Israel urged to talk to terrorist group Hamas

Political killers: “We nearly always end up talking to them,” says one former negotiator.

Hamas has advocated Israel’s destruction since 1987. Now it has softened its language. Israel’s government, like many others, refuses to talk to terrorists. Should it change its approach?

It has carried out suicide bombings and encouraged stabbings. It has launched rockets and missiles at innocent people. Its tunnels allow it to kidnap civilians and soldiers. It runs schools and mosques which preach anti-semitic messages.

The Palestinian group Hamas has been at war with Israel since 1987. And until now, it has unequivocally called for the Jewish state to be destroyed. In its founding charter it said it would “eliminate” Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state.

But last week it released a new policy document with softer language. It said its quarrel was with “Zionism”, not Jews. It hinted that a future Palestinian state’s borders could be limited.

Israel and its allies in the West refuse to talk to Hamas, which the US state department has labelled a terrorist organisation. Since 2008 Israel has launched three cross-border wars in the Gaza strip, where Hamas is in power. Last week the Israeli government called the new paper “a PR stunt”.

But some now say its approach should change. In March Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, wrote: “There remains no good case for Israel to shun Hamas”. Last week Guardian columnist Tareq Baconi said the new document “must be recognised as an opportunity”.

Democratic governments often stress their refusal to negotiate with terrorists. This is a long-standing tradition: in 1801 Thomas Jefferson, the US president, refused to talk to Barbary pirates.

But in reality they often hold open or secret discussions. Sometimes this has led to the release of hostages or even major peace deals. In 1998 the British government reached an agreement with Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, after a 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland.

Last month ETA, which killed more than 800 people over a 40-year campaign for Basque independence, disarmed: it first talked to Spain’s government in the 1970s. And last year Colombia reached a peace deal with rebel group FARC after a war which killed over 220,000 people.

Terrible?

Welcome to the real world, say some. Terror groups often have a lot of support: Israel is deeply unpopular among the Palestinians, with some justification. It must talk to a group that represents many of them if it wants peace. Pointless posturing does not solve messy conflicts. Hamas is softening, and Israel should respond.

A repugnant idea, others respond. Talking to terrorists sets a precedent that political violence pays. Hamas is still a hateful, violent group: its changes are mere gimmicks. Its support among Palestinians will remain irrelevant until it renounces the use of violence — just as other groups which have reached deals with governments have had to.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever be willing to talk to a terrorist?
  2. Should governments negotiate with terrorists?

Activities

  1. Work in fours. You are in charge of a country which is threatened by terrorists. Should you negotiate with them? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of doing so. Explain your conclusion to your class.
  2. Research one of the conflicts mentioned in this article. Prepare a two-minute talk to your class explaining what caused it, how it ended (if it has ended) and what we can learn from it.

Some People Say...

“Violence can never be allowed to pay.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hamas has toned down its anti-semitic language in the new document. But it continues to advocate attacks on Israelis. And Khaled Mashal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, said his organisation “will not give up any parcel of Palestinian land” in a press conference launching the document.
What do we not know?
If the new document overrides the old charter and whether it represents a meaningful step.
What do people believe?
Observers say Hamas is undergoing an internal power struggle between hardliners and relative moderates, which is why there are contradictions between some of its positions. Some doubt it has issued the document in an attempt to reach peace. But others say Israel is far from blameless in the conflict and should be willing to compromise.

Word Watch

Zionism
The movement for a Jewish homeland in Israel.
Hinted
The new document says the borders existing between Israel and the Palestinians in 1967 are “a formula of national consensus”. But it also says Hamas rejects anything other than “the whole liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea”.
Terrorist
A term to describe groups or individuals that use illegal violence for political reasons.
Stunt
Some observers said the move was designed to improve relations with the West, Egypt and Arab states — not Israel.
Barbary
A collection of states in North Africa from the 16th to the 19th century which took American and European slaves hostage.
Hostages
In 2014 President Obama courted controversy in the USA by releasing Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, an army sergeant being held in Afghanistan.
IRA
The Irish Republican Army, which supported a united Ireland. In 1998 the various sides in Northern Ireland signed an agreement. The UK’s concessions included releasing prisoners responsible for mass killings and bombings.
FARC
The armed wing of Colombia’s Communist Party.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.