A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What Signal is Hamas Sending?

Hamas' newly-re-elected Politburo chief Khaled Mesh‘al has sat down for an interview with The New York Times, summarized here. Mesh‘al says that Hamas has stopped firing Qassam rockets at Israel and is seeking a two-state solution and offering a 10-year truce with Israel.

None of this is new: Mesh‘al has said it before, as have other Hamas figures, but repeating it to The New York Times has the effect of drawing the attention of the US to the position.

Israel has always rejected the idea of a temporary truce, a hudna, and American readers will no doubt be struck by the ten-year limitation. That limitation derives from Hamas' own identity as an Islamist organization: since Hamas holds that Palestine is an Islamic waqf and no Muslim can sign away title to the holy land permanently, they hold that dealings with Israel cannot entail permanent recognition. However, the Prophet Muhammad's Treaty of Hudaybiyya, with the Quraysh of Mecca, constitutes a precedent for establishing a long-term hudna or truce. The original duration of the Treaty of Hudaybiyya was 10 years, and there is a tradition in Muslim jurisprudence that a hudna with a non-Muslim state can be made for up to 10 years. (In practice, Hudaybiyya collapsed much sooner; in practice also, a hudna could theoretically be extended when the first 10 years had run.) Even if Hamas wanted to grant full recognition to Israel (and while some Hamas figures might consider it, it is certainly not a majority opinion), they seem to be caught by their own legal tradition, as interpreted by strict Islamists.

Graybeards like myself may recall some of the debates within the Palestine Liberation Organizaion in the 1970s over what kind of peace might be negotiated: salam or sulh. The question of a hudna is somewhat different, however, since the PLO was primarily a secular body and saw peace in terms of achieving Palestinian statehood, while Hamas has a religious raison d'être that limits its options.

It is, however, worth noting that Mesh‘al does respond to a question about the Hamas Charter by noting that it is 20 years old and suggesting Hamas may have evolved from the positions of those days.

Hamas has been sending similar signals to Israel without any positive response; the NYT interview seems to be an attempt to appeal to US opinion. It does suggest Hamas is trying to find some way forward, to keep itself in the negotiations despite Israeli refusal (and US refusal as well) to talk to Hamas. I suspect the cautious hints and the 10-year limitation will incur the same rejection they have in the past, though it might be useful to explore, through backchannels, just what Hamas is hinting at.

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