RAMALLAH, West Bank — As it struggles to form a government for the Palestinian territories, Hamas seems to be clutching the biblical verses of Ecclesiastes rather than the desires of the Quartet (United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations), which is charged with trying to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” fits Hamas’ current agenda, because its priorities and time frame are different from those of the international community, which is pressing it to make immediate political declarations — most importantly, to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Hamas understands the political obligations that it must meet to be fully accepted in the world community, but its leaders prefer to wait until they are fully empowered before exploring these issues. Moreover, Hamas, like most Palestinians, is trying to evaluate the best way forward in the peace process. In their eyes, the current process produced years of inaction in negotiations, allowing for continued occupation and theft of Palestinian lands.
As an example, Hamas leaders point out that in the past year, with the moderate Mahmoud Abbas in power, the Israelis have not even negotiated with him. So from their point of view, Israel is not going to rush to negotiate with any Palestinian authority, whether it recognizes Israel’s right to exist or not.
Instead, the newly elected Hamas leaders are preoccupied with basic issues like preserving internal unity among Palestinians, ending lawlessness, ensuring greater respect for the rule of law, fighting corruption and reforming Palestinian governance. Most Palestinians are in complete agreement with these priorities.
Indeed, the latest public opinion poll among Palestinians shows that 73 percent feel as secure, or more so, than they did before the Jan. 25 election. Of 709 randomly selected Palestinians surveyed, 30 percent said they hope the new Hamas government tackles corruption. Twenty-two percent said they hope Ismael Haniyeh, Hamas’ designated prime minister, will end the chaos in Palestinian towns and provide internal security and the rule of law. Almost one in five hope unemployment will be addressed.
Ironically, while the majority of Palestinians voted a religious movement into power, only 1 percent of those polled said Hamas’ priority should be to implement Islamic law in Palestine.
While the poll showed that an overwhelming 73 percent of Palestinians still support a peace deal with Israel, they are not confident that any deal is around the corner. Eleven percent of the respondents said the prisoner issue should be the most important priority for the new government — nearly twice the number who said a peace settlement with Israel should be the top priority.
More than 8,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons, many without being charged or tried. Nevertheless, 62 percent of Palestinians said they believe Hamas should change its position regarding recognition of Israel.
It is difficult for an international superpower like the U.S., or a regional one like Israel, to realize that a group or a people would dare set priorities different from theirs. But Palestinians have shown over the years that they are a proud people who will not cave in just because the other side is militarily or politically more powerful.
In any case, Hamas cannot be blamed for using America’s push for democracy to attain popular goals. After all, anyone who wants to be re-elected must give priority to the needs of their own people and not necessarily to the demands of the international community. Only when elected representatives deal with the day-to-day issues that face people can they begin to tackle external negotiations.
What is clear is that Hamas and the Palestinians want an end to the 38-year Israeli occupation, and that selling Palestinians the same plans bought by the PLO will not work. If Israel and the international community are genuinely serious about ending the occupation, Hamas will cooperate.
While Hamas must be flexible in dealing with legitimate requests by the international community, the international community is obliged to provide an effective road map to peace. Once Palestinians are convinced that there is an opportunity for genuine peace and independence, they will press Hamas to act on it — or elect a party that will.
Clearly, the international community has lacked the political will to press Israel to change. For the time being, and until this will is found, the world should give Hamas time to deal with the daily needs of Palestinians.
Once the possibility of serious negotiations appears, a Hamas that has improved the lives of ordinary Palestinians will be in a position to carry out the negotiations that will be needed for a historic compromise.
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