I recently got into an argument with one of my friends about Gaza. This is not an uncommon occurrence for two bored Jewish students, but I was surprised, summarily, by the tack taken by my friend, who claimed that Hamas must be viewed as a legitimate government and have the “terrorist organization” label removed completely if Israel and the international community are ever to be successful in resolving the ongoing volatility of the Gaza Strip.
My initial reaction was to be horrified. A born-and-bred American (my friend is Swedish-transplanted-to-France, and perhaps this cultural divide is to blame for our difference of opinion), I come from the Ronald-Reagan school of militaristic morals; in all cases, I believe it to be smarter not to negotiate with terrorists, to concede to terror demands, or to acquiesce to or engage an enemy employing terror tactics. The watershed Iran-Contra reveal, perhaps the most well-known example of a departure from purported “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” catchphrase policy, did more for establishing a strong political overture against engagement than it ever justified. The recent slayings of journalists by ISIS can be broadly employed as another argument against negotiation; in any 2 a.m. common-room jousting session between Political Science majors, it’s likely that someone will trot out the theory that “engaging terrorists encourages abductions and ransom demands,” and I happen to believe that the theory is sound, if situationally dependent.
I tried my best, but walked away from our argument with a nagging feeling that I was missing something. My friend made a strong case; Hamas, technically, does a lot more than fire mortars and incite hatred. Societal structure in Gaza is heavily integrated with Hamas’ military wing, but its social-welfare and cultural institutions – schools, mosques – form the bulk of its civilian appeal. I can see how, as my friend chose to argue, an average Gazan citizen could see a lot of good in Hamas. I can see how a holistic look at Hamas could prove messy in upholding the vilified caricature and “terror organization” label disseminated by Western and American media and political figures.
But I still don’t agree, and here’s why: I don’t think it matters that the average Gazan citizen may benefit from Hamas as a government. I don’t think it would matter even if Hamas cured cancer or saved the Tasmanian fruit bat from extinction. Not matter what else they may do, they attack Israeli civilians indiscriminately and use Palestinian civilians as shields and pawns in their hatred-fueled assault on Israel, a state that has, time and again, done everything it could reasonably be expected to do to leave them alone. Hamas, in any evaluation of the term, is a terrorist organization, and furthermore, is the primary aggressor in the ongoing conflict with Israel.
My friend rejected this argument as oversimplification and accused me of being narrow in my definition of terrorism and unwilling to consider alternative routes to achieve peace (it should be made clear that we do this for intellectual exercise – neither of us took actual offense to the other’s position). He posed the question of legitimacy; how can Israel ever hope to deal with Hamas if it refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of Hamas as an entity representative of the Palestinian people? Through the narrow lens of “terrorist,” no opponent can be taken as seriously as is necessary to resolve a conflict, and isn’t the whole problem with Hamas that they don’t accept Israel as a legitimate state? I had no response, and went away frustrated at my inability to articulate my views (and annoyed that I had lost another argument to him – I don’t win very often, and I’m starting to think he’s losing respect for my capability as an opponent).
As so often happens, however (hopefully not just to me), I came up with a counterargument at roughly 4 a.m. the following morning. By this time, it was too late to revisit the subject, but my need to articulate this line of thought gave birth to this article. I doubt my friend will ever read this, and I must bury my ambitions of victory on that particular front, but for the benefit of those who do, this is why Hamas can never be considered anything besides a terror entity:
Hamas poses more of a threat to its own people than it could ever hope to leverage against Israel. It is they who have to suffer from living above mortar caches; their children who have to walk to school past the headquarters of a terrorist organization. It is they who have no choice but to participate in the endless bloodshed brought upon them by the actions of their government. It is they who can’t speak up; the slaughter of dissidents and informers is widely documented in Gaza.
Whatever else Hamas may do for the Palestinian people, it is the primary perpetrator and perpetuator of their suffering, and for that, it cannot be considered anything other than a terrorist entity. And if Hamas wants to gain any more traction in the international community, it should be required to give up human pawn tactics. The near-complete integration of military infrastructure into civilian centers – schools, hospitals, UN-funded facilities – is an inexcusable violation of the rights of Palestinians in Gaza.
So, for them, I disagree. I disagree in the strongest way possible that we need to take Hamas more seriously if we have a hope of being successful in ending the conflict. At the risk of pessimism, I would say that the impetus to resolve the conflict is on Hamas itself, and that nothing Israel or the international community does will be effective in creating a lasting peace until Hamas moves on that front. We don’t need to take them more seriously – and would be doing ourselves and the citizens of Gaza a disservice if we weakened our definition of Hamas for the sake of an imagined path to peace.
Until Hamas itself takes human life more seriously, nothing can be resolved.