Hamas, or at least its political leadership, is backing its military offensive on Southern Israel with a new diplomatic offensive, having granted a series of interviews to western journalists in the past few weeks. This has come amid renewed calls from some for Israel and Western powers to negotiate directly with Hamas. Most prominently, in the past week, former US President Jimmy Carter has met with Hamas and sought to promote dialogue between Israel and the Islamist group. But why is Hamas targeting Western political and public opinion? What message are they trying to convey, what methods are they using, and what is their purpose? To understand Hamas’s words, it is important to analyse them carefully, and consider them in the light of their actions, and their long term goals. It is also important to understand the complex pressures the organisation is under, and the strategy they are employing to improve their position.
Hamas in their own words
In the last two months, Hamas’s political leaders, Damascus based politburo chief Khaled Meshaal in particular, have been conducting a public relations drive which has intensified in recent weeks. In January the American journal ‘Foreign Policy’ published an interview with Meshaal.[i] At the end of March, Tim Marshall, Sky News Foreign Affairs Editor, also interviewed Meshaal[ii], as did BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, two weeks later.[iii] Then last week the Washington Post published an article by Hamas’s Gaza based Foreign Minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar. [iv]
Hamas’s engagement with the Western media is not new. A conscious decision to change their public image can be traced back to the group’s decision to run in Palestinian parliamentary elections in the beginning of 2006. The group hired media consultant, Nashat Aqtash, a lecturer at Birzeit University, with the express purpose of improving Hamas’s image in the Western media. His advice: to move their discourse away from their commitment to the destruction of Israel, the celebration of terror attacks, and their hatred of Jews, and to portray their organisation as a legitimate resistance movement that was forced to resort to violence in response to Palestinian persecution and suffering. [v] Articles by Hamas’s political spokesmen began to appear in Western media, alongside portrait photos of reasonable looking politicians with neatly trimmed beards and smart Western business suits.
An analysis of the latest round of articles and interviews gives an insight into Hamas’s messaging strategy. They wish to depict themselves as a legitimate resistance movement, standing up for the weak against an implacable enemy which is militarily stronger and has no interest in peace. They talk the language of ceasefire [vi], stress religious pluralism and tolerance, and seek to distance themselves from antisemitism, anti-Western rhetoric and Holocaust denial. They hint at willingness to accept a two state solution and the Arab initiative which offers regional recognition of Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to ’67 borders, and acceptance of the Palestinian right of return.
This is a clear and calculated attempt to overcome their image in the West as an extremist movement whose trademark is the suicide bombing and a complete aversion to peace with Israel. The care with which Hamas spokesmen are choosing their words for a Western audience is illustrated by the cynical and conscious attempt to hijack specific words and phrases from the Jewish-Zionist discourse. Khaled Meshaal told ‘Foreign Policy’, for example, that “Olmert is taking the same path that Sharon took previously, which was defined by the “Four No’s”: No to Jerusalem, No to the right of return, No to the borders of 1967, and No for dismantling the settlements.” Talking about ‘Four No’s’ echoes the Arab League’s famous ‘three no’s’ issued at the 1967 Khartoum conference in the wake of the Six Day War, when the Arab League issued a statement declaring that the principles on which it would attempt to reverse the losses of the war would be, “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it.” [vii] By borrowing from the Jewish-Zionist narrative, Hamas wishes to turn the tables, depicting Israel as the rejectionist, and themselves as the reasonable party seeking a just peace.
An even more blatant attempt to use the moral case for Western support for Israel against the Jewish state, is Mahmoud al-Zahar’s comparison, in his Washington Post article, of Gaza today to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, where exactly 65 years ago, a handful of poorly armed Jewish resistance fighters resisted the Nazi liquidation of its 400,000 inhabitants and their eventual deportation to the Nazi gas chambers, does not stand up to a moment’s serious historical analysis. But it is part of a wider effort to undermine the moral case for Western support for Israel by placing Israel and the Jewish people in the role of the Nazi, and making the Palestinians the real victims of the Holocaust.
Attempting to steal the clothes of Jewish suffering by depicting the Palestinians as the Holocaust’s real victims is a not new to Hamas, whose founding charter repeatedly equates Zionism with Nazism. However the movement has nuanced its rhetoric to make it more acceptable to Western ears. The position stated in the Hamas charter, which is that Zionists “were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state,” [viii] has gone through the filter of the Hamas PR machine: “We don’t deny the Holocaust,” Meshaal told Tim Marshall, “But, we believe that the Zionists have exaggerated the numbers to get sympathy from other nations.”
Similarly, Mahmoud al-Zahar, attempting to distance Hamas from the rabid antisemitism that has typified its rhetoric and ideology from the movement’s inception, wrote in the Washington Post that, “Judaism – which gave so much to human culture in the contributions of its ancient lawgivers and modern proponents of tikkun olam (the Jewish ethical concept of ‘repairing the world’) – has corrupted itself in the detour into Zionism, nationalism and apartheid.” This apparent embrace of Judaism is truly remarkable from a man who said in a televised interview on Lebanese Al Manar television in 2005 that the Torah (the Hebrew bible) “is known to be a fabrication”, before going on to declare: “We are convinced that the liberation of Palestine – all of Palestine – from the (Mediterranean) Sea to the (Jordan) River, from Rosh Ha-Nikra to Rafah – is a Koranic truth in which we believe, as sure as I see you on this screen.” [ix]
For Khaled Meshaal too, there is considerable gap between the Western targeted rhetoric of ceasefire and peace initiatives and the language that Meshaal uses when addressing his own people. Take for example, his February 2006 address to a Damascus mosque, aired on Al Jazeera television where he told a crowd chanting “Death to Israel, Death to America”: “Before Israel dies, it must be humiliated and degraded. Allah willing, before they die, they will experience humiliation and degradation every day.” [x]
Even where Hamas are moderating their language to better appeal to a Western audience, their talk of ceasefires and negotiations are wrought with internal contradictions. Al Zahar declares in his Washington Post article both that, “no “peace plan,” “road map” or “legacy” can succeed unless we are sitting at the negotiating table and without any preconditions,” and that, “A “peace process” with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently.”
So whilst Hamas appears to be offering talks without preconditions, in fact they are demanding Israel concede to every Palestinian demand as a precondition for any talks. A similar message comes from Khaled Meshaal’s interview for Foreign Policy, who he told: “We now say that Hamas is prepared to offer a hudna (temporary period of calm) to Israel if they withdraw from the lands occupied in 1967 and respect all the Palestinian rights. And I say there is no way except this.” So in Hamas’s in own terms, in return for Israeli concession to all its demands, it is offering, not the prospect of a negotiated two state solution, but at best a temporary ceasefire. Whilst former US President Jimmy Carter claimed that in his meetings with Hamas officials, they expressed their willingness to allow Israel to ‘live in peace’, inside 1967 borders [xi], there have as yet been no unequivocal statements from Hamas directly that they are willing to accept two states for two peoples as the basis for a permanent resolution to the conflict.
The context of the diplomatic offensive
Hamas’s diplomatic offensive should be understood in its context. The UN backed Quartet declared after Hamas’s election victory in January 2006 that the conditions for international recognition of the movement’s rule are their recognition of Israel, their renunciation of violence, and their acceptance of previous agreements in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. These conditions are the basis for a negotiated two state solution, which were accepted by the PLO at the beginning of the Oslo process, but they are in complete contradiction to Hamas’s ideology as a movement which believes in replacing Israel with an Islamic Waqf ‘from the river to the sea’.
Hamas’s goal is to gain international recognition and legitimacy without accepting the Quartet conditions. In particular they want to force the lifting of the controls on Gaza’s borders. Meanwhile the negotiations between Israel and Hamas’s domestic rivals Fatah continue. The potential for Fatah to bring tangible benefits to the Palestinian population through negotiation, and bring closer an agreement on the formation of a Palestinian state, poses a threat to Hamas, its policy of non-recognition of Israel, and its deep rooted opposition to the peace process. At the same time, the undermining of that process poses an opportunity to Hamas, because as long as that process fails to produce concrete results, Fatah will be weakened by their engagement with Israel.
Hamas has been ensuring the sustenance of a constant level of pressure on Israel through the daily rocket attacks on Israeli population centres adjacent to Gaza, primarily the town of Sderot. This is creating pressure on the Israeli government to change the status quo, either through major military intervention, or by some level of cooperation with Hamas, possibly though a third party, which would ease the blockage on Gaza. Hamas’s approach is to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Israel without tipping the balance in a way that will prompt the reoccupation of Gaza. In this respect they are exploiting the Israeli government’s reluctance to launch a major offensive following the failures of the Lebanon war. They are seeking to deter a major Israeli military operation also by significantly upgrading their military strength and organisation; learning from the success of Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War. A key dilemma for Israel is that any form of lull or ceasefire would help Hamas to accelerate its arms build up.
Sending peaceful sounding noises to the West, is an attempt to undermine the unity of the international community on the Quartet’s three conditions, and build diplomatic pressure on Israel, in addition to the military pressure, to change the status quo in Gaza. This two pronged approach, military and diplomatic, is Hamas’s strategy for achieving its most pressing goal of international recognition without acceptance of the Quartet’s conditions.
If there is an opportunity to bring about a de-escalation of the conflict, and to promote a process of moderation in Hamas, then that is to be welcomed, and none would he happier than Israel to see Hamas show signs that it has come to terms with the two state solution as the way to end the conflict. Whilst Hamas has succeeded to gain control of Gaza, the leaders of Hamas know that at the present time, they do not have the military might to secure their founding ideological goal, which is the destruction of Israel. Therefore their choices are to reject that goal, or to defer it. Currently, their actions and words give no indication of a serious engagement with the idea of a permanent peace with Israel based on two states for two peoples. But Hamas should be taken at their word. Their recent statements, even when tailored to the Western media, indicate at best their willingness to defer their goal to remove Israel from the map for the time being. If Hamas is serious about wanting a seat at the negotiating table, then they have to be serious about peace. This means giving some indication, whether directly or though a third party, of an acceptance of the principle of two states side by side, not as an interim before the next conflict, but as a permanent resolution to the conflict. As long as the Annapolis process is alive, it needs the full support of the international community, and Hamas should not be allowed to believe they can get what they want without accepting the fundamentals of the peace process.
[i] Seven Questions: The World According to Hamas; Foreign Policy; January 2008
[ii] Sky’s Interview With Hamas Chief In Full; Tim Marshall, 31 March 2008
[iii] Searching for a solution in Gaza, Jeremy Bowen, BBC News, 15 April 2008
[iv] No Peace without Hamas, Mahmoud al-Zahar, Washington Post, 17 April 2008
[v] New-look Hamas spends £100k on an image makeover; Chris McGreal, The Guardian, 20 January 2006
[vi] “We said that if Israel commits itself to a comprehensive and mutual calm we are ready to cooperate – but Israel said no,” Meshaal told Jeremy Bowen.
[vii] Arab League Declaration, Khartoum, September 1967
[viii] The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), Article 22
[ix] Excerpt from an interview with Mahmoud Al-Zahar, aired on Al-Manar TV (Lebanon) on April 13, 2005; the Middle East Media and Research Institute
[x] Excerpts from an address given by Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al at the Al-Murabit Mosque in Damascus. The address was delivered following the Friday sermon at the mosque and was aired on Al-Jazeera TV on 3 February 2006.
[xi] Barak Ravid, ‘Meshaal offers 10 year truce for Palestinian state of ’67 borders,’ Haaretz, 21 April 2008. www.haaretz.com