Almost unnoticed on Wednesday, as two rival Palestinian factions agreed to bury the hatchet, was the head of Hamas announcing that his group, which exists for armed struggle against Israel, was willing to give peace with the Jewish state a chance, too. The statement from Khaled Mashal was grudging and hardly optimistic, but cut enough against the grain of expectations to qualify as news.
“We have given peace since Madrid till now 20 years, and I say we are ready to agree among us Palestinians and with Arab support to give an additional chance,” Mashal told the audience in Cairo, where Hamas had pitched up to sign a unity agreement with Fatah.
What made news instead was Israel’s pre-emptive rejection of anything of the sort. “What happened today is a deadly blow to the peace process and a major prize for terror,” said prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in London at the start of a European swing intended to dissuade Western governments from supporting a UN vote on a Palestinian state later this year. It’s an uphill fight, but Netanyahu sees danger in the reconciliation of the Fatah party — which is secular, moderate and works closely with Israeli operatives to suppress violence on the West Bank — with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and a few weeks ago was launching rockets into Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip, where it governs.
The challenge, for the Israelis, is the hard-earned image of moderation nurtured in recent years by the West Bank leaders, notably Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Their efforts at state-building and suppressing terror have won a great deal of good will from the West, so much so that Hillary Clinton told reporters on Thursday that the U.S. was taking a wait and see attitude on unity. Indeed what most immediately pre-occupied American diplomats this week was Israel’s continued holding of $89 million in tax receipts owed to Fayyad’s government, and held back as punishment for making up with Hamas. (The move was not supported unanimously within the Israeli government, according to the daily Ha’aretz, which quotes a senior defense official as saying, “Fayyad chased Hamas money more effectively than we did. He shouldn’t be apologizing…”)
Hamas is, of course, Hamas, but after four years as the sole governing power in Gaza that is, more than ever, a political beast. In Cairo, Mashad touched all the bases, making common cause with Fatah and other peacemakers by calling for a Palestinian state on 1967 boundaries. In another breath, he endorsed “resistance in all its forms.” But the tone seemed clear enough, at least coming from a group whose name is an acronym in Arabic for “Islamic Resistance Movement.”
“We are not declaring war on anyone,” Mashad said, but added, after vowing to give peace a chance, that he didn’t expect much, “because Israel does not respect us, and because Israel has rejected all our initiatives and because Israel deliberately rejects Palestinian rights, rejects Fatah members as well as Hamas.”