Hundreds of Israelis have been killed by Hamas, one of Israel’s most bitter enemies. Hamas is not going away; they will probably be a major factor for years to come.
I have been in regular contact with senior Hamas officials since early 2005. During the early years my talks with them involved reaching cease-fire agreements and of course the release of Gilad Schalit. In recent years I have tried very hard to secure the release of the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul and to return Israeli civilians Abera Mengisto and Hisham Al-Sayed. I have met senior Hamas officials in the West Bank, in Gaza, and I have met faceto- face with some Hamas officials abroad in Cairo and other locations. I believe that I have spent more time in direct talks with Hamas officials than any other Israeli – except for Israeli prison guards and Israeli Security Agency agents; they have spent more time, but that was in interrogations and not in free and open dialogue. I believe that I have a pretty good idea of who they are and what motivates them.
They are not friends of Israel; they are bitter enemies.
Even so, I have practiced in my life a policy that I am willing to speak to anyone who is willing to speak to me. I don’t boycott anyone who is willing to engage with me in dialogue in the attempt to understand positions that are very different from my own. I don’t hide my identity and I have experienced truthful and difficult conversations with them. The following are some of the insights gained over the years that I am happy to share.
The mistrust of Hamas officials toward Israel and Israeli leaders is the most extreme that I have ever encountered in the 40 years that I have been speaking to Arabs. The same could be said about the mistrust of Israelis towards Hamas, but the focus of this short piece is on trying to understand Hamas.
No one that I have ever met from Hamas believes that Israelis and their leaders are interested in peace.
They deeply believe that Israel is committed to evacuating all of the land of Palestine (from the river to the sea) of its native Arab Palestinian inhabitants. They do not believe that Zionism is legitimate because they fail to see the Jewish people as a people with national rights. They believe that the Jews of today are not the original Jews written about in the Koran and that the Torah that Jews hold sacred today is not the original Torah given by God to Moses. They also genuinely believe that Zionism is a colonialist enterprise, not the story of a people returning to their ancient homeland.
From my experience, it is very difficult, but not impossible to convince them that they are completely wrong on both these claims.
Hamas is much more of a Palestinian national movement than it is an Islamic movement, even though Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a pan-Islamic movement. Hamas was born as a separate entity from the Muslim Brotherhood, even though its founders were all members of the Muslim brotherhood, precisely because it was founded as a Palestinian national movement. Hamas is much more interested in the creation of a Palestinian state than they are in an Islamic caliphate throughout the region or the world.
In one of my conversations with one of the Hamas ideologues I asked him if Hamas’s objection to Israel was because Israel was founded on what they believe to be Waqf land – Islamic Trust land. He laughed at me and said, “We oppose Israel because you Jews stole our land and made us into refugees. For us the entire world is Waqf, not just Palestine, but our battle is against Israel, not against the world.”
In my understanding of Hamas I see the difference between moderation and pragmatism. Hamas is not moderate, but they are pragmatic. Hamas has always made a point of not dealing with Israeli directly, but they have created systems confronting the reality of almost total dependence on Israel for electricity, water, importation of goods, currency, health care and more, and have enabled middlemen to communicate with Israel and Israelis on their behalf. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only Israeli who was officially in direct contact with Hamas officials authorized by the most senior authorities there.
The pragmatism of Hamas has been further demonstrated by Hamas’s adherence to the cease-fire following the war of summer 2014 to the extent that Hamas has created its own buffer zone between Gaza’s population and the Israeli border. Hamas pursues and arrests rogue elements that shoot rockets at Israel.
Hamas’s pragmatism has also been demonstrated by giving in to Egyptian demands to fully detach themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood, to extradite terrorists in Gaza to Egypt, the create a buffer zone along the Egypt-Gaza border and to patrol there with full determination to prevent any attacks against Egypt or Israel leaving from the border. Under Egyptian pressure, Hamas changed its covenant to remove direct antisemitism and to agree to a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders (without recognizing Israel).
Yehya Sinwar, Gaza’s strongest leader has brought both the political and military wings of Hamas, which had often contested one another for power, under his direct control and he has turned out to be the leading pragmatist in Hamas. It was previously believed by many, including me, that Sinwar would lead Hamas back into Iran’s direct influence, but that is not happening. Hamas is Egypt-focused and as such has disengaged from Qatar and has moved towards the Emirates and the Saudis and is on the march towards reconciliation with Fatah within the Palestinian political house.
No, Hamas will not lay down its weapons and will not put them under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Sinwar has stated that when Palestine is at peace, the resistance will not be necessary, but as long as the occupation exists, the right to bear arms and to fight against the occupation will remain in the hands of Hamas. He has stated that he is willing for decisions on war to be made together with Fatah. In a period of national consensus, the Hamas military will probably go underground – both literally and metaphorically.
They will maintain a very low profile and will allow for Palestinian Authority security personal to man the border crossings, including Rafah.
Can anything can be done to open a door for dialogue between Israel and Hamas? Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas may create opportunities for discrete dialogue and encounters behind the scenes. Most Hamas leaders believe that those kinds of discussions are a waste of time and that the Palestinian Authority has spent 20 or 30 years doing that without results. If some serious talks did develop that include Israelis who could bring about some real policy changes as a direct outcome of those talks, it might be possible to open a door for progress. Hamas is part of Palestinian society and the recent steps towards increasing pragmatism should be met by pragmatic steps from Israel.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.