Is Hamas On The Ropes?

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In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, boxer Jake La Motta drops his gloves in the final round of his last fight with arch nemesis Sugar Ray Robinson who, uncomprehending, pauses before pounding La Motta until the bell. La Motta, his face a bloodied pulp staggers up to winner-on-points Robinson and asserts, "You didn’t knock me down Ray, I never went down."

In Gaza, Hamas has claimed even the latest thrashing by the Israelis as a victory.

On meeting journalist Paul McGeough at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where he’s promoting his new book, Kill Khalid, I want to know if he thinks it’s feasible for an organisation so embattled as Hamas to help a people so beleaguered by occupation and resistance as the Palestinians.

McGeough uses Mossad’s botched assassination attempt on Khalid Mishaal in 1997 as a way in to explaining the Hamas organisation, of which Mishaal is now the supreme leader. He remains an enigmatic, if not inscrutable figure, and almost certainly holds the key to Hamas’s long-term strategies.

The assassination was conceived in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as a way to cripple Hamas at a time when it was down but not out. However, when the plot unravelled, it actually gave Hamas an opportunity to rally a newly empowered and emboldened base.

Kill Khalid recounts the extraordinary story — which is often compared to a scene from a Bond film — of how Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists in the busy streets of Amman, Jordan, managed to squirt poison into Mishaal’s ear. As Israel had signed agreements with King Hussein’s government not to engage in hostile behavior in Jordan, it couldn’t look like a hit. The ear slows the poison’s effects so he could get home and — so went the plan — die mysteriously.

After distracting Mishaal with a fizzing can of Coke, the agents got the poison into his ear via a squirting device hidden in a camera. However, they underestimated Mishaal’s bodyguards, who not only got Mishaal off to hospital where doctors saved his life, but captured two of the five Mossad agents.

With half of Jordan’s population of Palestinian descent, King Hussein was enraged. He called on then US president Bill Clinton who spoke to Netanyahu. What followed was a stunning backdown by Netanyahu. Not only did he have to scramble to recover his Mossad agents, but his own leadership looked shaky after he was forced to apologise.

The result was Israel’s release of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin along with 19 other political prisoners in exchange for the two agents.

Sheikh Yassin was flown directly to Amman and taken in his wheelchair to Mishaal’s hospital bed. Meeting for the first time, and with Hussein present, this became a celebration of what would later be seen as the rebirth of Hamas.

Twelve years later, and five since Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Yassin, Mishaal leads Hamas from his home in Damascus. This is where McGeough interviewed him last year, and I was curious about Mishaal’s capacity to separate the emotional from the political. Mishaal grew up with all the humiliations that have become standard for Palestinians: his family home was demolished and illegal Israeli settlements encroached on his door in the village of Silwal; then, having risen through the ranks of Hamas, he was poisoned.

"I don’t think he or any Palestinian — any Israeli for that matter — is capable of separating the personal from the big picture of political issues," McGeough told me. "They live it. It is so small, they’re so close. No reconciliation can occur that doesn’t accommodate that emotional component."

For Mishaal — and for the Palestinians — arriving at any practical political solution will involve piecing together all the elements of various solutions. "I don’t think they’re capable of coming up with a new solution," McGeough explains. "All the solutions are on the table, it’s about agreeing on how they can be hitched together to build a deal acceptable to both sides."

I suggest the Hamas Charter — with its call to obliterate Israel — is an example of an obstacle to peace that surely has an emotional dimension.

"It’s slightly more complicated than just emotional," says McGeough. His discussions about the charter with Mishaal in March this year have led McGeough to believe that the writing of the charter in 1988, "far from being a considered document, could have been a scene from Python’s Life of Brian". McGeough reckons Palestinian prisoners "cut and pasted it together from charters they liked".

"Hamas shoots itself in the foot by refusing to rewrite the charter," he says. "In 2005, they set up a review committee to rewrite it but were so angry at the rejection of the Hamas government after they won the Palestine election in 2006, they said the world can go screw itself."

So how does Mishaal reconcile the contradiction between the charter and his own recent statements accepting Israel’s existence as a state? A colleague of Mishaal’s explained to McGeough the "real reason" for not amending the charter: "Its authors are still alive in Gaza, and they hold senior positions in the movement in historic terms. Within the Hamas pantheon, they are like the saints."

McGeough tells me that Mishaal, 53, is not part of the old guard — he understands that he must wait for generational change. "A number of changes that Hamas have adopted make significant elements of the charter redundant. That said, it remains a bludgeon that is used daily to beat it around the head."

But this does not mean that Mishaal can’t progress his agenda now. He says don’t judge Hamas on a document from 20 years ago but on what Hamas says today — and the heavy traffic of diplomats and journalists beating a path to Mishaal’s door suggest Hamas is keen to negotiate.

But will the US negotiate with Hamas? "Hamas expects a lot, perhaps too much, from Barack Obama, but they will blend that with their own sense of time," says McGeough. Hamas operates with a very long-term perspective; demographic trends across Israel/Palestine reinforce their belief that time is on their side. "They can hold out because the one thing Palestinians have is their unbelievable ability to endure." I put it to McGeough that this works against them, that we’ve become inured to their suffering. McGeough bristles.

"The international community’s failure to rupture the seal Israel still has on Gaza is an indictment of all of us because of the human rights of 1.5 million ordinary citizens whose homes have had the bejesus bombed out of them and they’re not allowed to bring in cement to rebuild them."

Yet the status quo continues. "The Israelis want the land, the Palestinians want the land, and each day they go into the marketplace of suffering and put a price on that suffering. Each paying then raising the price."

Which brings our discussion up against that impossible question of what is to be done.

McGeough pauses, as if with the effort to think past the despair. "I don’t know how it’s going to be resolved, settled — if — but a part of me just refuses to believe it can be just left to fester."

McGeough thinks only an imposed solution can succeed, and that only Barack Obama can impose it. "He has a lot of levers, it’s just whether he can get the right circumstances and environment in which to align them."

At least part of the environment question will be settled when Palestinians go to the polls late this year or early next. "Fatah and Hamas are still brutally divided, and until Palestinians unify they won’t be effective."

McGeough scoffs at my doubts about the strength of democracy in Palestine. "Democracy is a deep-rooted philosophy that Palestinians believe in, and they’ve had genuine elections for trade unions and community and student groups for decades."

"Both Gaza and the West Bank elected Hamas, and this required political organisation at a level far greater than what you’ve seen in the Israeli political community."

Hamas represents this democratic instinct in a way that Fatah does not. "Fatah, corrupt and venal, like the autocracies of the Middle East, just pays lip service to democracy." So why does the international community still expect to deal with Fatah?

McGeough says Hamas is painted into a corner because they have been so reluctant to recognise Israel, they won’t renounce violence and are Islamist. "But for all that, they are able to hold their fire, can take part in elections and succeed, can share power; they gave Fatah key ministries even though Hamas had won the lion’s share of the vote."

The challenge for Hamas is to turn international opinion in their favour. Israel’s heavy-handed invasion of Gaza has increased sympathy for Palestinians. Having changed their tactics from the suicide bombings that followed the second intifada to the far less lethal rockets, Hamas is inciting fear in Israel without casting itself as extreme. Should they win the next elections, it will become much harder to refuse them a seat at the table.

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