What does Hamas want?

The Israeli historian Benny Morris is pessimistic about the prospect of a revival of the Middle East peace process, which he says is doomed to failure not because of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to freeze the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories but simply because the Palestinians have never accepted – and still refuse to accept – the idea of a two-state solution. Morris argued in an op-ed in the Guardian yesterday that neither Hamas nor even Fatah accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. He suggests that there has not been much change since eighty years ago when Palestinian leaders held the all-or-nothing view that “we will push the Zionists into the sea, or they will send us back into the desert”.

It’s difficult to dismiss these kind of views when they come from someone like Morris. Born in Britain but raised on a kibbutz in Israel, he made his name with his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, which among other things documented the expulsion of Arabs around the time that Israel came into existence. It was one of several books published in the late eighties that challenged what was until then was the standard Zionist narrative of the events surrounding the creation of Israel and whose authors came to be known as the revisionist, or new, historians. For a long time, Morris was reviled in Israel for his views – for example, he supported the first intifada. In other words, this is not some right-wing Likudnik. However, since the start of the second intifada in 2000, Morris has become increasingly critical of the Palestinian leadership, which he now sees as a the main problem in the conflict (David Remnick wrote an excellent review of Morris’s 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, published last year, that describes the evolution of his thinking.)

I’m not enough of an expert on Hamas to know if Morris is right in his claims about the intransigence of the Palestinian leadership. Someone who argues the opposite is Michael Bröning, the head of the East Jerusalem office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (a German foundation affiliated to the Social Democrats) in East Jerusalem, who I met when I was in Jerusalem earlier this year. He suggested recently in an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Hamas 2.0” that the Islamist movement is actually undergoing a quiet and unacknowledged transformation. He says western diplomats should stop calling for Hamas to renounce its notorious founding charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction and even invokes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion but has, he says, “ceased to play a significant role in the group’s ideology”. He says Hamas needs to refuse to recognize Israel’s legitimacy in order to retain support but has softened its opposition in practice to the idea of a two-state solution, thus offering an opportunity for diplomatic engagement.

But even if Bröning is right about the increasing irrelevance of the founding charter (and I’m not sure he is), and even if Western diplomats should go out on a limb and recognize a movement that doesn’t recognize Israel (and I’m not sure they should), it’s hard to see how that will be enough. Even Bröning’s new, improved “Hamas 2.0” has as one of its minimum demands the “right of return”. Morris says there are around five million refugees, who, if they returned, would instantly turn Israel into an Arab-majority state – what he calls a “demographic battering ram”. And even if Hamas wanted to compromise on this demand, it is itself now being challenged by even more radical Islamist groups in Gaza, which would seem to make it politically impossible for it to do so. Maybe Morris is right to be pessimistic.

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