Understanding Why Hamas Refuses to Recognize Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

As a follow on from the previous post it seems appropriate to post one more piece from Alastair Crooke. As a diplomat Crooke had direct meetings with Hamas leaders so what he writes should have some credibility. The following is from his 2009 book Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution. I hope some readers find this discussion informative. All bolded highlighting is my own.

Refusing Recognition

The refusal to recognise and to acknowledge special rights or a hierarchy of identity is filtered through the prism of Euro-centrism when westerners contemplate a movement such as Hamas: refusal to recognise Israel is perceived not as an act of resistance but the obduracy of fundamentalism. It is a further signal of being held fast by religious or cultural instincts – it demonstrates the inability to embrace change.

‘Plainly Israel “exists”, and to deny it, is obdurate perversity … All they have to do is say those three words: We recognise Israel’, an editorial board meeting at Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily newspaper repeatedly and wearily emphasised in a discussion with the author – with heads shaking in disbelief at Hamas’ inexplicable refusal to say the three words.

That is surely the widespread assumption among most Westerners today. So what is Hamas’s explanation? What is the point of resistance against such overwhelming power?

Hamas is not only refusing to ‘say the three words’. It refutes a Jewish-Israeli exclusionary identity, one that has never acknowledged Palestinian rights, and which has never accepted any parity of rights between the Jewish people and the Palestinian people.

Khaled Mesha’al, the political leader of Hamas, speaks of resistance as an attempt to bring about a ‘balance’. He was clear that the aim of this was to effect a psychological change on the part of the occupier – rather than to inflict a military defeat in terms of conventional military tactics:

Khaled Mesha’al

The problem is that they believe that they can dictate to the weaker party. This is not an approach that will lead to peace. A few years ago in 2003 we were ready to be flexible. We offered a new initiative – the truce, or hudna, of 2003 – but Israel did not respond positively. It did not result well.

Israel still, at this time, plainly does not feel the need to pay any price … It wants to impose its pre-conditions of required Palestinian ‘good behaviour’; it then demands the right to evaluate for itself that ‘good behaviour’, and thinks that is enough. It is never willing to offer gestures on its own initiative. This unbalanced approach will fail: it needs to understand that in Hamas there is a tough negotiator; but one, that, unlike others, stands by its commitments when given.23

23. Khaled Mesha’al in an interview with the author, 2007.

Justice? Compromise? But without respect for the rights of the other?

And in a later interview:

They want neither a peace based on justice nor a peace based on compromise. They want to keep the land, they want security for themselves and they want to be the masters of the whole region, without recognising the rights of Palestinians. Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas tried to pursue a compromise. Did they achieve peace with the Israelis? So, the obstacle to peace in the region is Israel – and American bias.24

24. Interview with Hugh Spanner in Damascus, May 2008.

What Hamas is doing – in dramatic fashion – is to put a finger on a key failure of the Israeli–Palestinian political process since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 – which is the singular omission of any clear outline of Palestinian rights.

A people’s narrative is their identity. It is at the heart of their self-respect, dignity. It is true of large groups as well as of individuals.

What the Hamas leaders are stating is that while the West repeatedly honours the Jewish narrative of injustice, it feels no parallel need to recognise or acknowledge the Palestinian narrative of injustice that Palestinians feel in respect to the events of 1948, when villages and houses were destroyed, many were killed and thousands fled to refugee camps beyond Palestine’s borders.

Hamas refuses recognition of Israel and persists with resistance in order to demand that recognition of this Palestinian narrative, first, should be made unequivocally; and, second, that it should take the form of an affirmation of Palestinian rights to a state on the basis of Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian lands conquered in 1967.

To Hamas, the international demand on them for a prior recognition of an Israeli right, before Palestinian rights are recognised, seems to require from them to concede the right of a superior Jewish title to their land, while disdaining their rights as a secondary consideration to securing the Palestinian recognition of Israel.

Shifting the goal-posts. . .

25. A point made more recently by the British Parliament’s International Development Committee report in January 2007 which noted that:

while severe pressure has been placed on the Hamas-led PA to change its policies and accept Quartet principles, no comparable initiative has been taken with the Government of Israel to encourage it to put into practice agreements it has signed up to or to end clearly identified practices which are causing poverty and suffering in Gaza. (Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Fourth Report of Session 2006–07, 24 January 2007, p. 28; URL [consulted November 2008]: http:// www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200607/ cmselect/cmintdev/114/114i.pdf)

Hamas has forcefully pointed out that the USA’s insistence on recognition of Israel has never been a condition for any previous dialogue.25 The US and its allies maintained relations with President Abdul Nasser, President Hafez al-Assad, King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz and King Hussein, at a time when Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran not only refused to speak with Israeli leaders, but vowed to destroy Israel.

It’s rather simple when looked at this way . . . .

Hamas’ act of refusal therefore is not, as it is often labelled, the action of a ‘spoiler’, whose wrong-headedness over failing to utter ‘the three words’ is otherwise inexplicable. Continued resistance is intended to change the terms of debate, to shift from one party’s self-assumed ‘right’ to occupy others’ lands, to that of a negotiation based on the starting point that both parties have ‘rights’ and both have suffered from injustice. Only from this more balanced starting point can a solution flow.

Hamas leaders believe that a statement of Palestinian rights is more likely to facilitate a political process than undermine it. In other words, resistance is not about refusing dialogue but is a tool to change the parameters of dialogue and thereby make genuine value-modification and discussion between the parties possible. When Khaled Mesha’al said that resistance facilitates a solution by helping to create a balance, he was describing this paradigm shift:

26. That is, before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War

27. Interview with Hugh Spanner in Damascus, May 2008.

We in Hamas, like most of the Palestinian factions, have accepted the idea of a state with the borders of 4 June 1967.[26] However, we have said that we will not recognise Israel. Why? It is because the Palestinian people are convinced that the land which Israel occupies is their land. So, while they accept a state with the borders of 1967, they do not want to give legitimacy to those who occupied their lands 60 or 70 years ago. So, the formula is simply this: if through politics we can come to agree a Palestinian state with the borders of 1967, why should we be forced to renounce our beliefs and feelings too, by recognising Israel?27

Respect. We keep hearing that word.

Resistance for Hamas therefore is both an expression of deep seated human emotions and Islamist principles of justice. At a human level, resistance offers those whose lands have been occupied a route to self-respect and esteem by becoming what Fanon called ‘actional’ – by which he means resistance to the established order, the capacity to say ‘no’, to refuse to adjust or adapt to the pressure to acquiesce.

At the level of justice, Islamists view these human values as standing above politics. Hamas therefore does see a solution with Israel in different terms from those of Fateh. They do not share Fateh’s optimism that Palestinian weakness in contrast to Israel’s strength can be counterbalanced by co-opting the international community to weigh in on the Palestinian side.

Hamas believes that only by getting the principles right, by insisting on the meaning and significance of concepts such as freedom, justice and welfare, which in the current western usage, in their view, have little reality or moral value, can a real dialogue take place. And if we want to understand and put meaning to these words, they have to be addressed from a footing of respect. Respect is therefore crucial to facilitating any successful outcome, and if there is no other alternative, then respect has to come from resistance.

In short, Hamas believes that a negotiation that centres on ethical issues such as rights and justice for Palestinians cannot be successfully concluded with Israeli negotiators who take force and power to be the dominant factors. Peace and justice can only be axioms to someone who recognises them as being definite and ultimate. Until this comes about, no dialogue will be successful, Hamas suggests.

(pp. 209-212)

So it’s not about “driving all the Jews into the sea” after all?

Crooke, Alastair. 2009. Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution. London ; New York: Pluto Press.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Why Hamas Refuses to Recognize Israel”

  1. It is basic sovereignty. If Israel commands territory, it commands the loyalty of the people in it. Israel can accommodate various expressions of how Israel is to be run. Israel cannot accommodate Islam (or Christianity), which denies to the Jews their right to a sovereign nation, on account of being Christ-killers or Prophet-killers or capitalists or communists or squatters on Arab land [where Arabic went unspoken until 650 CE] or whatever other excuse.

    Israel cannot accommodate modern liberalism as expounded on vridar.org, either. Modern liberalism does not accept national borders: it does not take ‘brown’ borders seriously, and it views ‘white’ borders as selfish and unfair. Israel is ‘white’ for this purpose.

    1. Israel cannot accommodate Islam (or Christianity)

      Baloney. If that were true then the world should demand an end to the Zionist Israel just as it demanded an end to apartheid South Africa.

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