Meeting With the Fledgling Diplomats of Hamas

GAZA—Ahmed Yousef got his doctorate in political science from Missouri’s Columbia State University. But to describe the root of the

GAZA—Ahmed Yousef got his doctorate in political science from Missouri’s Columbia State University. But to describe the root of the Palestinians’ Hamas-led government’s paralysis, Mr. Yousef, the political aide to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, borrowed a metaphor from the world of sports.

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As diplomats, explained Mr. Yousef, the rookie Islamic militants are out of shape and playing the wrong game.

“It’s like the world saying that you have to play by the rules of football, and you decide to play according the rules of basketball,” Mr. Yousef said. “For Hamas to be in politics, there are rules it has to abide by. You can get hurt if you play by your own rules.”

The small four-floor office building where Mr. Yousef receives visitors is Mr. Haniyeh’s new headquarters, and it is somewhat of a refuge from the dangers of Gaza: The first was bombed by Israel. Gaza remains a tense place. After six months of government insolvency, almost every Palestinian is on edge about how to spend their dwindling cash. Rival groups of gunmen are settling scores with one another, and no one knows who will get caught in the crossfire.

A handful of bearded, black-clad Hamas gunmen at the building’s entrance greet visitors, who are then ushered into a waiting room which is empty save for two rifle-toting guards sitting on chairs.

Receiving visitors in a modest third-floor office, Mr. Yousef is a genial host. A native of a Gaza refugee camp, Mr. Yousef moved to the U.S. in 1982 and directed an Islamist think tank based in Virginia in the 1990’s called the United Association for Studies and Research. There he defended Hamas’ suicide bombings as a logical response to Israel’s “state terrorism.”

Drafted five months ago by Mr. Haniyeh out of the world of think tanks into Gaza’s boiling mix of rifles, economic siege and poverty, Mr. Yousef described Hamas as in a bumpy, halting transition from fundamentalist religious militants into a political movement that has belatedly recognized the need to compromise.

He calls this an evolution in Hamas’ thinking, and on the surface, it sounds like a success story—a happy consequence of the Bush administration’s strategy to turn militants into democrats through reform.

But listening to Mr. Yousef explain Hamas’ “evolution” raises questions about whether Hamas is ready to part with its old ideology.

Take the recognition of Israel. On that point—one of three conditions set by the international community for renewing aid—Hamas still isn’t ready to compromise. “We still have a lot of reservations with the recognition of Israel’s right to exist,” Mr. Yousef said. A new Palestinian poll published Tuesday suggested that two-thirds of Palestinians agree.

That refusal is one of the major stumbling blocks preventing an agreement on a new Palestinian unity government with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. At the beginning of last week, Hamas and Fatah seemed to be on the verge of an accord. But with Mr. Abbas meeting with U.S., Israeli and other international leaders at the U.N., the unity talks had been frozen.

Hamas was waiting to see what kind of reaction Mr. Abbas would get to the proposal of the unity agreement by international leaders, and whether it might break the aid boycott. Mr. Yousef said that agreement on a coalition could be weeks away, if it happens at all.

Despite the deadlock, Mr. Yousef volunteered that Hamas was prepared to make several concessions to pave the way for a Palestinian unity government to which donors from Europe and the U.S. could agree to restore funding.

The Islamic militants were prepared to drop their longstanding opposition to negotiations with Israel, and would sit in a government in which the talks were lead by Mr. Abbas. Even more critically, Hamas would be ready to meet the international community’s two other major demands: a commitment to previous peace accords with Israel, and a commitment to nonviolence.

“If the world insists on these conditions as a way to pressure the Palestinians, we have one option: We either stay in the game and accept the conditions, or we can resign,” Mr. Yousef said.

To hear the middle-aged official talk about Hamas’ acceptance of peace talks (albeit headed by Mr. Abbas) sounds light years beyond the organization’s 1988 covenant belittling “so-called peaceful solutions.” But in and around talk of pragmatism lurked some of the familiar Hamas positions.

Asked whether Hamas could ever agree to a permanent settlement with Israel at the conclusion of negotiations, Mr. Yousef said that the Islamic militants prefer a long-term truce—or hudna—and would leave a resolution to “future generations.”

Mr. Yousef declined comment regarding recognition of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords of the 1990’s, which Hamas opposed so bitterly: “Oslo is dead, so we cannot even talk about it.”

Hamas’ top priority now, Mr. Yousef explained, isn’t peace negotiations with Israel, but boosting the Palestinian economy and re-establishing some semblance of law and order in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The situation in Gaza has steadily deteriorated in recent months, as evidenced by the gunmen in fatigues from different militias who patrol their own street corners. On occasion, there are ambushes and gun battles between rival factions.

But when asked about what the government can do to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier abducted in June from the Israeli border with Gaza, Mr. Yousef said that the government has no influence over the kidnappers.

And even if it did, this has “nothing to do with law and order,” but rather with the military conflict with Israel.

“When journalists are abducted in Gaza, then you can talk about law and order,” he jokes.

It is an unsettling remark. After two Fox News journalists were recently released from captivity, local American security officials warned reporters about the increased risk of going to Gaza. Although journalists have been abducted on previous occasions, they were never held for more than a few hours. The Fox News abductees’ taped statements bore a disturbing similarity to kidnapper tactics from Iraq.

As a result, some foreign journalists won’t go to Gaza. Cars with “TV” marked on them are potential targets. The safest way to travel is to take local taxis; day trips rather than overnight stays reduce the risk.

“We are not against foreigners,” Mr. Yousef said diplomatically, “but Gaza is not a stable area.”

Meeting With the Fledgling Diplomats of Hamas