EU Dialogue with Islamists

Hamas and Hizbullah Key to Mideast Peace?

In mid-April, the EU Foreign Ministers decided to resume dialogue relations with Islamist organizations. Rightly so, argues Islam expert Michael Lüders, stressing it would be shortsighted to view Hamas and Hizbullah only as terrorist organizations.

In mid-April, the EU Foreign Ministers decided to resume dialogue relations with Islamist organizations. Rightly so, argues Islam expert Michael Lüders, stressing it would be shortsighted to view Hamas and Hizbullah only as terrorist organizations

photo: AP
The Hamas movement is primarily seen as a terrorist group, but it also enjoys widespread support among the Palestinian populace for its social policy

​​Is it possible, and is it permissible, to enter into negotiations with radical Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah? From the Israeli and American standpoint, the answer is: definitely not. They regard both the Palestine "Islamic Resistance Movement" and the Lebanese "Party of God" as terrorist organizations that must be fought by military means and isolated politically.

The European Union, on the other hand, views only Hamas as a terrorist organization, but not Hizbullah. And even this stance is currently being reconsidered. At their meeting in Luxembourg in mid-April, the 25 EU foreign ministers agreed to attempt a dialogue with the Islamist opposition groups.

This partial break with the former taboo could mean that in the medium term the Europeans will be lifting their official embargo on communication with the Hizbullah and Hamas groups.

There is no reason to like Hamas or Hizbullah, but …

Behind this new approach is the realization that political Islam is today a key power factor in the Near and Middle East, which no one who wishes to promote democracy in the region can afford to ignore. There is no reason why anyone has to like Hamas or Hizbullah. But both movements have gained massive popularity.

At the last local elections in the Gaza Strip, Hamas received some 70 percent of the vote, and among the Shia in South Lebanon, Hizbullah is likewise a force to be reckoned with. This constellation results in a series of concrete problems faced, for example, by Western aid organizations.

The German Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) for one has not yet dared to turn its attention to the Gaza Strip, although help is urgently needed there. The problem is that their local partners would necessarily have to be members of Hamas.

Hamas and Hizbullah are not only terrorist organizations

Be that as it may, whoever wants to foster change in the region cannot shut his eyes to the realities prevailing there. Vilifying the Hamas and Hizbullah groups will not make them go away. One can try to combat them militarily, as the Israeli government has attempted – but these efforts have only succeeding in making the movements even stronger.

Both Hamas and Hizbullah came about as resistance movements against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and South Lebanon, and neither group has shrunk from using terrorist means to achieve its ends, including hostage-taking and suicide bombings.

Nevertheless, it would be shortsighted to view them only as terrorist organizations. Beyond the appeal of their jihad myth, their grass-roots popularity can be attributed above all to the social services they provide.

Like all Islamists, they recruit followers less with ideology than with persuasive material assistance – social security, pensions, community assistance, etc. These activities are financed with the help of domestic and foreign donations – in the case of Hizbullah, primarily from Iran.

Hamas and Hizbullah are adapting to political realities

By the same token, the leaders of both Hamas and Hizbullah know that they have to adapt their strategies to the political realities if they want to maintain their influence. Resistance and terrorism might be justified in the eyes of the actors under certain circumstances, but they do not replace the political option.

This realization has led Hamas to do an about face in the past few months. The party will in future participate without reservation in the elections in the autonomous Palestinian territories. Hamas representatives are also speaking of a Hudna, a cease-fire with Israel.

If the secular PLO and Fatah leaders under Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas do not succeed in obtaining from the Israelis a clear roadmap for the founding of a Palestinian state and an end of the occupation, chances are high that Hamas will win a substantially greater number of votes in the elections planned in the West Bank this summer.

The two organizations are not regarded as corrupt

There is another reason why Hamas and Hizbullah enjoy such great respect throughout broad sections of the population. By contrast with their political rivals, they are not regarded as corrupt.

Western ambassadors in Beirut (with the exception of the American one) acknowledge that the head of Hizbullah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is both incorruptible and pragmatic.

Radical rhetoric like that cultivated by the Hizbullah television station Al-Manar is one thing, the necessity to achieve a profile as a political party is another. And this is even more important in view of the fact that the occupation of South Lebanon has been over for five years.

Especially in the past few weeks, the Lebanese have demonstrated that they do not intend to rely on violence. It is true that there will always be religious and political extremists on both sides of the front, but the important thing is that they are not allowed to gain the upper hand.

Hamas and Hizbullah – a regional variant on the NSDAP?

The question of whether European governments should enter into a dialogue with Hamas and Hizbullah is in a way academic – de facto contact has existed for years. On the other hand, the question cannot be answered without taking into consideration the prevailing points of view on the Middle East conflict.

There are at least two different narratives, two ways of explaining the crisis. A Jewish-Israeli viewpoint, which sees in Hamas and Hizbullah not much more than a regional variant on the NSDAP. And an Arab-Islamic, which sees both groups as legitimate movements resisting a humiliating Israeli occupation.

A balanced European policy would espouse neither of these standpoints. Instead, the task is to mediate between the two sides in an attempt to find pragmatic solutions. This would also include involving Hamas and Hizbullah in the peace process – not least in order to make sure they bear their share of the responsibility.

Michael Lüders

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Michael Lüders studied Islamic sciences, politics and journalism in Berlin. He wrote his PhD on the Egyptian cinema. He produced several documentary films for the German television and was for many years editor for Near and Middle Eastern Affairs for the German weekly Die Zeit. He lives as political advisor, journalist and author in Berlin.

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