Yup – Hamas is a terrorist organization. Now what?

Please note update, below.

I’m frequently asked about Hamas with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and this past week has certainly been no exception. The questions take many forms, but they tend to boil down to this very reasonable query: “Hamas is a terrorist organization. How do you make peace with a terrorist organization?” Following is a bulked-up version of an email that I sent last night, in answer to that very question.

There’s no doubt that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Indeed, when I lived in Tel Aviv, they tried to kill me — by sending people to blow themselves up on buses that I rode frequently, and in the middle of a cafe just two half-blocks from my home. I had to cover several of those stories as a newspaper reporter, and I would be lying if I said that doing so wasn’t a particular kind of awful. Seeing what I saw, and knowing that the perpetrators would have been just as happy to have my blood join the blood that was splashed across the sidewalk before me didn’t always leave me feeling particularly even-keeled.

So, yeah. No love from me for Hamas.

But all throughout history, nations — Israel among them — have made peace with organizations and nations they found genuinely reprehensible.

  1. The PLO was (and some factions, let’s be honest, still are) a terrorist organization, and Israel found a way to talk to the PLO.
  2. Egypt and Jordan gave wiping-Israel-off-the-map a very, very good go, and yet Israel managed to find a way to achieve peace agreements with them.
  3. Going farther afield, the IRA was a terrorist organization, and today Ireland has peace.
  4. Not to mention that Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were, in fact, bona fide terrorists themselves. Egypt made peace with the former, and the world went through the motions of trying to get the latter to make peace with the Arab world writ large, so, yeah. Humanity has a history of making peace with terrorists, both literally and figuratively.

Much of Hamas’s popularity among the Palestinian people is explained much more by their service work than by their violence, however — things like providing soup kitchens, schools, and assistance to families of Palestinians killed by Israel. I’ll admit that I have a hard time giving them any credit for any of that, though, because even having said that, they’re beyond vile. Their vision of Islam is extremist and stultifying, they romanticize and have in the past perpetuated a truly twisted form of violent resistance, and they hate me and mine because of who we are.

But they were, in fact, democratically elected to lead the Palestinian Authority (if only just – people don’t realize that. It was a protest vote against the PLO’s rampant corruption, and it was a “landslide” kind of in the sense of Newt Gingrich’s “revolution” in 1994 or Bush’s “mandate” in 2004. Which is to say: Not really) by people who’d been served by their service projects and were hoping to find accountability from their politicians, and who had given up on the PLO after 10 years of absolutely fruitless negotiations. I can’t blame the people who voted for them – and Israel all but handed Hamas that victory when it withdrew from Gaza without first negotiating security arrangements.

Also, it’s worth noting that the day after those elections, 75% of the Palestinian electorate expressed the hope that Hamas would negotiate with Israel*, and in his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, Jimmy Carter reported that only 1% of Palestinians polled wanted to see a theocracy such as that envisioned by Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, just last week, a poll showed 70% of Palestinians opposed to the launching of rockets into Israel from Gaza, with 75% believing that military escalation would serve not them, but Israel. As a political movement, Hamas has political, national goals, and a constituency to which it is at least somewhat accountable and which is demonstrably not particularly keen on its more extremist tendencies — and thus, contrary to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would have us think, vile as I find them, Hamas is not the Palestinian answer to al-Qaeda.

And finally, if I want peace, I have to build peace with the actual Palestinian people, not the Palestinian people I imagine in my head — and Hamas represents a certain slice of the Palestinian polity. If Israel gets behind a genuine, workable negotiating process toward a two-state peace plan, three-quarters of Palestinians have said time and again that they would support it — and Hamas, for its part, has said time and again that it would honor a referendum that approved such a plan.

So sure. Like a lot of people, I don’t like Hamas. But that doesn’t matter. One makes peace with one’s enemies, not with one’s friends — and one doesn’t get to pick and choose one’s enemies.

UPDATE: The first commenter, below, poses a reasonable question: How can anyone expect Israel to negotiate with an organization that doesn’t recognize its right to exist? Please be sure to read the question and my response, as well.

*This figure is from a 2006 poll conducted by al-Jazeera immediately after the elections. I wrote about it at the time, and have the original link, as well as a link to the Google-cached page — but neither works any longer! You’ll either have to trust me, or get in touch with al-Jazeera.


  1. Mark

     /  May 27, 2011

    A prerequisite for any negotiations is the willingness of both sides to agree with the rights of their opponents to exist in peace after successful negotiations. The problem is not that Hamas utilizes terrorist attacks in its fight with Israel, but rather its steadfast insistence that Israel has no right to exist and the only solution to the conflict is violence.

    • There is absolutely something to what you say. Just as Israel has to recognize Palestine’s right to exist (a thing that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party, Likud, still has not done), so will Hamas have to recognize Israel’s right, if a durable peace is to move forward.

      But as I say in my post, Israel already has a history of working with parties which were pretty devoted to seeing it disappear. Mutual recognition is generally the result of negotiation, not a prerequisite: When the PLO and Israel were talking in Norway in the early 90s, they didn’t get to mutual recognition until about a day before the DOP was signed on the White House lawn.

      The PLO (headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) is still legally the only body that can negotiate with Israel for the Palestinians, and Abbas has said both publicly and privately that any government he heads will by-definition recognize Israel (Abbas, by the way, has been working for a two-state solution since the 1980s). If Hamas is in a government with the Fatah (the lead member of the PLO), and the PLO negotiates with Israel, Hamas would be admitting a certain recognition of Israel (albeit backhanded, I admit), and as I said in the post, Hamas has consistently said that it would respect any referendum in which Palestinians accept a two-state agreement.

      The fact that Hamas has yet to officially recognize Israel isn’t very pleasant, but when one looks at history and at this specific case, that fact doesn’t need to stand between Israel and negotiations. Unless the Israeli government wants it to, which it’s my impression is precisely the case. (The fact of non-recognition was never raised re: Egypt, Jordan, or the PLO. It’s somewhat suspicious that Israel finds it so troubling now).

  2. Emily – i posted this at ABL, should have posted it here


    One of the things that frustrates me about my left colleagues re: Hamas, Hezbollah even the Muslim Brotherhood is that there is often this romanticized view of them. Usually it’s around the charity/soup kitchen work they do.

    In my view, this makes them vultures exploiting people’s miseries. But in others’ views, such as Prof. Judith Butler (http://bit.ly/kSEsVf Part VI around 14:00 – the academic face of the BDS movement, but who I otherwise greatly admire), their so-called progressive activities makes them part of the left despite their other policies. I would say this is the general sentiment about Hamas on the US left.

    I totally reject that, especially as regards Hamas. To me the dilemma is less an issue of negotiating peace with terrorists than trying to talk rationally with eliminationists who also get cover and sometimes vociferous defense by left colleagues.

    That said, you’re totally right – we have to find a better way to deal with democratically-elected eliminationists, while recognizing many Gazans do not agree with everything their government does (the US during the Bush era also comes to mind.) I’m still trying to figure out an answer, but history is the best guide.

  3. Mary

     /  May 27, 2011

    Thank you for this very clear headed essay.

  4. dmf

     /  May 28, 2011


  5. kev mcveigh

     /  May 29, 2011

    Like many in the West I am woefully ill informed on issues in the Arab/Israeli world(s) but based on what I know of Northern Ireland I would like to comment on perceptions around terrorist negotiations.
    Amongst NI Catholics for many years there was so much deserved resentment towards the Police that people who didn’t support the IRA at all would never assist investigating officers either. The disbanding of the RUC and replacing with PSNI was a vital symbolic step in the long term peace process.
    So if as you say people largely support Hamas because of the social things they do, then to take Hamas out of the discussion someone else must take on that role. Oppressed or poor people often feel their genuine grievances are ignored, and extremists whether terrorists or political groups can exploit this. Dealing with the grievances pulls the rug from under the extremist platform.
    From the outside I wonder how the perception that the West has allowed Israel to ignore UN resolutions similar to those that Iraq or Libya were attacked over contributes to the pro-Hamas cause? The truth of the matter is often less significant than the belief of the population.

  6. A commenter named John left the following comment – the enormity of the factual errors and genuine hate that it expresses means that I chose not to approve the commenter, but I wanted to run the content, in order to then reply very briefly.

    John: Do you bother to watch what Palestinian children are being taught by Hamas TV? Peace? You have to be joking. There is no possibility for peace, just look at 4000 years of Jewish history. It’s neighbors were constantly trying to wipe them out. We now have the diary’s of Assryian and Babylonian kings, Kings in Europe, Rulers throughout the world. Meine Kampf was written before Hitler began his extermination. The obvious is right in front of us all the time. It amazes me how educated people can be so blind.

    My reply: Please watch this video of Israeli Jewish marchers, parading through Palestinian parts of Jerusalem and chanting. You’ll hear the words “Muhammad is dead,” “May your village burn down,” and “Slaughter the Arabs.” Teaching hate is hardly a one-sided affair.

%d bloggers like this: