A statement by Islam Shahwan, the former spokesperson of Hamas’ Interior Ministry in Gaza, recently set off a firestorm of controversy. In a message posted on Facebook, which Shahwan has since removed, he wondered whether direct talks between representatives of his movement and the Israelis at the Erez border crossing might resolve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Shahwan, who no longer holds an official position but is considered a prominent Hamas activist, hinted that perhaps the time had come to think “outside the box,” as he put it. The post was shared widely, generating support from Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but as was to be expected, many attacked him for even considering talks with the “Satan.”
Shahwan was obliged to respond, saying in a new post that his comments reflected his personal views and he was not giving up on the idea he had raised. “It’s time to examine whether the Gaza problem can be resolved peacefully with the enemies and whether security arrangements can be found to help prevent a humanitarian crisis,” he wrote.
While Shahwan claims he was only expressing his own opinions, this is not the first mention of possible direct talks with low-level officials of Israel’s Civil Administration, the entity tasked with implementing Israeli policy vis-a-vis Palestinian civilians. The first Hamas attempt to meet with Israeli Civil Administration officials occurred after the January 2006 Palestinian elections, when Ismail Haniyeh formed the first Hamas government in Gaza and Fatah refused to join it as a fig leaf, that is, to serve as a go-between for Hamas with Israel. Ahmed Yousef, Haniyeh’s former adviser for diplomatic affairs, and Razi Hamed, a former Hamas government spokesman and currently in charge of Gaza’s energy, headed for the Erez crossing to meet the Israelis. En route, it is unclear to this day whether on their way to the meeting or back, they came under a hail of bullets from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing. Yousef sustained light injuries to his hand and was fired along with his colleague, even though Haniyeh, as prime minister, had been apprised in advance of their meeting with the Israelis.
These two men are members of a growing faction within Hamas that understands that absent direct contacts with Israel over its 11-year blockade of Gaza, Hamas will not be able to continue ruling over Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents. Shahwan and his pragmatic Hamas colleagues recognize that although the mass marches along the border fence with Israel, and the incendiary kites that have blackened Israeli fields in recent weeks, have drawn international attention to the crisis, they will not be Gaza’s salvation.
A Hamas source told Al-Monitor that the idea of direct talks to end the Israeli blockade comes up in the movement all the time, but that Israel has so far rejected every proposal conveyed to it by mediators. “Unfortunately, your side only understands force,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That’s why no offers have been made of direct meetings and only unrealized thoughts and ruminations have been expressed.”
The position taken by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ current leader in Gaza, is also interesting. Sinwar was jailed in Israel for 24 years. He was released in a 2011 deal with Hamas for the return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. While in jail, Sinwar served as the spokesman for the Hamas inmates, conducting negotiations with the Israel Prison Service on improving conditions. There is no indication that he currently supports direct contact with Israel, but Hamas sources insist that he has told them he would accept far-reaching compromises in order to end the blockade and ensure the future of Gaza’s residents.
Hamas recognizes that Israel knows it cannot sustain the blockade of Gaza in its current form. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has reportedly presented a plan to build a floating dock off the island of Cyprus to handle goods destined for Gaza and to ensure that Hamas is not using them to smuggle armaments into the enclave. In the meantime, however, Israel remains unwilling to lift its blockade, most certainly not in the manner Hamas expects. Thus, Hamas has two options for “persuading” Israel. One is by peaceful means, through direct talks. The other is through jihad, which would entail another round of fighting, with heavy casualties and deadly destruction.
This dilemma was reflected in a June 20 Facebook post (also since deleted) by Salah al-Naami, a Gaza pundit identified with Hamas. “We must ask ourselves the following, simple question: Are the mass ‘Marches of Return’ designed to prepare a confrontation with the occupation or to redefine the nature of the conflict so that it serves our national cause and the reality in Gaza? Are the arson kites a means within the framework of (popular-public) action or an end in itself that must be preserved and is designed to create an atmosphere conducive to an all-out clash? We must reconsider the use of the kites. Maintaining them does not necessarily constitute an attempt to impose new rules of conflict. (On the other hand) continued dispatching of kites could result in a clash whose time may not have come yet.”
Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, the head of Coordination of Israeli Government Activities in the Territories, was quick to respond to Naami. “The burning kites are not a means, but a useless goal that does not yield anything other than endangering security, since anyone playing with fire gets burned.” This is exactly Hamas’ dilemma. Clandestine contacts with Israel could yield a solution, whereas continued escalation along the border will hasten the next war with Israel.
There is no room for doubt. Hamas must do everything to avoid another war with thousands of casualties — a terrible tragedy that would result in its total loss of control over Gaza.