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Page last updated at 12:10 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 13:10 UK

Who wants to talk to Hamas?

Hamas's political leader Khaled Meshaal greets Greek and Italian parliamentarians
Hamas's political leader in Damascus hosts European parliamentarians

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

Hamas has had more international visitors since US President Barack Obama came to power, and there are signs that the international community is reconsidering its boycott of the Islamist group.

Groups of lawmakers from the UK and EU, travelling independently, have made widely publicised visits to Hamas's exiled leader in Damascus in recent months.

Ahmad Youssef, an advisor close to the Islamist movement's political leaders in Gaza, says official representatives of European governments have also come calling - and not just the Norwegians who have long had contact with Hamas.

Mr Youssef says such delegations seem to be "getting the green light from the Americans".

"They are more courageous than during the Bush administration," he insists.

Diplomatic conundrum

Most of the international community backs Israel's view that Hamas is a terrorist group, and refuses to deal directly with it.

But calls for a rethink have increased since Mr Obama came to power. Some believe there are signs of a subtle change in mood.

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Hamas has posed a diplomatic conundrum since it won Palestinian elections in 2006, while still espousing Israel's violent destruction in its charter.

It became the de facto ruler of Gaza after forcing out its rival, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, during factional fighting in 2007.

Israel and the international community continued to engage with the PA, but refused to deal with Hamas unless it committed to non-violence, recognised Israel, and accepted previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

The hope was to marginalise Hamas while rewarding the PA's moderation, but the view that this has not worked seems to be gaining traction.

Pragmatism

A senior economic advisor to Mr Obama, Paul Volcker, recently put his name to a paper which included a "more pragmatic approach to Hamas" among wider policy recommendations.

Harry Siegman, the head of the think-tank behind the document, believes there are "early indications" that the new US government will adopt its advice to "cease discouraging" third parties from dealing with Hamas.

Gazans living in tents
Many Gazans live in tents as reconstruction is bogged down in politics

Mr Siegman says reaction to the document was "very positive" at a recent meeting which he says was attended by several "senior members" of the Obama administration, including US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who advised US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign, recently co-wrote a book chapter asserting that "a peace process that excludes" Hamas is "bound to fail".

If an Israel-Hamas ceasefire held and Fatah and Hamas reconciled, the US should deal with a Palestinian unity government and "authorise low-level contact with Hamas in Gaza", it said.

And in January, Tony Blair, the international community's Middle East envoy, warned against "pushing Gaza aside".

"I do think it is important that we find a way of bringing Hamas into this process," he told the Times newspaper, although he holds that Hamas should meet the three conditions first.

Palestinian disunity

A Fatah-Hamas unity government is often touted as the most likely route to bringing Hamas in from the cold - possibly paving the way for talks with Israel on lifting its nearly two-year blockade of Gaza.

But the factions are bitterly divided over many internal issues, and deadlock over the three conditions highlights the deep ideological gulf between them.

For Hamas, recognising Israel is an "inviolable red line", which should not even be discussed until the Palestinians have their own state, Mr Youssef says.

Sderot house hit by a rocket, 30 December 2008
Israelis say 6,000 rockets from Gaza have fallen on southern towns since 2000

"Why should Palestinians recognise Israel when Israel doesn't recognise Palestine?" he asks, and points out that no final borders have been agreed.

"Which Israel are we supposed to recognise? Israel with the settlements? Israel with East Jerusalem? Or Greater Israel that includes Jordan, Lebanon, Syria…?"

Furthermore, many analysts point out the condition is one of Hamas's key negotiating cards, so insisting on it from the outset undermines the very point of dialogue.

But for the PA, which says it has seen no indication of a shift in the US view, the conditions are non-negotiable and the Palestinians have already signed up to them.

Its top negotiator, Saeb Erekat, however, warns that Israel's new, right-leaning government is undermining the PA by going back on Israel's commitments.

It has refused to back Palestinian statehood and said it does not accept accords reached in Annapolis in 2007.

"If the quartet demands one thing of the Palestinian government and does not apply the same thing to the Israeli government, the whole concept of a PA, or peace, will become totally irrelevant…it's over," Mr Erekat says.

Tough compromise

Hamas and the PA did, however, reach a compromise formula in Mecca in 2007, under which the Islamist movement joined a unity government which would "respect" existing agreements with Israel.

But only a handful of countries - such as Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Russia - gave it their backing. This put the PA in "a very, very severe position", says Mr Erekat.

The government then fell apart as intra-Palestinian fighting broke out in Gaza.

Israel remains opposed to direct contact with Hamas, citing the fact the group is sworn to Israel's destruction and the thousands of rockets it has launched at Israel towns in recent years.

But it has held indirect, Egyptian-brokered talks over ceasefires and the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and 64% of Israelis backed direct talks in a poll a year ago.

Mr Youssef says Hamas would stop violence if Israel did too, and lifted its blockade of Gaza.

He says the group is open to a 10-year ceasefire, in return for a full withdrawal from the areas Israel occupied in 1967.

And Hamas's founding charter, he says, is an "ideological document" and "not a manual for action".

"But we can't just scrap it to appease Israel," he adds.

Those who advocate dialogue with Hamas believe it will strengthen moderates from Hamas's political wing, such as Mr Youssef.

But others look at the rockets Israel says the group's military wing is continuing to smuggle into Gaza, the fiery, anti-Semitic statements of Hamas-linked preachers and media outlets, and the group's refusal to change its charter, and see no such hope.



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