I would like to discuss your recent featured post in the ToI, headed “A lot can happen between now and 2024,” with the additional subheading, “Palestinians have a real chance at a state if they seize the moment with creativity and strategy, which won’t happen under their current leadership”.
I suppose that, when confronted with a problem, it’s better to have an optimistic rather than a pessimistic view of the future because, if you’re convinced at the outset that the problem can’t be solved, why try? But it’s probably also true that a wise person would not permit optimism to camouflage or hide the seriousness of the problem. Frankly, I think your optimistic outlook has caused you to skim over and practically ignore the single most significant obstacle to resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The single most significant obstacle is, in a word, Hamas. You and I both know that Hamas is an armed group of Muslims (whom I believe to be terrorists, although you may not share that view) who are the de facto rulers of Gaza. In 2007, when Mahmoud Abbas actually was the de jure president of the Palestinian National Authority (his four-year term commenced in January of 2005, and many people still refer to him as “president” fifteen (15!) years later), troops loyal to the P.N.A. were violently ejected from Gaza by Hamas gunmen. There were deaths on each side; we don’t know how many. Abbas hasn’t set foot in Gaza since 2007, although it is part of the “state” over which he claims to preside.
Whether or not you accept that it engages in terrorism, Hamas is a group founded on what its members believe are religious principles, and, in their view, those principles impose a solemn religious duty to erase from the land of Palestine—land which is “Islamic”—all trace of Jewish sovereignty. Hamas is not shy about proclaiming this goal; it is clearly stated in its charter. (And if, as you suggest, fifty Arab and/or Muslim countries make fifty demands on Israel in return for normalization, I think we both would agree that one demand that Israel would never accept is that Israel becomes a state that lacks a Jewish majority in its population and also in its government.)
Hamas also has not been shy about using deadly force against Israel, when it believed that it is advantageous and prudent to do so. Periodically, Hamas—along with other Islamist terrorist groups garrisoned in Gaza, who sometimes act without Hamas’ authority—fires mortars and rockets into Israel; sends balloons carrying incendiary devices into Israel; digs tunnels under the border between Israel and Gaza to be used in attacks and in kidnappings; and also organizes “demonstrations” at the border, which frequently feature sling-shot rocks hurled at Israeli soldiers and attempts to breach the border fence. Since 2007, there have been periodic hostilities, which range in intensity from all-out armed conflict to relatively minor skirmishes, between Israel and Hamas.
No clear-sighted, fair-minded observer could even imagine that, if Abbas or some other “president” of the P.N.A. (even a president whose term had not expired fifteen years ago) were to enter into a peace agreement with Israel, Hamas and the other terrorist groups in Gaza would simply lay down their arms and co-exist peacefully with a Jewish-majority state in the Middle East. Do you disagree, Prof. Bahbah? Do you think that Hamas and the other terrorist groups in Gaza would accept a peace agreement between the P.N.A. and Israel?
If we are in agreement that Hamas and its Islamist comrades would never accept such an agreement, then a crucial question arises: how is Gaza to be freed from the rule of Hamas? Or, to put the same question another way: how is the P.N.A. going to replace Hamas as the ruler of Gaza?
Abbas and the other superannuated hierarchy of the P.N.A. are very skillful, I believe, in skimming off the top of the very generous donations the international community sends to the P.N.A. to keep it financially afloat; he also has a knack for delivering painfully long-winded speeches that more or less replicate each other. But it is hard to envision Abbas as the commander-in-chief of a P.N.A. military force that has the power and the will to wrest control of Gaza away from Hamas. The fighters who seem most willing to die for their cause belong to the Islamist groups, not to the P.N.A.
What will happen when Abbas and his cronies no longer lead the P.N.A.? Surely, there will come a day when the P.N.A. cast of characters will change, whether through democratic elections or human mortality. But, how will a new set of P.N.A. leaders deal with Hamas?
I have to be frank here: I can’t see how the introduction of an entirely new set of P.N.A. leaders will change the basic facts. The basic facts are that the men who have the most guns and who are most willing to die for their cause are the members of Hamas and the other Islamist groups. Those men are not interested in democratic elections: Abbas was the democratically-elected president of the P.N.A. in 2007, but that did not stop Hamas from violently seizing control of Gaza. As we have seen in many other Arab countries, the faction that has the most weapons, and that is most willing to die using them, is the faction that prevails.
So, Prof. Bahbah, I ask you to tell us, in very concrete and specific terms, how you would propose to wrest control of Gaza away from Hamas. Again, I cannot imagine that you sincerely believe that there can be genuine peace while Gaza remains under the control of Hamas. So, how can Gaza be freed from that control?
I look forward to your response.