The Cold, Cold Heart of Hamas


When I was in Israel, reporting for the Voice in the 1980s, I interviewed—and supported—members of Peace Now (Shalom Achshav), an organization of 348 soldiers and reserve officers in the Israeli army’s combat units that had been formed in 1978. Their movement supporting an independent Palestinian state next to Israel continues to operate, with Peace Now monitoring and protesting, for example, the building of illegal Israeli settlements.

And I spent an afternoon back then in East Jerusalem with the Palestinian editor of a fiercely anti-Israel newspaper. As if in a reverie, heleaned forward and said to me: “Imagine what it would be like if the two states did co-exist. With all the resources in this region, we could create an extraordinary garden of industries and exports.”

A couple of minutes later, he returned angrily to what he called “the occupation,” and the vision vanished.

Since then, in writing and in lectures on that broken fantasy of the cooperative garden, I’ve been listed among the enemies of Israel and also of the Palestinians. I have been critical of both. I’m still convinced that only an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel—with the Palestinian nation recognizing Israel’s right to exist—could bring an end to the death and bitterness on both sides.

Even now, with Condoleezza Rice back on her treadmill of jerry-built statecraft after at least 116 Arabs, including children, were killed by Israeli forces in two days in Gaza—the largest number of corpses in one day since the intifada began—there remain Palestinians and Israelis who are not caught in the quicksand of hopelessness that says a mutually disastrous Armageddon is inevitable.

For example, when Israeli army chief of staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi and the head of military intelligence, General Amos Yadlin, declared that 90 percent of those killed in Gaza in retaliation against the Hamas rockets were terrorists, the Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem contradicted Ashkenazi and told The New York Times (March 4): “At least 54 [of the 116] had not taken part in the hostilities.” They were civilians.

The day before, the BBC reported from Gaza’s streets that among the crowds reviling Israel, there were Palestinians who were angry that Hamas’s persistent sending of Katyusha rockets to maim and kill Israelis was resulting in the retaliatory killing of Palestinians! In its report of the Hamas celebrations of the Israeli withdrawal after two days, the Times wrote: “Many Palestinians in Gaza also expressed reservations about the Hamas celebrations, given the number of people who have died.” When Hamas promised money to repair the damage, 85-year-old Aisha Abde Rabbo said: “All I want is the return of those who were killed.”

As for those rockets—now longer in their range, like those used by Hamas’s mentor, Hezbollah—imagine yourself living in a city or a rural area being targeted almost every day for months, and even years, by these missiles that keep you in constant fear.

You might expect your government to negotiate with these faceless people who want to destroy you. But what if they don’t recognize the right of your government to exist? What then?

Insisting that it had no choice but to retaliate, Israel maintains it had no intention to kill civilians and has always tried not to. The deadly problem is that, like Hezbollah, Hamas deliberately operates its rocket attacks from deep inside civilian Palestinian neighborhoods, and sometimes in the very homes of noncombatants.

The likelihood of Israeli civilian casualties is essential to Hamas’s strategy of resistance. Its leaders know that their rockets will not only cause injury and death, but also an enveloping dread among Israelis of impending attacks. And they will guarantee armed retaliation from the hated Israeli army.

That’s precisely what Hamas desires, because once again the United Nations’ Secretary General, the European Union, international human-rights organizations, and appalled people around the world will accuse Israel of savage, “excessive force.” Israel, once more, will be a pariah among nations—and the reason for such retaliatory force will be ignored.

Meanwhile, the great majority of those describing Israel’s retaliation as inhuman because of the civilians killed do not mention that using civilians as human shields is a war crime under international law.

I am not at all unaware of the legitimate, deep grievances that Palestinians have—the tragedies, for instance, of people in immediate need of life-saving hospital care being stopped cold, and eventually dying, at Israeli checkpoints. It isn’t enough for Israeli human-rights activists to protest. There could be medical professionals at checkpoints to validate the needs of desperate Palestinians and insist that they get through—often to Israeli hospitals that treat many Palestinians.

There’s more the Israel government can do to show that it listens to its own human-rights organizations, like B’Tselem. But it also needs to negotiate—even with this entity, Hamas, that wants to wipe it off the map.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the tirelessly inept Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made a useful point about Hamas’s own need to negotiate on National Public Radio (March 3): “In Gaza [now], people are asking Hamas, ‘What actually do you want? Do you really believe that shooting rockets into Israeli cities is going to help Palestinians?’ And that’s ultimately the challenge: We [Israelis] have . . . to show the Palestinian people that the path of moderation, the path of negotiation, brings tangible benefits. The terrorists, they don’t really have solutions to anybody’s real problems.”

While Arab-language television around the world is continually showing pictures of the recent dead and wounded Palestinians (including children) in Gaza, lost in nearly all the coverage here as well was a report in a leading Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, that a February Tel Aviv University poll reveals that 68 percent of Israelis favor talks with Hamas.

Next week: After an Arab Israeli citizen killed eight Israeli students in a Jerusalem religious school on March 6, Hamas crowed: “We bless the operation. It will not be the last.” So what now? And can they be negotiated with?