Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's time for a sensible policy towards Hamas

The following article is a guest contribution and does not necessarily reflect the point of view of the editor or anyone else associated with this blog.

The apparent victory of Iranian President Ahmadinejad has created uncomfortable questions about what it means to support democracy in the Middle East. Similarly, while the defeat of Hezbollah in the recent Lebanese elections was widely perceived as evidence that democracy may actually be a worthwhile venture, what would have happened if Hezbollah had emerged triumphant, as it nearly did? Renewed public interest in this subject provides a unique opportunity to finally establish a Canadian foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on realistic politics, not rhetorical posturing. Especially as Canada’s international partners rush to embrace diplomacy and dialogue as the new rules of the game, the question begs to be asked: does current Canadian policy towards Hamas make sense?

After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, many Western countries found themselves in the awkward position of having endorsed a democratic process that produced a winner widely considered to be a terrorist organization. Unfortunately, Canada followed the unimaginative example of other countries, refusing to recognize Hamas as the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians and simply ignoring their democratic credentials. First, this revealed that Canadian support for democracy had been functionalized; in other words, the extension of democratic rule in the Middle East is to be encouraged only as long as ‘we’ like the results. Second, Canada was left without a legitimate Palestinian partner, inhibiting the development of coherent policies on both complex and mundane issues, such as how to induce Hamas to recognize Israel or how to effectively distribute humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Third, this approach undermined international efforts to facilitate the establishment of an equitable peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

At the time of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Hamas was supported by only 15% of Palestinians. Hamas has since gained popularity – and power – because of the corrupt incompetence of its political predecessors. Hamas also operates various social and humanitarian services which have become increasingly vital to Palestinian society due to international economic strangulation. Finally, many decades of Palestinian suffering under domination and occupation have created a volatile mood of anger and frustration that Hamas represents. Hamas has thus become a fixture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that can no longer be ignored. Accepting the role of Hamas is necessary to politicize the Palestinian struggle, a process which will serve as an impetus for Palestinian aspirations to be channeled through the ballot, not the bullet.

Encouragingly, Hamas leaders have already declared their willingness to accept a settlement based on a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza. By incorporating Hamas into the international system, Canada can nurture such pragmatic qualities by using incentives to encourage moderation and punitive measures to discourage militarization.

A framework of direct and unconditional engagement with Hamas does not diminish Canadian opposition to terrorism. The violence employed by Hamas is rightly condemned as morally repugnant and politically counterproductive. But it is problematic when the international community reduces the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an issue of terrorism, not of human rights. Beyond the shroud of terrorism is the ultimate tragedy of the Palestinian people. A foreign policy exclusively fixated on terrorism will collapse due to its own hysteria and Manichaean rigidity. In any case, if we accept the conventional definition of terrorism as indiscriminate violence against civilians in pursuit of political objectives, it becomes difficult to ignore the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza in pursuit of its own political objectives which left over 1,000 civilians dead.

The only way to diffuse this situation is through facilitating the realization of legitimate Palestinian aspirations while condemning the use of illegitimate tactics – that is, terrorism – to achieve these goals. This requires the destruction of the sanctimonious notion that Palestinians are ‘other than us’ – that they have some innate proclivity towards violence, or that they lack the sophistication to understand the democratic process. Hamas has been created by the wretched circumstances of the Palestinians, by the failure to achieve the basic (or ‘inalienable’) Palestinian right to statehood. So long as their national aspirations continue to be stifled, certain Palestinians will invariably conclude that violence is necessary to resist Israeli militaristic expansionism.

Canadians across the political spectrum should agitate for a foreign policy towards Hamas that is aligned with Canadian interests, and Canadian values. The development of diplomatic relations with the political wing of Hamas is a good place to start. Such boldness and vision may help Canada become a catalyst for change that can finally pierce the devastating cycle of terrorism and violence in the region.

(Paul Davis is a graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. He can be reached at

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