Taking Hamas Seriously

The armed branch of the militant Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas, has said it would stop attacks on Israeli citizens provided Israeli settlement activity is ceased. In a statement received by Agence France Presse (AFP) on October 12, Hamas said, "We are ready to exclude Jewish civilians from our operations provided that Israel stops its settlement activities, and land confiscation, and that the Israeli army as well as the settlers stop attacking Palestinian civilians."

The statement is only the most recent event to highlight the damaging consequences of Israel's continued pro-settlement policy. An incident outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, Palestine, on October 9 in which Israeli settlers harassed several top Jordanian officials has resulted in a diplomatic freeze between Israel and Jordan. Jordan has refused to receive Israeli officials until the Hebron incident is clarified. An October 12 report from ArabicNews.com says that the Palestinian government has berated Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for his continued support of Israeli settlements and said such support is a primary reason for the most recent failure in peace negotiations.

While the Hamas promise perhaps provides a glimmer of hope for Israeli citizens fearful of renewed Hamas attacks, the statement can also be seen as an ultimatum to the Israeli government. Israel is no where near attaining a halt to settlement activity and moreover does not appear interested in doing so. An October 13 feature in Israel's Haaretz reveals that the Israeli Housing Ministry is in the process of building 3,000 new houses, to be primarily inhabited by ultra-orthodox Jews, in a West Bank settlement south of Ramallah. Such a massive undertaking certainly overshadows Barak's much publicized recent decision to dismantle 15 out of 42 outpost settlements built since the Wye accords. In regards to the discrepancy, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters that Barak is guilty of "deceit" and is "stalling." He said, "Israel is trying to find excuses to set up new settlements and to give legitimacy to new settlements." According to ArabicNews.com, Rabbo called Barak's attempt at "evacuating some of the random settlements in the West Bank" a "misleading and cheating" cover-up reminiscent of Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government.

But even for his small gesture in calling for the dismantling of the 15 outposts, Barak has received heated opposition from right-wing elements in Israel. Despite Barak's assurances to the settlers that he considers settlement activity in the West Bank very important, the settler community has vowed to launch a public campaign against Barak. Given the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin by a Jewish orthodox extremist, Barak perhaps has cause to tread lightly in the settlement issue.

But other Israeli politicians are not so complacent towards settlement activity. Israeli Trade Minister Ran Cohen, whose scheduled visit to Jordan was recently cancelled because of the heckling of Jordanian officials by Israeli settlers, told Israel Radio that the "criminal behavior" of "the right-wing extremists" in Israel "had hurt the peace process," as quoted by the BBC.

While Hamas is far from the irrational terrorist group many make it out to be, recent Hamas statements and past events indicate that the Israeli government should take seriously the recent calls for a halt to settlement activity, perhaps more seriously than the uncompromising aspirations of the right-wing settler community. Hamas, which stands for Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded in 1987 by Shaykh Ahmed Yassin as a response to Israeli occupation. Hamas is fighting for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and demands the complete withdrawal of Israel from all occupied territories. While Hamas justifies violence, even against Israeli civilians -- it justifies the violence because it says the Israeli government has continuously terrorized and murdered Palestinian civilians -- the organization is also substantially engaged in grass-roots community aid such as building schools and hospitals.

Although perhaps more of a liberation movement than a terrorist organization, Hamas' methods no doubt strike terror into the hearts of many Israeli citizens. Hamas carried out a series of bus bombings in 1996 that killed 60 Israelis, while similar attacks in 1997 killed 15. While Hamas has made an offer to halt attacks on civilian in exchange for a halt to settlement activity, AFP reports on October 13 that Israeli officials are fearful that Hamas and other such organizations have the capacity and the will to step up terrorist activity in the near future. In a newspaper interview with the Hebrew newspaper Maariv, to be published October 15 but summarized in an October 13 AFP report, Hamas leader Shaykh Yassin warned that until a ceasefire was achieved, "A massive attack on a bus could take place as soon as tomorrow morning."

The recent Hamas statements taken in their totality, together with other negative reactions to continued settlement activity, indicate that Israel needs to take more seriously, calls for an immediate halt to settlement activity. While it is wrong to justify violence against civilians -- certainly from an Islamic perspective -- Israel will have largely itself to blame should recent Hamas threats be realized.

There is no doubt Barak faces considerable pressure, perhaps even life-threatening pressure, from right-wing elements in Israel. But as a representative of the Israeli people, he cannot afford to ignore the recent Hamas ultimatum. Halting settlement activity and stopping Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians is a small price to pay for the safety of the Israeli people.

Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com

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