Why Israel must negotiate with Hamas

The following article appeared in the Italian and Israeli press, and is offered here for the first time in English.  Its author is the distinguished Novelist, Alef Bet Yehoshua, well known as well for his advocacy of peace initiatives and his argument that Israel constitutes a kind of special Jewish sovereignty that (some feel) diminishes the importance of Diaspora.    William Cutter, Prof. Emeritus at Hebrew Union College, is the translator, and is not representing his personal views on any subjects related to Mr. Yehoshua’s arguments.   


When Israel was established officially in 1948, The Jordanians bombarded Jerusalem and isolated it even as they killed hundreds of its residents.  The soldiers of the Arab Legion conquered Gush Etzion and murdered killed many Israelis—even in cold blood. Yet, throughout all the months of that cruel and difficult war, no one called (thought of calling) the Jordanians “terrorists”.  They were the enemy, pure and simple the “enemy.  And in the very midst of such awful bloodshed, ongoing talks were held between the official Israeli and Jordanian delegations.  These cease fire talks—brokered by the United Nations –led eventually to fragile agreements to cease hostilities in 1949.    

The Syrians—up until the War of 1967—bombarded the settlements in the northern Gallilee, killing or wounding many of its residents, but no one described the Syrians as “terrorists”; they were rather termed “the enemy.”  This situation was not about providing gas or electricity, and in fact they actually did meet from time to time for face to face meetings about armistice or cease fire. 

Until the Six Day War terrorist divisions commonly came across the Egyptian border and spread death among Israeli settlements that were situated on that border which were open to Egypt as an enemy, not as a terrorist nation.

And in spite of the fact that such countries announced openly their intention to destroy Israel, Israel’s Prime Minister managed to open every session of his Parliament (K’nesset) by turning to Egypt and Syria with a plea to calm hostilities and make peace agreements.

What accounts for the fact that, after the retreat of Israel from the Gaza Strip, the departure from Israeli settlements and the transfer of authority to Hamas, we continue to characterize Gaza as a terrorist state rather than as an “enemy’ in the full sense of that word?  Is it that the expression “a regime of terror” is a stronger expression than “enemy”?  Or, perhaps the word “terror” signifies that we reckon deep down that the territory of Gaza is a part of Israel, which we tried unsuccessfully to settle, wishing to return.  In that case, its inhabitants wouldn’t be considered “enemies” but Arab s of the Land of Israel in which bands of terrorists operate?  Do we have the obligations towards the welfare of Gazans in a way in which we did not have to attend to the welfare of the Syrians or Egyptians in previous wars—so that, while we DO continue to supply electricity and food and oil (and this is my main point) we don’t agree even to enter into negotiations with the leadership of Gaza in the way in which we once negotiated with the Jordanians, the Syrians or the Egyptians.

Is it possible that all of the confusion and complexity here derives from the concern that cease fire meetings with Hamas or consideration of future essential steps towards establishing stable arrangements of cease fire are likely to weaken Abu Maizen?

Yet the continued killing in Gaza is weakening even more the person who regards himself as the leader of the Palestinian people.  And even if we grant this is the reason for our concern, the question remains:  Why, when a short time ago the Palestinians united, we didn’t exploit the opportunity to talk with Hamas, the partner in that coalition, and grant thereby a legitimacy to the polity that was governing Gaza? 

In my own view, Hamas’s frustration grows from the lack of a meaningful legitimization in Israel’s eyes and in the eyes of most of the world.  It is this frustration that leads them to such destructive desperation.  And that is why it is necessary to grant them status as a legitimate enemy before we can come to any agreement or, alternatively, to a frontal war and all that would entail.  That is how we functioned previously with Arab nations.  As long as we label Hamas as a terrorist gang that dominates innocent citizens it is not only that we cannot reach a satisfactory cease-fire in the South with appropriate military consequences, but (and this is the main point) we will not be able to enter into open negotiations with the Gaza government in three significant aspects: 

1.      International supervision regarding the removal of missiles and the prohibition on importing them by land sea or air;

2.     Opening up the borders to Israel so that workers may come to Israel for employment;

3.     The eventual and desirable opening of secure passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

There will be skeptics among us who will argue that Hamas may not choose to sit with us for such open negotiations.  What about them?

Then we must propose meetings within the framework of the united Palestinian government.  And should they reject that possibility, then our war will become a legitimate war in every sense of the word, fought according to the general rules of warfare.

But let us not forget: The Palestinians in Gaza are our permanent neighbors and we are theirs.  We will never halt the bloody destruction with talk of terror except through negotiation or a war against a legitimate enemy from whom we have no claims other than the claims that he stop the attacks.