Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, and Prospects for a Sustainable Israel-Palestine Peace

Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal (Mumtaz al-Baloua / New York Times)
Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal (Mumtaz al-Baloua / New York Times)

In the aftermath of Khaled Mashaal’s emotional visit to Gaza in celebration of Hamas’ 25th anniversary, commentary in Israel and the West has focused on his remarks at a rally as ‘defiant’ and disclosing ‘the true face’ of Hamas. Emphasis was particularly placed on his dramatic pledge to recover the whole of historic Palestine, from the Mediterranean to Jordan, “inch by inch,” no matter how long such a process might take. Mashaal also challenged the legitimacy of the Zionist project, and justified Palestinian resistance in whatever form it might assume, although disavowing the intention to attack civilians as such, and denying any complicity by Hamas in the November 21, 2012 incident in Israel when a bomb exploded in a Jerusalem bus.

These remarks certainly raise concerns for moderate Israelis who continue to advocate a two-state solution in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 242, but at the same time, it is important to listen to Hamas fully before reaching any firm conclusions. What Mashaal said in Gaza was at a rally dedicated to reaffirming its fundamental struggle in the immediate aftermath of the recent 8 day Israeli attack (code-named Pillar of Defense), and by a leader who for the first time in 45 years had openly dared to set foot in his occupied and oppressed homeland. Mashaal is a leader who has lived in exile in several countries of the region since he was 11 years old, having been born in the Selwad neighborhood of Ramallah, then under Jordanian control. He is someone who in 1997 Israel had tried to murder in a notorious incident in Jordan in which only the capture of the Mossad perpetrators induced Israel to supply a life-saving antidote for the poison that had been sprayed into Mashaal’s ear in exchange for their release from Jordanian captivity. In Mashaal’s imagery, this return to Gaza was his ‘third birth,’ the first being in 1956 when he was born, the second when he survived the Israeli assassination attempt, and the third when he was able to kiss the ground upon entering Gaza. These biographical details seem relevant for an assessment of his public remarks.

The context was also given a heightened reality by the Hamas/Gaza success in enduring the latest Israeli military onslaught that produced a ceasefire that contained some conditions favoring Gaza, including an Israeli commitment to refrain from targeted assassinations in the future. It also was a context shaped by recent and more distant painful memories that was the main trigger of the upsurge of violence, especially the assassination of the Hamas military leader and diplomat, Ahmed al-Jabari, and the May 22, 2003 killing of the disabled spiritual founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. It was after Sheikh Yassin’s death that Mashaal was declared ‘world leader’ of Hamas.

The most important element of context that needs to be taken into account is the seeming inconsistency between the fiery language used by Mashaal in Gaza and his far more moderate tone in the course of several interviews with Western journalists in recent weeks. In those interviews Mashaal had clearly indicated a readiness for a long-term hudna, or truce, provided that Israel ended its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and agreed to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. He made clear that these rights included the right of return belonging to the 4-5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or exile, and contended that such a right was more deserving of recognition than is the Israeli grant of such a right of return to every Jew even to those completely without a prior connection to historic Palestine. Of course, this claimed right is in its potentiality a threatening claim to Israel, and to Zionism, as it could, at least in theory, threaten the Jewish majority presence in Israel. Whether many Palestinians if given the choice would return to live in Israel so as to reinhabit their ancestral homes seems highly questionable, but the right to do so unquestionably belongs to Palestinians, at least to those who had previously resided in present Israel.

In these interviews, Mashaal was consistent about the readiness of Hamas to pursue these national goals nonviolently, without “weapons and blood”, if Israel were to accept such a framework for peace. His words to CNN in a November 22nd interview are notable in this respect: “We are ready to resort to a peaceful way, purely peaceful way without blood and weapons, as long as we obtain our Palestinian demands.” The extent of “Palestinian demands” was left unspecified, which does create an ambiguity as to whether this meant accommodation or some kind of rearticulation of a unified Palestinian entity. Also unclear as to whether the peaceful path could precede the end of occupation, or must be a sequel to the existence of a state. In the other direction, Mashaal indicated that once Palestinian statehood was fully realized, then the issue of the acceptance of Israeli legitimacy could be placed on the political agenda. His deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook, in a conversation in Cairo told me in a similar vein that the Hamas Charter pledge to destroy the Zionist state had become “a false issue.” This PhD from Louisiana Tech, an intelligent exponent of Hamas thinking, echoed Mashaal’s moderate approach, and indicated that as with the U.S. Constitution’s treatment of slavery, the Hamas Charter has evolved with changing circumstances, and its clauses subject to modification by interpretation.

Along similar lines, Mashaal has spoken about Hamas as ‘realistic’ with respect to an appreciation of the balance of forces relative to the conflict, and referred to Arafat’s response to those who insisted that Israel would be at mortal risk if a Palestinian state were to be established on the West Bank. The former PLO leader had pointed out that any Palestinian move to threaten Israel militarily in such circumstances was unthinkable. It would be sure to produce a devastating attack that would crush Palestinian hopes forever.

There is posed a fundamental question: what is the true voice of Hamas? There seems to be a sharp contrast between the fiery language of Mashaal’s words spoken at the anniversary demonstration in Gaza and his far calmer and accommodating tone in interviews and other statements in recent years.  The more hopeful understanding would suggest a gap between the emotional occasion of the speech and the more rational views consistently expressed elsewhere. Such an explanation is the opposite of the Western insistence that only the rally speech gave expression to the authentic outlook of Hama. In contrast, I would accord greater weight given to the moderate formulations, at least for exploratory purposes. Put differently, in Gaza, Mashaal was likely expressing a maximalist version of the Palestinian narrative relating to its sense of legitimacy while in more reflective arenas, ever since the entry of Hamas into electoral politics back in 2006, its dominant emphasis has been on pursuing a political track that envisioned long-term peaceful co-existence with Israel, a sidestepping of the legitimacy issues, at least once the occupation was definitively ended and the rights of Palestinian refugees was recognized in accordance with international law.

It can be asked, ‘How can Hamas dare to put forward such a claim in view of the steady rain of rockets that has made life treacherous and miserable for the more than a million Israelis living in the southern part of Israel ever since Israel ‘disengaged’ in 2005?’ Such a rhetorical question repeated over and over again without reference to the siege or Israeli violence has distorted the Western image of the interaction, suggesting that when Israel massively attacks helpless Gaza it is only exercising its defensive rights, which is the most fundamental entitlement of every sovereign state. Again, the more accurate interpretation depends on a fuller appreciation of the wider context, which would include the American plot to reverse the outcome of the 2006 electoral victory of Hamas by arming Fatah with heavy weapons, the Israeli punitive blockade since mid-2007, [Vanity Fair, 2008] and many instances of provocative Israeli violence, including a steady stream of targeted assassinations and lethal over-reactions at the Gaza border. Although not the whole story, the one-sided ratio of deaths as between Israel and Palestine is a good first approximation of comparative responsibility over the period of Hamas ascendancy in Gaza, and it is striking. For instance, between the ceasefire in 2009 and the Israeli attack in November 2012, 271 Palestinians were killed and not a single Israeli. [B’Teselm report] The respected Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, has pointed out that since the first rockets were launched against Israeli in 2001, 59 Israeli have died as compared to 4,717 Palestinians.

The Western media is stunningly oblivious to these complications of perception, almost never disclosing Israeli provocations in reporting on the timelines of the violence of the parties, and fails to acknowledge that it has been the Israelis, not the Palestinians, that have been mostly responsible for ending periods of prolonged truce. There are further confusing elements in the picture, including the presence of some extremist Palestinian militias that launch rockets in defiance of Hamas policy, which in recent years generally limits rockets to retaliatory roles. Among the ironies of the al-Jabari assassination was that it was evidently his role to restrain these militias on behalf of Hamas, including disciplining those extremists who refused to abide by policies of restricting rocket attacks to retaliatory situations.

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Richard Falk

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. From 2008 until May 2014, he was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. 

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  • Jamie Nichols

    This is by far the best analysis of the reasons for the ongoing impasse in Israel/Palestine I have read to date. As a childhood fan Israel’s rebirth and erstwhile supporter against the Arab desiring to destroy the young Zionist state, I regret to say that I no longer believe a two-state solution is doable. The right-wing/settler movement in Israel, fueled by religious zeal, territorial aggrandizement and Arab hate, has made any two-state agreement politically impossible for both sides. I strongly agree with Professor Falk’s suggestion that the alternative of a one-state solution, or as he put it, a “unified Palestine that is governed in accordance with human rights standards and international law,” be given serious and immediate consideration. After all, if white South Africans could end their apartheid and learn to accept and live with the far more numerous indigenous black population in a unified, democratic government, Israeli Jews can and should do likewise with their Palestinian neighbors. I would hope that Israel has matured and become self-confident enough by now that it no longer needs to call itself a “Jewish State”. Israeli Jews just might reap some significant economic and social benefits, apart from ending the 60 years of bloodshedding, from becoming a melting pot state, just as the U.S. has.

    At some point Israeli Jews will have to accept their Palestinian neighbors as residents of the same democratic state or as ceaselessly hostile and violent neighbors. Israeli Arabs and Jews have been able to get along just fine all these years. Any violence perpetrated against each other has been isolated and rare. Jews and Arabs got along all over the world until this conflict arose. Remove the conflict, and the cause and/or excuse for Arab violence toward Jews and Jewish retaliation toward Arabs (usually excessive) are gone.

    Arabs are like us. They are not fools. If they are citizens of Israel, they are not going rise up and somehow kill all their Jewish co-employees, neighbors, lovers, teachers, doctors, etc. Anyone who suggests that could happen is engaging in fear-mongering pure and simple. I honestly believe if Palestinians were to become citizens of Israel, with the same basic legal rights as Jews now enjoy, they would behave no differently than the 1.57 million Arabs who are currently citizens of Israel.

    Indeed, it is despicable for any person to suggest that Palestinian Arabs are incapable of behaving as peaceful, law-abiding members of society, or of forgiveness, love, kindness, charity, and compassion toward others, including Jews. I have heard Israeli and American Jews call Palestinian Arabs “animals” and “savage beasts” and say they are incapable of behaving like civilized humans. (I have also heard anti-Semetic remarks disguised as criticism of Israel, but not from Arabs, though I’m sure there are some Arabs and other Muslims who hold such sickening views.) But as that famous philosopher once observed: we are all bozos on this bus. Hence, a unified state of Jews and Arabs can work if it is given a fair chance.

    Of course I’m not so naive as to believe Israel will ever agree to a one-state solution. The religious Right holds the power in Israel and is not likely to risk sharing or losing it. So the fear-mongers, aided and abetted by their well-meaning but abysmally ignorant American Jewish and fundamentalist Christian supporters, will continue to do whatever is necessary to provoke violence on the part of increasingly desperate Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The settlements have worked perfectly to empower these little people who govern Israel. They have no intention of abandoning the settlers. And Hamas and others would play into their hands with feeble and pathetic acts of retaliatory violence, which would allow the Right to say: “See what happens when we give Palestinians land for peace.”

    Frankly, I don’t see any solution that will work so long as America blindly backs Israel, which it will do so long as Congress remains a gutless, unthinking institution easily cowed by lobbyists and influenced, if not bought off, by campaign contributions–in short, forever. The only way I foresee American public opinion rising up to compel Congress to change its tune on Israel is if Palestinians were able to mount a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience against Israel’s occupation similar to Ghandi’s against the British. But that would require a Palestinian leader like Ghandi who could command the respect and obedience of the Palestinian people. And this far one has not surfaced.

    Another possibility, albeit most unlikely, is for someone like Khaled Mashaal to renounce violent resistance and the destruction of Israel, and to commit himself to civil disobedience against Israel. This would require the Palestinian masses inside and outside Israel to suffer mass arrests, imprisonment, cracked skulls and worse. However, such suffering, as Ghandi proved, has a transformative effect on the human heart, including those of the oppressors. Such a campaign would likely cause a major shift in American and European support for Israel, and probably energize the peace movement within Israel as never before. It would, in short, accomplish more for the creation of a Palestinian state than all the Hamas missiles, Intifadas, PLO’s terrorist acts and armed resistance, and suicide bombings combined.

    Regrettably, people like Mashaal still cling to the uselessness and counterproductive ways of the past armed Palestinian resistance. Palestinian men, like males all over the planet, seem to love to dress up in military garb and play soldier. Whenever I see one of them shooting his gun into the air to celebrate some minor or insignificant event, while yelling “God is great!”, I get so depressed about the ability of Palestinian males to mature into thoughtful, contributing members of his society (not to mention his ability to survive the superior military training and weaponry of the Israelis!)

    In any event, I can envision Mashaal, if he survives to my age (highly unlikely), still telling himself Israel will be pushed into the sea one day, while Israeli army officers have a good laugh. For Mashaal and the rest of the Hamas “fighters” (if that is what useless missile launchers are called) do not seem to understand that they are doing the bidding of the Israeli Right and settlers who wish to deprive Palestinians of not only a homeland, but any dignity as well.

  • Mareli

    Mashaal said just what Netanyahu wanted him to say. As long as Hamas continues to press for total control of all Palestine, with no room for Israel, the Israeli militarists on the right can say that the Palestinians are a mortal threat to our nation. Abbas’ diplomatic strategy of going to the UN was far more intelligent and will be more effective for the Palestinian people in their efforts to achieve statehood.

    • Jamie Nichols

      You are probably correct that Abbas’s action in the UN is more effective. I certainly hope so, since it would validate a more peaceful yet firm approach in dealing with the Israelis. However, there appear to be too many hotheads, understandably so, among the Palestinians who find armed resistance to the Israeli Occupation the preferable approach. No doubt the Hamas’s “soldiers” derived much instant gratification from their rocket launchings. And instant gratification is always more appealing to the overheated minds of the Hamas “warriors” than the long-term strategies of Abbas and the PLO.

      The problem is that in Palestine, even more so than in colonial India, the occupiers are much better armed, trained, supported by America, and willing to crush any resistance, ruthlessly if necessary, than the British were after WWII. The Palestinians who continue their futile armed resistance don’t seem to understand that they are playing right into the hands of Israel’s militarists, land-grabbers and Arab-haters. Those Israelis may not be publicly clapping their hands every time some Hamas fool launches a worthless rocket in the general direction of Israel, but they must secretly be thanking guys like Mashaal for keeping Israelis unified in the disproportionately lethal and destructive “retaliations” inflicted on Gaza.

      Again, the only hope for the Palestinians is that one day a militant leader like Mashaal rise up and show some genuine courage, intelligence and creativity by transforming the Palestinian armed resistance into one based on the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience. Doing that would take far more courage than hiding out in Lebanon or Egypt, or in an underground bunker in Gaza. For such a leader would be risking assassination by both the Israelis and intractable Palestinian militants.

      Mashaal thus far has demonstrated he is incapable of summoning up that kind of courage. Leading a nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience against Israel’s occupation may be a suicide mission, but it is no less suicidal than Hamas’s current armed resistance. More importantly, it has a better chance of success than the ridiculous rocket attacks launched by Hamas. And such a campaign is obviously more likely to garner international support, including boycotts of Israel, than any armed resistance, especially one that employs suicide bombers on buses and in cafes.

  • Mashal Have been sold to the Israel and treachery does

  • dubinsky

    Falk is correct. If Israel unilaterally meet the conditions that Hamas demands and which any honest and sane person knows that cause Israel to be certain that Hamas is still full of sh1t and uninterested in peace, then Hamas will not shoot at Israelis for a while…unless Hamas is unhappy about other stuff.

    Falk is also full of sht to write this crap as if it’s meaningful rather than dishonest.