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Recipe for breakdown

Thanks to Europe and the United States, many in Hamas will resort to weapons again.


[Middle East] When Hamas made the choice to move from a terrorist group to a political party, it was clear that the costs were going to be high. Some of what they could expect were internal divisions and strife, as well as stinging criticism from Islamist communities who perceived disarmament and accountability as a blow to the Israeli occupation.

They did it anyway. In January this year, they won the election by a good margin, and began work to give the Palestinians a non-corrupt government that had the people's well-being in mind – with or without the participation of Fatah.

What they did not expect was the punitive reactions from Europe and the United States. Was it not precisely the Western world that had demanded of the Islamists that they should participate in the political process?

A few weeks after the victory, it was clear that Hamas would be met by political demands that had multiplied along the way, and an economic boycott that threatened to bankrupt Palestine. Half a year and two wars afterwards, it is equally clear that Europe's and the United States' political line in the Middle East has provoked a crisis no one today predicts the outcome of.

The demands against Hamas came in many forms. Most important was that the Islamists had to renounce all violence, accept previous peace agreements and recognize Israel. It was in many ways a legitimate claim. But it came at the wrong time. In Hamas, Israel had acquired a partner who could live with his historical enemy, but who was not yet ready to translate this pragmatism into international formalism.

In short, a window had opened where the Palestinians and Israelis could be on their way to de facto reconciliation. Israel was in the process of freeing itself from the demographic threat from occupied territories, and Hamas was in a position to grant the Zionist state an absence of terror and quiet acceptance. The collapse of the Camp David negotiations had shown that there was no room for a peace agreement. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians – not least the Islamists – had taken the realpolitik consequence of this collapse.

The reactions of the Western world overturned this organically emerging, but unspoken, peace process. The economic boycott took from the Palestinians the small sums they had to live off. The political boycott allowed Fatah to fish in agitated waters and create civil war-like conditions in Palestine.

When Hamas was forced to accept a draft peace from imprisoned Islamists and Fatah leaders, the Syrian exile leadership had had enough. The radicals within the movement regained the upper hand, and on June 25, the Islamists were one of several groups that kidnapped the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The rest is history, with the war in Lebanon as a backdrop.

In retrospect, it is difficult to assess whether Hamas could have pulled the Palestinians away from the cliff.

But it was worth the effort. Camp David had shown that even a compromise between the least Zionist Zionist and the least nationalist Palestinian was unsustainable. Freeing oneself from the deadly common dance was the only way out.

It could have worked. But thanks to Europe and the United States, many in Hamas will relinquish their weapons.

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