DOHA, Qatar — Hamas’ electoral success since the first round of local elections in Gaza in December has signaled a dramatic shift in the way the movement is perceived both nationally and internationally.

The defining moment was not Hamas’ direct participation in the three rounds of local elections leading to the now postponed parliamentary elections but the passing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11. Arafat’s death convincingly shifted the political pendulum in favor of Hamas.

Arafat’s unanticipated absence brought to the surface an array of conflicts within his own party, Fatah. This internal strife manifested itself in open power struggles between the movement’s traditional, elitist leadership — labeled the old guard — and the younger generation. The past force of unity among Palestinians has become an expression of political and social volatility, rendering reforms within the party not just desirable but imperative.

Nothing can be said to stress the importance of Fatah’s structural and organizational mayhem in fortifying Hamas’ repute among ordinary Palestinians who voted en masse in favor of Hamas candidates in successive municipal elections. Hamas is now in control of over a third of the Occupied Territories’ municipal seats, including most of the major cities.

Since its formal inception in the late 1980s, and even before, Hamas has garnered support among Palestinians through its active involvement in relief work, educational projects and, most notably, its violent and often deadly responses to the Israeli military policies.

All of this has made the Israeli government’s demands that newly elected PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) “dismantle” Hamas closer to wishful thinking. Hamas is no longer a few fiery young men circulating a badly inscribed flier, but a united and growing political force whose consent in any future political settlement is a necessity.

Abbas made the right choice when he decided to “engage” Hamas. The PA president has succeeded in deferring Hamas’ response to Israeli military provocations in the Occupied Territories, with the hope that Israel will not falter on its commitment to “disengage” from Gaza. Hamas’ commitment to the ceasefire has contributed to the movement’s reputation as a credible political player that enjoys unequaled discipline.

As always, the strong showing of Islamic factions at polling stations ignites dilemmas for democracy advocates, mostly in the West. EU states were the first to wrangle with the quandary of dealing with formerly blacklisted elected officials after having proscribed the military and political wings of Hamas since 2003.

Although the European Union has yet to declare an official turnaround on Hamas, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has admitted to journalists that British diplomats have met with officials representing Hamas’ political wing on two occasions. In fact, a meeting between Hamas officials and EU diplomats, in the Occupied Territories and abroad, takes place “every 10 days to two weeks,” according to a senior member of the Islamic movement, Mohammed Ghazal.

The timing of these meetings has indeed surpassed the realm of mere technicality. The fact that the U.S. government has not harshly repudiated Europe’s intent to engage Hamas can be understood either as tacit support of these contacts, or as an incapacity to provide a substitute for Europe’s diplomacy aimed at accommodating and eventually pacifying Hamas’ rising political esteem.

Israeli officials are reportedly “fumed” by these contacts. “We believe Europeans should be strengthening moderate Palestinians and not appeasing the extremists,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Roger said. “Anything that demonstrates acceptance of Hamas as a legitimate player is a problem.”

The Israeli response is a requisite if Israel is to maintain the belief that it is oblivious to Hamas’ political importance. However, the Israeli position becomes less certain when one ponders announcements by the Israeli army’s “Civil Administration” in the West Bank that “it has no problem with contacts between its own officials and Hamas members elected as mayors and other ranking local officials,” according to the Independent. It remains to be said that the unavoidable realization that Hamas is a political force that must be engaged rather than boycotted poses a dilemma to the movement itself. Hamas, fully aware of the double standards according to which the West has long perceived the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, must realize that advocating and executing suicide bombings — even as a response to Israeli targeting of Palestinian civilians — is likely to stamp out any possibility of politically legitimizing it.

The contacts between Hamas and European diplomats are likely to continue and perhaps evolve into higher level exchanges as long as all the parties concerned — including Israel and the PA — benefit from such “engagement.” Both Israel’s proposed “disengagement” from Gaza, scheduled for August, and the Palestinian parliamentary elections are two important factors that will likely influence the direction and magnitude of the exchanges.

Yet the central factor likely to decide the character and attitude of Hamas is Israel’s own political attitude and military policy in the post-Gaza phase. Continued Israeli domination of the West Bank, expansion of illegal settlements, and insistence on completing the Israeli Separation Wall built illegally on Palestinian land are good enough reasons for Hamas to preserve its militant posture toward Israel.

This leads to only one conclusion: To engage Hamas successfully, Europe, with equal urgency needs to “engage” and “rein in” Israel. Without it, European diplomacy will remain partial and useless.

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