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May 22, 2017

We need to talk to Hamas

If we cared about peace we would be talking to Hamas

The west has a unique opportunity to help end the Gaza stalemate. But it suits us to turn a blind eye

In his house in the Gaza Strip last month, a senior Hamas minister was explaining to me that the movement needed to modernise its policies when the lights suddenly cut out, as they so often do under Israel’s siege of the territory. Ghazi Hamad’s disembodied voice rumbled on in the pitch black.

Shortly after that, Hamas, which governs Gaza, published what is effectively the first revision of its charter since it was founded 30 years ago. Most significantly, Hamas has for the first time put on paper its commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The movement, it said, was ready to discuss “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along 1967 lines”.

The policy reforms should have opened the prospect of an end to the west’s boycott of Hamas, in place since 2007, and hope too of an end to Israel’s economic blockade. Two million Gazans, mostly refugees, are today locked behind walls and fences and deprived of bare essentials – not least electricity, which is now cut to four hours a day or less. The International Red Cross warned this week that the electricity crisis was pushing Gaza to the point of “systemic collapse”.

But the international community is once again leaving Gaza in the dark about when its torment will end. Both the US and Britain have made clear they believe that nothing significant has altered in Hamas’s position. A Foreign Office spokesman said: “They must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements.”

True, what Hamas means by its new “General Principles and Policies Document” is still murky, particularly as it still holds out the possibility of a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine. And it has published the changes now as a strategic move to secure its own survival.

After 10 years of a crippling economic siege Hamas is struggling to govern. It desperately needs money – not least to pay for fuel – and it needs Egypt to open its crossing into the Sinai. In return, both Egypt and Arab paymasters demand that Hamas show moderation.

This squeeze on Hamas, however, gives the west a unique opportunity to end the stalemate over the boycott, especially as the movement is at present adhering to a ceasefire, and has gone a long way towards meeting international demands.

After 10 years of a crippling economic siege Hamas is struggling to govern. It desperately needs money – not least to pay for fuel – and it needs Egypt to open its crossing into the Sinai. In return, both Egypt and Arab paymasters demand that Hamas show moderation.

This squeeze on Hamas, however, gives the west a unique opportunity to end the stalemate over the boycott, especially as the movement is at present adhering to a ceasefire, and has gone a long way towards meeting international demands.

Obviously, the only rational response if we really cared about peace would be to start talking to Hamas and push it to moderate further. If we continue to reject its overtures it will have no incentive to offer more, and the rejectionists in Gaza will win.

It is significant that the Hamas paper was published soon after the election of a former military chief and hardliner, Yahya Sinwar, as the movement’s leader in Gaza. A prisoner in Israel for 22 years, and a fluent Hebrew speaker, who negotiated with Israel over the Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, Sinwar could bring a new voice to the table. He would also have the clout internally to bring some of Hamas’s own critics on board. Hamas is being increasingly challenged by Salafi jihadists whose popularity is small but growing in Gaza, and who accuse Hamas of too much moderation.

The uncomfortable fact is that the west is only too happy to leave the people of Gaza inside their prison; it suits us to do so. We don’t care about blighted lives, or about whether the electricity is on six hours or four hours or if there is none at all. Our governments just want to leave Gaza blocked off from view so we don’t have to face up to the painfully difficult problems it poses – many of our own making, not least the boycott of Hamas.

It was after all the US, 10 years ago, that insisted on Palestinian elections, hoping the moderates of the PLO would win. Instead Hamas came to power on a wave of anger after the failure of flawed peace efforts. The west then took the view that in Palestine democracy counted for nothing, and as punishment the boycott began.

By accepting that Hamas has met at least some of the west’s conditions, we would be forced to consider talking to its representatives, clashing with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has no wish to change the status quo. Keeping Gaza boxed in while he extends his illegal settlements across the West Bank and Jerusalem, suits the Israeli prime minister just fine.

On the Gaza streets there is no expectation of any change, only predictions of a new war. After interviewing the Hamas minister I visited a Rafah girls’ school, speaking to a class of 17-year-old English students. Of the class, six had lost family members in the 2014 war. Their teacher had lost her husband and her father.

Yet here they were, bright-eyed, clutching English textbooks, and speaking of their ambitions to be doctors, social workers or journalists. The courage and resilience of the Gazan people is also hidden from view by the boycott and what they call the “apartheid wall”.

Before I left the school the girls put questions to me, including, “What does Britain know about us?” and “Why doesn’t Britain help us?” One offered her own answer: “I believe they think we live under a stone.”


The wonder, anger and occupation of Jerusalem


A Palestinian with his belongings after his home in East Jerusalem is demolished. Getty Images


My essay in The National newspaper about the city of Jerusalem:

House demolitions occur regularly in East Jerusalem, well away from the tourist path. According to the United Nations, Israel destroyed 190 Palestinian homes in 2016 and displaced thousands of people. It was the highest figure since 2000.

I’ve witnessed Palestinian families thrown out of their own houses, sometimes immediately replaced by radical, Jewish settlers, or standing in front of crushed, concrete structures with nowhere to go. Last year, a few hours after a Palestinian home was demolished in the neighbourhood of Wadi Joz, I arrived to find a solitary man sitting under a large, green plastic sheet. He had 12 children and a wife and all his possessions, including couches, fridge, table, crockery and cutlery, were exposed to the elements. “The Palestinian people don’t help me”, he said. Despite his situation, he gave me a cup of hot coffee and then began calling friends to see where he could sleep with his family.

The official policy of Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat is to make Jerusalem the “united capital”. In practice, this means the approval of thousands of Jewish homes in West Jerusalem, but nothing in the East where Palestinians live. Up to 20,000 Palestinian homes have been built without approval, giving Israel the justification to destroy them, but obtaining permits is almost impossible. It’s a daily reality faced by a Palestinian community that foreigners and Israeli Jews almost never witness nor want to.

To a Jew growing up in Australia, this Jerusalem is vastly different to the fantasy Jewish city described in my youth, although it remains a sparkling and beautiful place. I’m preparing to leave after living here with my partner for more than a year. During this time and in the course of many visits over the past decade, I constantly marvel at the shimmering Al Aqsa Mosque, cobbled streets in the Old City and the green and brown hills of the Mount of Olives. With few tall buildings and its famed cream-coloured stone, the city has a spiritual feeling that is perhaps unrivalled in the world.

However, the brutal politics of division sucks away any inkling of nostalgia. The ubiquitous presence of armed and aggressive Israeli soldiers and police harassing Palestinians increasingly defines it. Many secular, Jewish Israelis hate Jerusalem and try to avoid coming. For them, the comfortable bubble of Tel Aviv is preferable, where the occupation of Palestine is almost completely invisible. They like it that way, away from Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox, Haredi Jews who ghettoise themselves in isolated neighbourhoods.

As Israel prepares to celebrate 50 years of conquest and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, this holy city has rarely been so angry and volatile.

Recently released documents revealed that Israel knew from the beginning of its occupation that it was illegal and worried about international reaction. Israel annexed East Jerusalem three weeks after the 1967 war and sent a telegram to its ambassadors around the world explaining that this wasn’t “annexation” but “municipal fusion” to guarantee running services. Israel needn’t have been too concerned, though, because facts on the ground after 50 years have become permanent.

As a journalist in Jerusalem, it’s a strange experience and almost guaranteed to bring cognitive dissonance. It’s possible to spend time in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the day, witnessing suffering and occupation and be safely back at home in the evening. Considering what surrounds us, Jerusalem is perhaps too comfortable for foreign media.

For Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the city can be a dark experience. I live in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that’s slowly being taken over by extremist, Jewish settlers. There are plans to build a religious school, a 10,000-square-metre complex in the heart of an Arab area, and accelerated moves, backed by the Israeli Supreme Court, to evict even more Palestinians from their homes. The clear Israeli aim, used over decades, is to make Palestinian lives so miserable that they simply pick up and leave. Some agree, most resist.

There may be no checkpoints separating East and West Jerusalem, unlike throughout the West Bank, but the divides are clear. The vast majority of Jews here have no interest or knowledge of Palestinian history before the 1948 Nakba.

Israel is pushing for millions more tourists in Jerusalem in the coming decades, but this can only be achieved by isolating and silencing Palestinian residents, many of whom lost residency unless they regularly proved that this city was their “centre of life”.

Jerusalem will seduce even the most jaded traveller, but only the blind can ignore the racial and political discrimination undertaken in the name of Zionism.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-­based journalist and author, most recently, of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe


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