BY DANIELLE BATTERMAN
Since their democratic election in 2006, and military takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas’ lack of international legitimacy has served as a major obstacle for advancing the Palestinian national project. As the non-secular party option to Fatah, Hamas’ electoral win signaled the triumph of a hardline stance against Israel among the Palestinian Authority’s electorate. In the years that followed, Hamas’ label as a terrorist organization led to a diplomatic stalemate and exacerbated tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis. However, 14 years later, it is Fatah who stands in the way of democracy’s return to the Palestinian territories. Previous signs of political moderation from Hamas and changing dynamics in the Israeli parliament had given at least some hope for optimism surrounding the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations. However, the now postponed 2021 Palestinian elections, and extreme escalation of violence have further cemented the political stalemate that has persisted for decades.
Since its formation, Hamas has used its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, to carry out attacks against Israel as a form of political leverage. Paradoxically, Hamas has shown signs of political moderation both in terms of its domestic rhetoric geared at a Palestinian audience and its attempts at diplomatic negotiations with Israel for over two decades. Often these efforts were lost on a Western audience, as cultural differences prohibit Hamas from making explicit departures from its founding ideology by conceding on certain points. While the group will never verbally support Israel’s “right to existence,” primarily due to the legal and moral connotations surrounding this wordage in Arabic, it had accepted the reality of Israel by supporting the two-state solution along the 1967 borders. Further, they have made extended efforts to shift their rhetoric to focus on making appeals on the basis of international law rather than religious law. As strategic efforts to moderate, including multiple attempts at ceasefires, have failed, Hamas continues to employ violence as a means to push its policy goals.
The group’s efforts at moderation had reached a pinnacle with Hamas’ internal decision not to nominate a candidate for the Palestinian presidential elections. This decision showed restraint on the part of Hamas’ leadership, as the group was projected to win in some polls if they had pursued the presidency. Beyond restraint, it was an important example of Hamas’ political pragmatism and prioritization of the Palestinian national project over party gains. Hamas understands that it is not the most effective voice of the Palestinian people on the international stage and therefore chose to focus on gaining domestic representation in this election cycle.
However, it remains uncertain if Fatah is ready to accept Hamas as a political partner. At the end of April, the Palestinian elections were officially postponed by Prime Minister Abbas who argued that citizens of East Jerusalem must be able to participate in the elections, but that it was not clear that Israel would allow this to happen. Speculation suggests that this decision may have largely hinged on Abbas’ fear of losing power in the upcoming election cycle. Support for this theory includes polls indicating that, due to a lack of clear majority, Fatah may need to form a coalition with Hamas, as growing internal fractures within Fatah may potentially detract from Abbas’ primacy in the Palestinian Authority.
Prior to the escalation of violence, developments from the most recent Israeli election had appeared to provide an opening for more constructive dialogue. This primarily refers to the strong performance of the small, conservative Islamic party, the United Arab List, who were successful in winning five parliament seats. Mansour Abbas, who leads the Arab party, was already approached by Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, who is hoping to turn Netanyahu out of power, about joining a government. This would be the first time an Arab party is included in a coalition in Israeli politics. As prime minister Netanyahu’s deadline to form a new government was May 4th, a shift of power from Netanyahu to the leader of another Israeli party, such as Yesh Atid, may provide an opportunity for more Arab influence in the parliament.
Further, if the 2021 elections had been able to take place as scheduled, Hamas relinquishing the presidency would have given the Palestinian Authority more legitimacy as it negates the excuse that Israel cannot negotiate with a terrorist organization. A change in Palestinian leadership coinciding with an integrated Arab presence within the Israeli government could have been a powerful combination to place greater pressure on the Israeli government to move forward with negotiations.
As civil unrest boils over within Israel and targeted attacks intensify on both sides, it appears the small window for rapprochement may have closed. However, the conflict in its rapidly evolving form is not sustainable at its current level of intensity. For decades, pressure has been building as Palestinians have been denied a political voice and access to basic resources. The escalation of tension and deadly force observed over the past week has brought to light the need for tangible steps to forge lasting solutions that promote Palestinian economic empowerment and political renewal, as well as support efforts to promote social cohesion within Israel. Failure to do so will only further fragment the region and continue to contribute to the cycle of violence. Given the stalemate between the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, coordinated efforts to diffuse the conflict and begin the process of reconciliation may need to originate from the international community.
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