The Myth of a Pragmatic Hamas

21st Nov 2012

The ongoing conflagration in the Gaza Strip makes one wonder if some have forgotten the very basics of the English language.

Whether or not a ceasefire is reached between the two parties (there were inconclusive reports as of press time), this much is clear: As desirable as a ceasefire is, it can’t repair the damage already done to thousands of lives — and to the rhetoric that, in Western accounts, defines this ongoing conflict.

Take the word “pragmatic,” applied by countless observers of the Middle East to describe Hamas, whose years-long firing of rockets into Israel prompted the Jewish state to launch a series of strikes targeting its leaders.

“The Islamists of Hamas are being squeezed toward pragmatism,” declared The Economist in June. “Some of its own members have become frustrated and radicalized by the group’s essential pragmatism,” David Hartwell, an analyst with the distinguished British think tank Jane’s, told USA Today last week.

Hamas is not “a radical group bent on violence and terror,” but rather “a mature political movement that represents the best interests of the Palestinian people,” says the American author Mark Perry, who praises its “pragmatism and maturity.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “pragmatic” as “Dealing with matters in accordance with practical rather than theoretical considerations or general principles; aiming at what is achievable rather than ideal.”

Perhaps in a world where words have no agreed-upon meaning, one could describe an organization constitutionally committed to the destruction of a United Nations member state and the murder of Jews worldwide as “pragmatic.” But if we are to accept that words have objective definitions, then the above statements have to be considered deeply inaccurate — even deluded.

The events of the past week ought to dispel all claims that Hamas is in any way a “pragmatic” organization. To maintain otherwise is to blind oneself to its ideology and tactics.

The U.S., the European Union, the United Nations — all these actors insist that Hamas give up its commitment to violence and recognize Israel before the group can be diplomatically engaged and sanctions on it can be lifted. Yet Hamas refuses to alter its core principles, accepting pariah status as the cost of ideological sincerity.

On the tactical side, Hamas’ attempt over the past few days to strike Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (the latter being home to Islamic holy sites) was the very opposite of “pragmatic.” Had any of the rockets headed for those two population centers struck a significant target, as opposed to being intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, the Israeli response would have been swift and uncompromising.

An invasion of Gaza would have almost certainly occurred. Yet, as with its refusal to renounce its guiding beliefs, Hamas behaves in the suicidal fashion that is the hallmark of its terrorism, always prepared to fight another day.

This was not quite the way things were supposed to happen.

Western optimists hoped that, even though Hamas came to power in Gaza through violence, the realities of governing would moderate its program. It’s easy to preach Islamic revolution from the sidelines, the argument went, but now Hamas would have to deal with the quotidian aspects of political leadership.

It was evident that these wishes were a fantasy long before Hamas took power in the summer of 2007. Right after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza two years earlier, Hamas began firing rockets at its neighbor, in fidelity to its charter’s promise “to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”

But perhaps those who label Hamas “pragmatic” are assessing the group on its own terms. To most Westerners, there’s nothing sensible in launching rocket attacks on a more powerful adversary that can impose an embargo on your territory and assassinate your leaders.

If Hamas really wanted peace, we say, it would amend its charter by removing anti-Semitic incitement, unambiguously declare its support for a two-state solution and put down its guns.
But Hamas doesn’t want peace — and it sees the continued suffering of the Palestinian civilians living in Gaza as a necessary price to be paid for achieving the goal of eliminating Israel.

And if your goal is an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, then perhaps Hamas’ behavior makes sense. It surveys the region and sees a supportive Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and a friendly Islamist government in Turkey. Voices in respectable precincts beat the drum for a one-state solution — that is, a world without Israel.

If pragmatism is, as the OED has it, “aiming at what is achievable rather than ideal,” then Hamas is just patiently waiting for the day when the latter becomes the former.

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