Is Hamas relevant for India’s diplomatic calculations vis-a-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict? And should India change its stance and recognise Hamas? There are no easy answers.
The ongoing Israel-Gaza violence once again indicates where Hamas stands with regard to the peace process. From the very beginning, the militant Palestinian organisation has opposed coexistence with Israel and has been challenging the mainstream Palestinian movement represented by Yasser Arafat. As long as Arafat was at the helm of affairs, Hamas had to settle for a secondary role within the Palestinian national movement, but this did not prevent the organisation from scuttling and eventually burying the Oslo process of reconciliation and accommodation with Israel.
In the post-Arafat scenario, Hamas was on the ascendance and convincingly won the January 2006 Palestinian elections. Fatah’s reluctance and refusal to accept the popular verdict led to an irreconcilable divide between the two and reached a boiling point in June 2007, with the Hamas militarily taking over the Gaza Strip. Since then, the Palestinian areas are divided between the Fatah-dominated Palestine National Authority (PNA)-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
During this period, there have been very few contacts, exchanges or negotiations between Fatah and Hamas. For example, since elected president in January 2005, Mahmoud Abbas travelled to India five times (2005, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2017) but did not set foot in Gaza even once. His attempts to visit the other part of Palestine were abandoned due to security concerns and this even forced Arafat to shift his headquarters from Gaza city to Ramallah months before his death in 2004. Countries like Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar unsuccessfully tried to mediate between the warring Palestinian factions. Thus, for over a decade, the expression ‘negotiations’ meant mediatory efforts between Fatah and Hamas and not Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The Fatah-Hamas differences are rooted in their ideological worldview. Despite claiming historic Palestine that included the whole of Israel, over time, Fatah and the PLO have become pragmatic and recognised the need to come to terms with the state of Israel. The Oslo process was a historic compromise whereby Arafat agreed to give up claims to about 74% of the territories of mandate Palestine. The Hamas, which scuttled Oslo through its campaign of suicide bombings, viewed the Palestine struggle through an immutable Islamic framework; as a waqf property, Palestine, either in full or in parts, cannot be given to non-Islamic sovereignty. The problem for Hamas is not the size or boundaries of Israel but its very existence. Unlike the PLO and other mainstream Arab countries, it was not ready to accept Israel even within the 1967 borders and seeks a Palestinian state that would exist in place of Israel. Its occasional offers of a long-term conditional ceasefire are meant for the Western audience and a euphemism for the eventual destruction of Israel. In short, Hamas is an antithesis to India’s two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Yet, the recent round of conflict underscores a few uncomfortable realities. President Abbas and the PNA are largely irrelevant. During his 15-year presidency, Abbas could not accomplish any tangible gains towards Palestinian statehood. Despite the growing civil society support for the Palestinians in several Western capitals, including Washington, the PNA has stagnated under his leadership. Other than describing it as a ‘slap of the century’, Abbas was unable to respond to the Trump Peace Plan, which galvanised Israel’s normalisation of relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the UAE and growing political contacts with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The willingness of Arab countries to separate the Palestinian question from their narrow national interests did not spur any rethinking within the PNA.
Moreover, the tenure of the Palestinian president and parliament is for five years, but no elections were held for the past 15 years. Parliamentary election slated for May 22 was postponed last week on the plea that Israel refused to allow East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote. Under these circumstances, uncertainty looms large over the fate of the presidential elections scheduled for July 31. Like other despots in the region who were overthrown by the Arab Spring protests, Abbas is unable to offer a vision for the future of Palestinians.
Indeed, Hamas is better placed today than it was in January 2006 and the current round of violence is part of its political campaign. By focusing on Jerusalem and al-Aqsa, it is presenting itself as the true and legitimate defender of the Palestinian cause and is better placed to secure Palestinian rights than others. That its military tactics are causing more Palestinian casualties adds to its stature, and they are ‘martyrs’ to be cherished for their ‘sacrifice’.
Do these make Hamas the ‘sole and legitimate’ representative of the Palestinian people, a position enjoyed by the PLO since 1974? That status enabled the PLO to become an ‘observer’ in the UN, enjoy international recognition and become a partner in the peace process. Hamas is far from reaching that position, especially as a partner in peace. It is a wrecker of accommodation with Israel, and there are no signs of a fundamental transformation of its end goal.
At the same time, India cannot ignore the growing relevance of Hamas in Palestinian politics. No meaningful development—war or peace—is possible without the militant Palestinian organisation. Abbas, the PLO and PNA are moderates and have been friends of India for decades, but Hamas is the most effective player today in Palestinian politics and has overshadowed all the friends of India.
Yet, diplomatic recognition of the militant Palestinian movement is out of the question. Such a move would poison and wreck India’s burgeoning ties with Israel and alienate New Delhi from the Fatah-dominated PLO and several moderate Arab countries. Premature recognition of Hamas would scuttle the prospects of India being an influential player in the Middle East and feed into the militant group’s anti-peace agenda.
Without formal diplomatic recognition, is there a midway? India can engage with Hamas through security agencies. Besides providing diplomatic deniability, this approach will lessen the anger and disappointment of Israel and PNA vis-a-vis New Delhi. Yes, away from all glare and publicity, India’s intelligence establishment must reach out to Hamas and forge limited engagement. Hamas is the dominant player in Palestinian politics. Will India recalibrate its policy without unduly affecting its close ties with Israel and the PLO?
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there