This week – following Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to the Middle East to try and restart a long-stalled peace process – it’s instructive to consider the situation of a Palestinian infant from the Gaza Strip named Heba Abu Khater. Last August, Heba was admitted to the Wolfson Medical Center in Israel on life support. Facing long odds because of a congenital heart defect, she was one of nearly 100 other Palestinian children that received free cardiac care last year from an Israeli NGO called “Save a Child’s Heart.”
After an invasive surgery in Wolfson’s state-of-the-art medical center, Heba quickly bounced back. Today she is on the road to recovery and doing well, except for one thing: under new laws passed this month by Hamas – the terrorist organization that rules over Gaza – Heba’s family and the Palestinian hospital staff that treated her could all be subjected to ten-year prison sentences for engaging with an Israeli NGO.
For much of the international community – now awash in talk about the prospects for renewed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians – Hamas’ latest assault on the foundations for peace has largely inspired a collective yawn.
Maybe this is because Hamas’ imposition of it’s extremist ideology on the people of Gaza has been so oppressive, systematic and sustained over the past six years that another act of tyranny is nothing out of the ordinary. Women in Gaza are jailed for riding bicycles and leaving their homes without a veil. Children are fed hatred of Israel and virulent anti-Semitism from the cradle. Palestinian schools are cynically used to fire rockets at Israel.
In its present form, the environment of Gaza is more likely to produce a new species of polar bear than an outbreak of peace.
Undoubtedly, in many press conferences and statements of the weeks to come, Western diplomats and leaders will deal with the question of Hamas primarily by repeating the three conditions that the Diplomatic Quartet – which includes the U.S., EU, UN, and Russia – has imposed on the terrorist group as requirements for international recognition: Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements signed by the Palestinians.
During my time at the UN, I heard these conditions recited on a weekly basis – often emphatically – as if Hamas was carefully weighing them and might come around at any moment to the Quartet’s way of thinking with only a little more verbal coaxing from Western diplomats.
Hamas’ position has not moved one iota since the Quartet unveiled these principles. Instead, the organization has used the past six years to brutally stamp out any dissent to its rule over Gaza, acquire vast quantities of sophisticated weapons from Iran, and raise its international legitimacy by expanding relationships in the region and even appearing before the UN in Geneva.
In his speech in Israel last month, President Obama rightly said that peace begins “in the hearts of people,” not “the plans of leaders.” As long as Hamas is ruling Gaza, the minds of a nearly half the Palestinian population will be poisoned by an organization whose charter calls for the violent destruction of Israel and the genocide of Jews. Meanwhile, Israelis will be much more reluctant to make painful compromises with President Abbas – whose own schools and media are also filled with hate and incitement – as long as he can’t speak for all Palestinians.
There are no easy solutions for dealing with Hamas. Removing the organization by force would leave a vacuum in which an even more extreme group could take over or require Israel to go back into Gaza permanently, which few have the stomach to undertake. Some argue that the radicals can only be weakened if Israel makes more territorial concessions to strengthen President Abbas. It’s a view that has been dramatically undercut since the Gaza disengagement, which is what allowed Hamas to build a mini terror-state in Israel’s backyard in the first place.
Many in the West use the idea that successful negotiations will eventually sideline Hamas as a convenient excuse to ignore the steps that should be taken to counter them today. Iranian weapons continue to grow Hamas’ arsenal. Regional players like Qatar and Turkey continue to fund and legitimize the organization’s activities with little consequence among their Western allies. Most daily acts of Hamas terror inflicted on Palestinians and Israelis remain confined to the back pages of newspapers – and the footnotes of major diplomatic initiatives and speeches.
In seeking a peaceful solution for Israelis and Palestinians, the reality of Hamas cannot be tabled. No amount of wishful thinking will revive a peace process still subject to a terrorist veto.