radicalism. Left-of- center parties governed Israel during the 1990s when peace appeared possible. If the threat of Hamas recedes, it will not be long before the embattled Israeli peace camp finds its footing again.
Thus, rather than reach out to rejectionist groups, the European Union must find ways to invest in Palestinian reformers. With new elections slated for later this year, the West has an opportunity to support parties other than Hamas, which will not retreat from its violent platform, and Fatah, which is now under fire for being both ossified and corrupt.
These groups include but are certainly not limited to: the Palestinian National Initiative (Mubadara al-Wataniyya al-Filistiniyya) headed by Mustafa Barghouti,12 Wasatia (translated as "balance" or "moderation") under Dr. Mohammed Dajani,13 and Palestine Forum (Muntada Filastin) under Munib al-Masri.14 All three of these parties officially advocate for nonviolence and political reform. To be sure, they only enjoy minimal popular support. However, amidst the "Arab Spring" sparked by the revolutions of January and February 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, the Palestinians are looking for alternatives to the corruption and malaise that plague their societies.
If the goal of the EU is to help achieve peace in the Middle East, it makes little sense to engage with an organization that has vowed to prevent it. Instead, European policymakers must find ways to counter Hamas and other violent groups. Palestinian reform factions may offer an opportunity.
Jonathan Schanzer is Vice President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
1 Yousuf, Ahmed (2007) "Engage With Hamas," Washington Post, 20 June 2007
2 Perelman, Marc (2005) "Ex-officials Push Engagement with Hamas, Hezbollah," Forward, 21 October 2005
3 "The Charter of Hamas"
4 Schiff, Zeev (2005) "Foreign Ministry protests EU contacts with Hamas officials," Haaretz, 16 June 2005
5 "U.S. Designates Five Charities Funding Hamas and Six Senior Hamas Leaders as Terrorist Entities," 22 August 2003.
6 McGreal, Chris (2003) "Palestinian suicide bomber kills 20 and shatters peace process," The Guardian, 20 August 2003
7 "European Union blacklists Hamas as terror group," Al-Bawaba, 11 September 2003
8 "Israel's concern over EU-Hamas relations," European Jewish Press, 22 November 2005
9 Urquhart, Conal & Black, Ian (2007) "Hamas Declares Victory," The Guardian, 15 June 2007
10 "Hamas wants dialogue with Europe," Gulf News, 29 July 2010