In a development that is saddening yet not shocking, the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have stalled. The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas - and their attempts to form a unity government under Mahmood Abbas - are matters, which the Palestinians claim are wholly domestic, with no bearing on the peace process. Tel Aviv is not of the same opinion, and cites Hamas’s terrorist status as the reason they are not welcome at the negotiating table.
Netanyahu has claimed that Abbas has chosen Hamas over peace, and encouraged states not to recognise the new government. Of course, Bibi’s anger isn’t surprising. But outside observers should be quick to challenge their comprehension of recent events. Viewing the conflict in binary terms - reducing actors to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ agents for resolution - extracts the ideological mess from the reality on the ground. This leaves us at risk of recycling old tropes about the nature of the conflict, and failing to ask crucial questions about the nature of extremism and the best ways to respond to it.
"Netanyahu has claimed that Abbas has chosen Hamas over peace"
Both sides have been vociferous in asserting their views on the reconciliation. The Palestinians have spun it as a victory for democratic flourishing, and a necessary display of unity. Moreover, they say, the new government will be purely technocratic, aimed at delivering effective administration – all Palestinian negotiations in the peace process remain committed to the nonviolent and diplomatic objectives of the PLO.
Representatives from the PA have striven to remind observers that Hamas’s objectives are not solely directed towards the destruction of Israel, and that Israel has indeed negotiated with Hamas in the past. The Israeli response has been unflinching: Hamas is a terrorist group, which uses violent means to inflict harm onto the State of Israel. They have no place in a democratic Palestinian government, or in negotiations for a two-state solution.
Of course, there are a multitude of tactical reasons for the reconciliation. Hamas has taken a hit recently, with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the conflict in Syria, and turbulence in Iran cutting off many of its sources of support. Fatah, too, seeks to regain public approval in the face of its failure to deliver in the peace talks. For Israel’s part, the new agreement provides an opportunity for it to abandon talks, which could lead to it having to make major concessions.
It would be easy, then, to write off this attempt at unity as a disaster, which only threatens the prospect of peace. But does automatically casting Hamas as the ‘bad guys’ really help us understanding this episode of the conflict? There are several aspects in which it does not.
Granted, Hamas are classified as a terrorist organisation by a host of governments, based on their fundamentalist principles and history of violence. But this obscures the fact that much of their day-to-day activity revolves around providing social welfare. Its military wing constitutes a comparatively small faction of the organisation, which responds to what they perceive as Israeli injustice.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Moreover, to attribute blame solely to Hamas is to ignore the military brutalities and expansionist policies of the Israeli state. Hamas may be violent, but Israel also commits acts of large-scale destruction. Placing this episode - and the conflict more generally - in binary terms where Hamas are ‘bad’ and Israel ‘acceptable,’ skews reality.
This conflict is no longer simply ideological, but a long and protracted saga in which actors respond to and provoke one another with equally violent and reprehensible strategies. To spend all time criticising Hamas is to miss a crucial opportunity to criticise Fatah and Israel; and to risk supporting inaccurate perceptions of violent and barbaric Palestinians, and a beleaguered Israel. This is, after all, a conflict between a wealthy and powerful state, and an economically poor cluster of unrecognised territories. It is irresponsible and damaging to pile the blame on a small group of Palestinians, and thus reproduce and strengthen the vast disparity between the two sides.
"This conflict is no longer simply ideological"
What’s more, this view forecloses important conversations about what extremism really is in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how we ought to best respond to it. In his perspicuous account of fundamentalism, Slavoj Zizek reminds us that extremist actors are not representative of a ‘clash of civilisations,’ nor are they ‘fundamental’ in the sense that they pursue ideological goals outside of their milieu. Indeed, they are entirely modern products of their context, who represent a small but significant stream of thought within every civilisation.
Based on this, is it not worth reminding ourselves that Hamas - which has been present on the Palestinian political scene since the 1980’s, and has held power in Gaza since 2006 - are unlikely to suddenly become representative of all Palestinians?
Moreover, should the pandemonium over their presence in this new government give us licence to forget that Israeli society - and indeed, the Knesset itself - is also home to a number of ‘extremist’ right-wing factions who are likely to pose an equally troublesome hurdle to future negotiations? These are uncomfortable questions to ask in a context where Hamas is so intricately associated with terror, but avoiding them only leads us to fail to consider effective ways to remedy extremist opinions and violence on both sides, which hamper attempts to resolve this conflict.
The point here is not that we should act like this reconciliation never happened, nor is it to excuse violence inflicted by any party. Indeed, the coming weeks will involve a waiting-game during which we will see whether the recent agreements will come to be successfully implemented. If they are, though, this cannot justify abandoning talks indefinitely. Brandishing labels and repeating ingrained opinions are unhelpful and counterproductive responses.
Rather, if this is the course that Palestinian politics are to take, observers and intermediaries could benefit from disturbing these tropes, in favour of uncovering the bare reality of the conflict and encouraging meaningful, productive dialogue among and between the Arab and Israeli sides.