Wednesday, March 4, 2009 at 9:00 am
Gaza Aid Con: Ignoring Hamas?
The conference on international aid to Gaza held in Sharm el-Sheikh was a big success in many ways--in demonstrating much-needed global support for the Palestinians, in focusing more attention on their suffering and humanitarian needs and, by the way, in beginning the enormous task of rebuilding America's reputation in the Middle East. The conference raised a surprising $4.5 billion, including $0.9 billion from the U.S. at a time of severe budget restraints in Washington.
The conference also highlighted a conundrum that always seems to be at the heart of the Palestinian problem--a representative of the Palestinian people, Hamas, was not included in the meeting whose agenda was the rebuilding of a territory that Hamas governs. It reminds me of the 1991 Madrid peace conference, a commendable meeting in many respects, but one in which the international community under U.S. pressure effectively excluded the representatives of the Palestinian people, the PLO. The reason then as now, of course, is that these particular organizations participated in violence and terrorism and therefore had no place at a table set for those representing the community of respectable nations.
That would be a sensible argument to make if life were that black and white. As it turns out, the Israeli government itself took the initiative to hold secret negotiations with the PLO after Madrid and eventually officially recognized the group when it signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993. I suspect sooner or later, Hamas will be part of the dialogue, too.
A growing number of authorities are calling on parties such as the U.S. administration to open a channel to Hamas, with the reasoning that perhaps no peace settlement can be achieved without Hamas. Questions remain if Hamas would ever agree or assent to a peace deal with Israel, but most people had the same questions about the PLO before Oslo. But it's worth listening to the people who are talking about talking to Hamas. They include a bipartisan set of "wisemen" like former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft and, more recently, Israel's Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former minister of police and foreign affairs.
Last week, Ben-Ami and an array of other diplomats wrote, "Whether we like it or not, Hamas will not go away. Since its victory in democratic elections in 2006, Hamas has sustained its support in Palestinian society despite attempts to destroy it through economic blockades, political boycotts and military incursions. This approach is not working; a new strategy must be found."
The Sharm el-Sheikh meeting went to great lengths to insist that the $4.5 billion in aid will be channeled through the Palestinian Authority, which is ruled by Hamas's political rival, the Fatah organization of the late Yasser Arafat. But as Fatah and Hamas hold talks about a national unity government, Hamas may be a recognized part of the Palestinian Authority before long. And in the next elections, perhaps Hamas will capture the presidency as well as the Palestinian legislative assembly. In any case, as a practical matter, as TIME's Andrew Butters indicated in a story last week, it seems unlikely that anybody can help rebuild Gaza without the cooperation, direct or indirect, of Hamas. A way will be found.
The road to peace, and even the path to rebuilding Gaza, which was left in utter devastation during the last war with Israel, will be a long and difficult one. But if peace is truly the goal, it's going to require a seat for all parties at the table.
--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo