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For the fighting to end on Israel’s terms, Hamas must accept blame for provoking the Israeli assault without winning any acknowledgement of the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in Gaza ever since Hamas won the U.S. promoted elections in January 2006. For almost two years, a concerted effort to isolate and overthrow Hamas and to undermine the Gaza economy has been encouraged by the U.S. government and the European Union and implemented by Israel and the PA. Hamas leaders were told they could lift the siege only by abstaining from anti-Israeli violence, acknowledging the legitimate existence of Israel, and accepting the agreements signed between Israel and the PA.
Hamas has consistently refused, arguing that recognition of the peace agreements with Israel would be equivalent to recognizing occupation, particularly against a history of Palestinian concessions that not only failed to end Israeli occupation but deepened it. After Hamas defeated PA military contingents in June 2007 and established a rival political authority in Gaza, the siege of the strip tightened. Hamas, despite its espoused enmity toward Israel, has indicated its willingness to negotiate. It has voiced support for the 2002 Arab League’s declaration offering Israel permanent peace in exchange for returning to its internationally recognized pre-1967 borders. Hamas chief Khaled Meshal and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya similarly confirmed Hamas’ willingness to accept 1967 borders and a two-state solution should Israel withdraw from the occupied territories.
A ceasefire is likely to be in place when Barack Obama is inaugurated on January 20th, but we expect that the outcome of the Gaza fighting is likely to underline the self-delusion that has framed the U.S.-Israeli perspective on major groups like Hamas for years, namely that Israel may choose its Palestinian interlocutors, and marginalize and criminalize those who are unwilling to negotiate on Israel’s terms. While Hamas by no means speaks for all Palestinians, it is fatuous to assume that Hamas may be ignored politically or diplomatically.
In 2006, the Olmert government went to war to defeat Hezbollah and failed. A quarter century prior, Israel launched a major invasion of Lebanon to defeat the PLO and quash Palestinian nationalism. That attempt also failed. We expect that when the Gaza war ends a battered Hamas is likely to emerge stronger politically than it was when the fighting began. Yet, the already decrepit Gaza infrastructure will be in rubble, and the reestablishment of public order will be a formidable challenge for Hamas, even if the group remains in nominal control of Gaza. There is also the very real possibility that more extreme Islamists groups will strengthen, vying with Hamas for control (as they already do in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon).
The Gaza war will change the political landscape of the Middle East. As such it presents an enormous if not unwelcome challenge for President-elect Obama. The new president will have to address renewed Muslim enmity toward the U.S., as well an arduous challenge of peace-making between a deeply fragmented Palestinian leadership and an Israeli government even less ready or willing than its immediate predecessors to bow to the inevitable sacrifices that peace requires. History has taught that peace in this region—if in fact that is the goal—can be imposed neither with bombs nor rockets.
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