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Ignoring Hamas will imperil the peace process: Jeroen Gunning

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Jeroen Gunning … “there is a constituency among Hamas’ supporters which favours a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio .”
Jeroen Gunning … “there is a constituency among Hamas’ supporters which favours a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio .”

A. Rangarajan

‘Readings from the past suggest that the Hamas leadership is open to political compromise if right conditions present themselves.’

The Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio has for sometime now threatened to spill over into a larger conflict in the region that could have serious repercussions for the world at large. The approaches called for now, to resolve this crisis, have to get away from the beaten path and need to be increasingly creative and inclusive in order to succeed. That is perhaps why the findings and perspectives thrown up by the work done by people like Dr. Jeroen Gunning and the Centre for the Study of ‘Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence (CSRV) have to come to attract the focus they deserve.

Dr. Gunning is the Deputy Director of the CSRV, and he lectures and guides research at the Department of International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. His research led him through over a 100 interviews with Hamas leaders, supporters and critics and was backed by extensive field work in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. His recent book Hamas in Politics has been acclaimed for bringing in first hand critical perspectives to this unfortunate tangle and for the insight into a complex phenomenon such as Hamas it provides. Dr. Gunning in this interview reminds the international community that shunning Hamas, both dramatically lessens the chances of a political settlement being reached and risks alienating the large numbers of Palestinians whose interest and aspirations Hamas represents. Far from adopting this intransigent approach of looking at Hamas as a monolith Dr. Gunning urges the EU, the U.S. and others to not only engage with Hamas but to see the various constituencies within and strengthen the hands of the pragmatists to bring about a settlement more quickly.

Part of the fresh wind that Dr. Gunning and fellow researchers bring stems from their ability to critique the methods of research and policy analysis that are based within the constructs of a westernised social sciences framework. Not only is the study of the social phenomenon important, but of equal importance are the methods and conceptual frameworks used to study it, he points out. The CSRV is also home to the Journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism of which Dr. Gunning is a co-editor.

(On account of space constraints a shortened version appears here. For a longer discussion and reflective perspectives that include Fatah-Hamas rift, targeted assassinations by Israel and relations between the state and human security — readers may look at the complete interview at www.thehindu.com)

Your work on Hamas and the political process quite clearly brings out that Hamas is not a monolith and that it is a multilayered organisation. What are the key layers, and how do we strengthen the realists within so that the peace process can be set on track?

Hamas is not a monolith and to treat it so is a recipe for disaster. The tendency is to look at the more extreme elements and treat them as the sole identity of Hamas and on that imperfect understanding is then built a response that is neither conducive nor helpful. The leadership of Hamas is distributed. There is the political leadership in the occupied territories — in Gaza and in the West Bank — and an exiled leadership in Damascus, Syria. Then there is the military wing or the Qassam brigades and you also have a large part of the Hamas leadership in Israeli prisons. The local political leadership on the ground is in closer touch with their grassroots constituencies and must therefore live more directly with the consequences of their actions. Despite the ideological congruence that exists across all these layers, the exiled leadership and the military wing are less influenced by grassroots opinion.

Historically speaking one should remember that Hamas is a fairly recent phenomenon and its own origins lie in the Muslim Brotherhood that started in Egypt in the 1920s and Hamas emerged in 1987 at the time of the first Intifada. Therefore large constituencies within Hamas bring in the institutional legacies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Charity, welfare, health, education, etc. have been an integral part of this. Leaders of these institutions are keen to see their institutions survive and, though they share Hamas’ ideological commitment to the removal of Israel, they have other core objectives as well, such as increasing social welfare and augmenting the role of Islam in society. Tensions arise when the objective of liberating all of Palestine jeopardises the fulfilment of their other objectives. It is no surprise that most pragmatists within Hamas have come from these institutional backgrounds and that they have repeatedly argued in favour of accepting a long-term ceasefire in return for political gains.

The most contentious issue while negotiating with Hamas is the question of ‘Liberation of all Palestine,’ including the territory that is modern day Israel. Hamas is opposed to the two-state solution. How do you think a common framework for peace negotiations can be set with such a major stumbling block?

Readings from the past suggest that the Hamas leadership is open to political compromise if right conditions present themselves. Both in 2003 and 2005, ceasefires were negotiated in the context of increasing Hamas’ political role in Palestinian affairs and a shift in public opinion towards declaring a ceasefire. Moreover, polls conducted in Palestine over the past five years suggest that there is a constituency among Hamas’ supporters which favours a political settlement. Even in 2003 a poll showed that nearly 60 per cent of Hamas supporters favoured a two-state solution as a way to a political settlement. And the exit polls after the 2006 legislative election, which led to Hamas’ landslide victory, showed that 40 per cent of those who supported the peace process had voted for Hamas. They did not see Hamas as an immovable obstacle to peace, and voted for the movement for domestic deliverables, such as an end to corruption, better governance and a return to law and order. So domestic issues do weigh in considerably.

And now to the middle ground on that difficult question…….

Again, pragmatists have consistently said that they are willing to give up violent resistance and accept the two-state solution — and thus de facto accept Israel’s existence — in return for a power-sharing arrangement. They are not willing to recognise Israel’s right to exist or accept the usurpation of Palestine by Israel as legitimate. However, they have also consistently hinted at the prospect of the next generation of Hamas leaders being able to start thinking about a full and comprehensive peace if they grow up in a Palestinian state in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank with sound economic opportunities and a normal life without the humiliation of roadblocks, etc. The current leaders and elders cannot bring themselves to give up their right of return to their ancestral lands. What some Hamas leaders suggest is a ‘hudnah” or a long term ceasefire leading to a political settlement based on a return to the 1967 borders and an end to violence. This could be a possible first step forward.

Israel is in a position of strength now and it need not make painful concessions for the sake of peace, yet you seem to hold that if peace does not come about it would hurt Israel in the long run. Why do you say that?

There are two issues here. If Israel keeps a population under these conditions, more radical groups are likely to emerge and violence could snowball into something more volatile. Of course the advocates of repressive policies would argue that the answer lies in being more repressive. Numerous studies and history suggest that repression does not work in the long run.

Besides, for now, Israel enjoys the support of the U.S. The U.S. could become weaker or less supportive in the distant future. Unless Israel gains some kind of acceptance in the region, it places itself in serious jeopardy being a small state in a hostile region. Then there is the whole moral dimension. There are many Israelis who strongly feel that when you are an occupying force for a long period you end up corrupting yourself. They do not see being an occupier as a part of their own Jewish identity and recognise the serious moral implications of occupation and usurping the remaining land on which Palestinians hope to establish their state.


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