Saturday, September 08, 2007

What Naive Comparison-Suggests Ignorance Accepted!

Hamas is not the IRA DUBLIN:
Since my arrival in Ireland about a year ago as Israel's ambassador, it has been suggested to me in almost every conversation with Irish officials, academics, journalists and ordinary people that Israelis and Palestinians should learn from Northern Ireland's peace process and apply some of its principles if there is ever to be an end to our conflict. Since the successful implementation of peace through power sharing in Northern Ireland in May 2007, this model has been recommended to me with even stronger conviction.

In particular, I am told that Israel should talk to Hamas, as Britain and Ireland spoke to the IRA. After all, the IRA, as a terrorist organization, moderated its position, gave up arms, abandoned the use of terrorism and accepted an agreement based on compromise. Now those former political enemies share power in the same administration. But would a similar process lead Hamas to end its campaign of violence and accept the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state living in peace with Israel?

While there are some similarities between these two complex and protracted conflicts, and indeed some lessons can be learned, it is a dangerous exercise to conclude that they are the same because of their largely different historical, geopolitical and cultural circumstances. Especially, the different importance attached to religious beliefs in the IRA's and Hamas's political platforms.

Underlying my Irish friends' advice is the expectation that should Israel start a dialogue with Hamas, the latter will change its ideology, renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, stop all acts of violence, suicide bombings and Qassam rocket attacksand relinquish its weapons.

Such expectation is rooted in the assumption that when two parties with diametrically opposing views engage in a dialogue, the dynamic created changes the chemistry of the conflict, moderates the positions of both sides and makes a compromise possible. Although this theory may be valid in some cases, unfortunately it is not in the case of Hamas.

One of the main differences between Hamas and the IRA is the role played by religion in their ideologies. While most IRA members were Catholic and religion was a factor, its political platform and vision was the unification of the island of Ireland, not defined in religious terms. The religious beliefs of its members did not block the way to a political compromise.

By contrast, the ideology of Hamas is defined in absolutist religious terms,
that of a radical version of Islam, which is not open to influence or change. The political vision and religious belief of Hamas are one and the same; therefore, change is unlikely.

At the core of this belief is the desire to create an Islamist state based on Islamic law over all the land, not just the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel as well. There is no acceptance of the notion of coexistence, no support for the idea of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, but an exclusive demand, based on fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts, for control of the entire territory.

The Hamas Charter, adopted in 1988
and still very much in effect, defines the land of Palestine as "an Islamic Waqf" (trust territory) consecrated for future Muslim generations. It adds: "Until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it" (Article 11).

The Charter's preface states "Israel will arise and will remain existent only until Islam eliminates it as it has eliminated its predecessors.
" Furthermore, it defines the enemy explicitly as an ethnic-religious group - the Jewish people. Hamas officials continue in their refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. In contrast, the IRA never questioned Britain's right to exist.

The difference also applies to the practical level. After the IRA ceasefire of 1994, U.S. Senator George Mitchell, called in as a mediator, laid down ground rules for participation in the Northern Ireland talks. All the parties to the conflict then agreed to a code of conduct. The first principle was a commitment by all sides to "democratic and exclusively peaceful means" of resolving political issues. The second was a commitment to "the total disarmament" of all paramilitary groups. Sadly such principles cannot be reconciled with the Hamas Charter, its religious ideology and the concept of the duty to wage holy war (jihad), which will inherently always take precedence.

In fact, the whole idea of a peace process and the use of mediators are ruled out by the Charter. Mediators would not be welcome, since "those conferences are no more than a means to appoint the unbelievers as arbitrators in the lands of Islam" (Article 13).

What then is a prudent policy for the international community towards Hamas, especially in the aftermath of its takeover of Gaza? The answer is a united front and a consistent policy, demanding and insisting on the acceptance of the three principles laid out by the Quartet (United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia): recognition of Israel's right to exist, renouncing and ending terrorism, and accepting all prior agreements and understandings achieved between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

These are sensible principles. If Hamas were to accept these principles, abandon its radical beliefs and, like the IRA transform itself into a partner for dialogue, it could join the peace process and put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people. Indeed, if Hamas stops rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages and releases the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, it can pave the way for an immediate and stable ceasefire in the Gaza region.

Unfortunately, given the intransigent ideological and religious foundations behind Hamas' violent actions, such an expectation is quite unrealistic. Instead, Middle East peace would better be served by supporting the moderate Palestinian leadership in their effort to lead their people to a reasonable compromise - a path which Israel as well is willing to take.

Zion Evrony is Israel's ambassador to Ireland. He was previously head of the policy planning bureau at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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