RAMALLAH – Despite intensive efforts by Israel, the international community and a number of Arab leaders to weaken and destroy Hamas through economic, punitive and military action, the Islamist organization continues to be a force to reckon with.
Hamas won free and fair democratic elections in January 2006. The U.S. pushed for these elections, which were monitored by international observers including ex-U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and Israel permitted them to be held.
Hamas has since then been dominant, though it took effective control in June 2007, more than a year after its election victory. The Gaza Strip, which the resistance group controls, took a serious battering during Israel's 22-day military assault, codenamed Operation Cast Lead.
The coastal territory has also been economically crippled by nearly two years of an Israeli embargo which has hermetically sealed Gaza off from the rest of the world, preventing the import of all but a tiny flow of humanitarian aid and goods.
Israel purportedly carried out the military operation to stop Palestinian rockets from hitting Israeli cities and towns bordering the Gaza Strip.
However, rocket fire on Israel had virtually ceased in the five months of cease-fire between Israel and Hamas which preceded an Israeli cross-border military operation into Gaza on Nov. 4. This operation provoked a barrage of retaliatory missiles on Israel.
Prior to Operation Cast Lead, a delegation of British parliamentarians met with Hamas leaders in Gaza. The parliamentarians were told that Hamas would be prepared to accept Israel's existence, within the internationally recognized borders of 1967, provided the Jewish state legitimized the rights of Palestinians in return.
Despite the immense scale of death and destruction wrought by Operation Cast Lead, which left over 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, dead, rockets continue to be fired at Israel in spite of disproportionate responses from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Following the recent cease-fire most of Hamas's leadership emerged from underground bunkers unscathed. The digging of smuggling tunnels for everyday necessities as well as arms has resumed.
Furthermore, there are also growing signs that the Europeans, some Israelis and previous Arab opponents are resigned to factoring Hamas into any political equation to address a resolution of the conflict.
Last week after several days of intensive diplomatic pressure, the Israeli government managed to stymie a French initiative to weaken the Jewish state's stance on Hamas.
Following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, France tried to change a pre-written closing statement released by the ministers regarding the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Paris wanted the statement to say that the EU would be prepared to hold talks with a future Palestinian unity government which included Hamas as long as it agreed to honor the principles of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Additionally, the French delegation to Brussels proposed opening Israeli border crossings into Gaza immediately without any conditions. A previous agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005 stipulated that the PA had to control the crossings.
However, following intervention by Israel, the Czech Republic – the current holder of the EU presidency – Germany, Italy and the Netherlands pushed the French initiative off the agenda.
Israel viewed the French move as an attempt to get the Quartet for Middle East peace – the UN, the U.S., Russia and the EU – to soften its conditions for international recognition of Hamas.
A senior Israeli official said that since the end of the Gaza operation, his country was concerned about a possible break in European support for the boycott of the Hamas government in Gaza.
U.S. President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, met French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in Paris recently.
During the meeting the Gaza cease-fire was discussed and Kouchner stressed the need for inter-Palestinian dialogue and for the border crossings into Gaza to be reopened.
Kouchner again suggested France was open to the idea of a unity government if Hamas softened its stance.
Meanwhile, Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin told reporters in Damascus on Monday that some kind of engagement with Hamas may have to feature in future European Union policy.
Hamas's erstwhile foe and bitter rival Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank, also discussed the issue with French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Paris on Monday.
Abbas too called for a unity Palestinian government and said Hamas's inclusion was imperative as long as it recognized his supreme authority.
On Monday Sarkozy also met Qatar's Prime Minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, whose Persian Gulf country has emerged as a regional mediator since helping to resolve a political crisis in Lebanon last year. Al-Thani insisted Hamas should not be sidelined from peace efforts.
"We must work for a government of national unity between the Palestinians. There should not be efforts to delete or distance one of the Palestinian parties present on the ground," al-Thani told reporters.
Israeli columnist and analyst Akiva Eldar noted in the daily Haaretz that Israel's continual denial of the reality of Hamas as a legitimate political entity was short-sighted.
For 20 years Israel has tried to destroy the movement using carrots and sticks alternately. The only difference between the ruling Kadima party's leader and minister of foreign affairs, Tzipi Livni, and the more right-wing opposition Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu is the size of the clubs to be used, argued Eldar.
"Precisely because of the many children killed in Gaza, Cast Lead has been assured a place of honor in the ethos of the struggle of the Palestinian David, armed with primitive Qassams, and the Israeli Goliath, with his F-16s," said Eldar.
"When they hear the proud declarations of Israel's leaders, to the effect that deterrence has been restored, Hamas's leaders certainly laugh themselves to death, and not just because of the rockets that continue to fall on the people of Ashkelon.
"The threat of a few more bombs on Gaza deters them like the death penalty deters a suicide bomber on the way to carry out an attack," said Eldar.
Only a long-term cease-fire, it seems, accompanied by a real diplomatic context, can pull the rug of popular support out from under Hamas and restore it to its natural proportions.
(Inter Press Service)