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Opinion: Israel must end the Gaza blockade

Whether US and Israel like it or not, Hamas represents a majority in Gaza.

hamas passport check
A Hamas policeman looks at the passports of Palestinians waiting to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip June 1, 2010. Egypt opened its border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, letting Palestinians cross until further notice amid a storm of international criticism of Israel's blockade of the enclave, officials in Egypt and Gaza said. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

NEW YORK — It’s time for Israel to end its three-year blockade of Gaza and for the international community to abandon its failed policy of trying to isolate Hamas.

After Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007, Israel imposed a tight economic blockade on Gaza’s 1.4 million residents. With support from the United States and other Western powers, Israel claimed that the siege would prevent Hamas from firing rockets at Israeli towns and would turn Palestinians against the Islamist group. But this policy of collective punishment was morally inexcusable and ultimately futile: it has only harmed the people of Gaza and made them more dependent on Hamas.

Whether U.S. and Israeli officials like it or not, Hamas represents a significant segment of the Palestinian population. No viable settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without its involvement. Dialogue will not be easy. There will be false starts and conflicting messages from Hamas leaders.

For example, Hamas leaders and clerics continue to call for the destruction of Israel, as is stated in Hamas’ founding charter. And Hamas continues to defend suicide bombing as a legitimate weapon of resistance against Israel. But just last week, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said the group would end its armed struggle if Israel withdraws from the land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Clearly, Hamas is not an entirely cohesive organization: there is a political wing living in exile, a political wing inside the Palestinian territories and a military wing. Each wing represents a different trend within Hamas and much of the power rests with the exiled leaders, who tend to be the most hard-line. Once it achieved political authority by winning the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas needed to make compromises and play politics. It has not yet reached that stage.

One reason is that Hamas’ foreign protectors — Syria and Iran — encourage its exiled leaders to maintain their uncompromising stance. Hamas sometimes takes actions that are more geared to the interests of Syria and Iran, and less to the needs of its Palestinian constituency. The West also bears some blame for this trend. By keeping Hamas isolated, the United States and Europe are helping its external leaders dominate the group, at the expense of leaders inside the Palestinian territories.

The internal leadership, cut off from the outside world, is dependent on the exiles to raise money and to help the group survive. Those external leaders, living in comfort away from Gaza and the West Bank, can afford to be inflexible. They don’t answer to any Palestinian constituency and they don’t live among average Palestinians.

Different factions within a group can have different interests: the exiled Hamas leaders are eager to continue fighting, while some of the internal leaders are open to dialogue. It’s possible to divide these factions from one another. But the United States and Europe will never know unless they try.

While Hamas remains isolated, the hard-liners led by Meshaal — head of the Hamas political bureau, who lives in Syria — will continue to dominate. Ever since Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in 2004, the group has no longer had one supreme leader. Hamas is not like the Palestine Liberation Organization, dominated by Yassir Arafat for decades. Today, Meshaal is the one who comes closest to a controlling figure, but he does not have the same stature as Sheik Yassin.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/diplomacy/100601/israel-must-end-blockade