Hamas may break taboo and seek to negotiate with Israel, leader says

In dramatic change of policy, Moussa Abu Marzouk says Gazans want direct contact between Hamas and Jewish state

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk (AP/Hatem Moussa)
Senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk (AP/Hatem Moussa)

In a dramatic political about-face, a senior Hamas official said that his movement may seek to negotiate with Israel, claiming that Islamic faith does not prohibit such contacts.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, told Palestinian Al-Quds TV on Wednesday that Hamas may be forced to negotiate with Israel, since the vast majority of Gaza Strip residents demand it.

“From the point of view of Sharia (Islamic law), nothing prevents negotiations with the occupation. Just as you negotiate with it using weapons, you can negotiate using words,” Abu Marzouk said. “I believe that if things continue as they are now, Hamas may not have a choice. I say this in all honesty, [negotiations] have become a quasi-popular demand at the moment among all people in the Gaza Strip. Hamas may find itself forced to adopt this policy.”

Abu Marzouk noticeably struggled to articulate his movement’s new position, a reversal of earlier stances which forbade direct contact with Jerusalem.

“When the basic rights of the residents of Gaza become a burden for our brothers in the PA and the government to such an extent, policies which used to be almost taboo for the [Hamas] movement could become part of its agenda.”

“So far, our policy has been not to negotiate with the occupation, but others must realize that this issue is not banned,” he said.

Negotiations with Israel used to be the main point of contention between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas. The Islamic movement sharply rebuked Abbas for engaging in a nine-month round of talks with Israel in July 2013, with spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri stating as late as April that “there is no future in negotiations with Israel.”

Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

Hamas has negotiated two ceasefires with Israel, in 2012 and 2014, through Egyptian mediators but never directly.

Israel has a policy not to negotiate directly with Hamas, which it considers a terror organization. Backed by the so-called Middle East Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia, it demands that Hamas recognize Israel, accept previous agreements and renounce terrorism as preconditions for direct negotiations with the Islamist group.

Abu Marzouk’s comments may place his political bureau in direct conflict with Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, which remains fundamentally opposed to all forms of negotiations with Israel.

A decision to engage with Israel may require a constitutional change for Hamas. The movement’s 1988 charter states in article 13 that “there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with.”

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said Abu Marzouk was responding to a sense of desperation on the part of Gaza residents, whom he is currently consulting in a visit from his Cairo base.

“People are tired and worn-out by the war and don’t want to return to war once again,” he told The Times of Israel.

But there is another, geopolitical explanation. Disappointed with the Egyptian bias toward Fatah, Hamas would like to open a covert channel with Israel through Qatar and Turkey, Abusada opined.

Hamas understands that the divide with the West Bank is here to stay for the foreseeable future — especially given Mahmoud Abbas’s scathing critique of Hamas’s conduct during Operation Protective Edge — and would like to solidify its effective control over the Gaza Strip.

“Hamas has come to feel that the Egyptians are not an objective broker that can serve them,” Abusada said.

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