Debate: Hamas – Democratic Government or Terrorist Organization?

On November 29, 2006, Mark Perry, co-director of Conflicts Forum, took part in a debate in New York hosted by Intelligence Squared US.

“A democratically elected Hamas is still a terrorist organization,” was the motion under debate. Speaking in favor of the motion were Steven A. Cook, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, John O’Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

Speaking against the motion were Mark Perry, Mahmoud Mohamedou, of the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, and Stanley L. Cohen, a lawyer who has represented Muslim and Palestinian activists and imams. The moderator was Judy Woodruff. (Links to edited and unedited broadcasts of the debate can be found here, and a complete PDF transcript is here.)

Here is Mark Perry’s opening statement:

The problem: the problem isn’t that Hamas is a terrorist organization; the problem is that Hamas is a Muslim organization. That’s what scares the hell out of us. And we ought to put it all out on the table and just say it. And how do we know that? Because the United States has dealt with terrorist organizations throughout its history and so has Israel.

There were no preconditions for any talks with the PLO in 1993. And Yasser Arafat made sure of that. He said, we’ll recognize you after you talk to us. That was, no preconditions. Why do we have conditions on Hamas? Because they’re Muslims, they don’t look like us, we say they don’t have our values. How do I know that we deal with terrorist organizations? Because tomorrow the president of the United States is meeting with a man by the name of Nouri al-Maliki. Who is he? Nouri al-Maliki is the head of the Dawa Party. Who is the Dawa Party? The Dawa Party opposed Saddam Hussein when we supported Saddam Hussein. We put them on the terrorism list. When we changed sides, we took them off the terrorism list. That doesn’t matter. They bombed the US Embassy in Kuwait and killed three Americans. We’re talking to him because it’s in our interest to talk to him, terrorist or not.

So what is the problem with Hamas?

Well if you listen to the media and if you listen to our political leaders, here’s what they have to say.

They don’t have our values — our Judeo-Christian values. What values would those be? I’m a nice white boy from Wisconsin, grew up as a Lutheran. And I can tell you in my religion I had to memorize — through an ordeal — the catechism of Martin Luther, one of the real anti-Semites of our era.

They do not have legitimacy. How do political parties and movements gain legitimacy? It’s not conferred by Israel or the United States; it’s conferred by the people. They won an election. Oh no, their critics say. They didn’t win the election, Fatah lost it. Okay. Fatah lost it because Fatah couldn’t organize itself credibly and competently to stand for election and because Fatah accepted twenty million dollars in American election aid. And as soon as that came out in the Washington Post and was reprinted in the West Bank in Gaza, they lost votes.

They want to destroy Israel. So did the PLO. They have a charter that says they want to destroy Israel. So do the PLO. And yet we’ve had Hamas leaders that say the following: We have a charter that says, yes we admit it, we want to destroy Israel. But the charter’s not the Quran, and it can be changed. And under the right circumstances, if we can talk to our adversaries, we can and we will change it.

The other argument that we say, we’ve heard it tonight. They provide social services. Those cynical people, how could they do that? You mean they’re actually trying to serve their people, clear up corruption? I too was talking to Hamas leaders when I was in the Middle East, just one week ago … Here’s what they’ve done. They’ve penetrated the Education [and] Health ministries, cleaned them up. That’s forty percent of the total employment of the government of Palestine. They’ve thrown out the corrupt people. They’ve taken over the ministry, they’ve started to provide services to people. They’ve kicked out Fatah members who are in exile around the world for stealing money from the Palestinian people.

Don’t we want good governance? Shouldn’t we talk to people who want good governance, who stand for elections?

They kill innocent people. They have killed innocent people, brutely, terribly, like others have. It’s not an excuse to say, well the Israelis have done it; well Lehi did it; well the Haganah did it. That’s not an excuse. They killed innocent people and they cannot be absolved. But after long discussions with Hamas, conducted by my organization — painful discussions; arguments about the killing of innocents; not moral arguments; practical, effective, political arguments — they stopped. I’d like to take credit. They stopped these suicide bombers through talk because they realized how ineffective they were, how they were losing support for what they feel is a legitimate cause. There hasn’t been a Hamas-led suicide bombing in Israel since August of 2004. That’s a fact. People can change.

There are three conditions for Hamas being recognized as a legitimate political party. To renounce violence, to give up their arms, and to recognize Israel.

We’ve been through this and through this with Hamas, and we’ve said why don’t you do this? And the best answer that I’ve had from a Hamas leader is as follows: If we do that, if we renounce violence, if we give up our arms, and if we recognize Israel, what’s there to talk about? What do we talk to our enemies about? Do you think they’re going to say, “Oh, welcome to the world of nations”? “Finally we’ll withdraw to the ’67 borders”? Here’s what we would like. We will recognize Israel — Khaled Meshaal has said this very straightforward in Damascus again and again and again and again. We understand and we recognize that the Israeli people, the Jewish people have a narrative, it’s an important narrative. We’ve listened to it for many, many years. We have a narrative. Here’s our narrative. In 1948, we lived on a land that was called Palestine. Many of us were kicked off our land and now live in refugee camps. We have legitimate grievances. If you will recognize our legitimate grievances, and recognize our narrative as a people, we can begin to share a narrative, to have talks. But until that point comes, when you stand up and say, we understand that you have grievances that have to be addressed, we’re not going to recognize anybody. We’re going to represent our people.

Now here’s what’s happening, I think, in the Middle East. Now — and I just returned from Beirut — there are, on the internet, calls for the assassination of the leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas by the leaders of Al Qaeda. Why? Because Hamas and Hezbollah have accepted the Western, colonial mandate, to stand for elections and represent their people. Al Qaeda thinks that’s a trick. Hamas and Hezbollah don’t. They answer to their people. We are lumping together the Girondists with the Jacobins. We are lumping together the true reformers in the Middle East, the ones who want to answer to their people with the people who drove their airplanes into our buildings. We are forcing the Gironde – for those of you who remember French history – into the mountain, into the Jacobins. It is, it is so counterproductive. We are radicalizing the region. There are moderates in Islam. They’re called Hamas — whether we like it or not. And it’s time to open up to them. I thank you.


  1. […] The Conflicts Forum held a debate about a week ago on “an elected Hamas is still a terrorist organization” in which, among others, Stephen Cook, Dan Ayalon, Mark Perry and Stanley Cohen participated. The point being debated is rather badly phrased — it’s obvious that Hamas has used terrorism as a tactic in its struggle for the liberation of Palestine — but the debate is lively and stimulating. It’s really a debate about one (really meaning the US or “international community” in this context) should embrace Hamas as a potential partner for peace rather than ostracize them. Since there are plenty of occasions where political groups that use terror tactics have been integrated politically (from the Zionist terrorist groups of the 1940s to the IRA to the PLO) that question should be moot. The really bigger question, it seems to me, is whether some partners on both sides are interested in peace at all. I don’t think that in Israel either Likud, Kadima, or a good part of Labor is really interested — hence the failure of Oslo and the continual race to expand West Bank settlements under various governments since the mid-1990s. On the Palestinian side Hamas has not resolved some of its ambivalence, although it is certainly seems more willing to consider a fair two-state settlement than a group like Islamic Jihad. Both sides have used, on purpose and with the intent to terrorize, unthinkable violence against civilians. But the Palestinians have done so largely out of self-defense against a foreign occupier while the Israelis have done so mostly to perpetuate an occupation internationally recognized as illegal and to crush a liberation movement. […]

  2. Wil Robinson wrote:

    What a great debate…something like this should be heard in the mainstream media (thought it never will be, unfortunately.)

    If anyone is looking for some extra information, I read a particularly interesting book called “The Palestinian Hamas” by Mishal & Sela. It deals with how Hamas started and really gives a sense of what direction they wish to go.

    I think the worst thing that happened over the last year is that the US and Israel (along with other European nations) refused to acknowledge Hamas’ victory, in effect giving Fatah and Abbas a green light to start a civil war, knowing that they would have the US backing. The current strife is in large part due to this choice.

    I look forward to the day when America will no longer choose who wins and loses even when it flies in the face of the people’s democratic choices…That might also be the day when the current epidemic of violent resistance around the world begins to draw to a close.

  3. Vincent wrote:

    Let me 1st say that this forum is a breath of fresh air for me.
    I remember about 10 yrs ago i was watching the evening news (in t west) and for the 1st time the translation of Allah wasn’t met with God but with Allah. At that moment i could see how this will separate men. Men normaly fear what they dont understand.
    Keep t dialog (and therefore all of us) alive!

  4. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi wrote:

    To court a judgment/discernment from a neutral mind regarding this debate, I would like to simply add that if there has been an iota of a political will regarding the real solution of the Arab- Israeli conflict, there would have/should have/and must have been no justification for making serious delay in resolving this peace and humanity- bound conflict. Hamas or no Hamas, in my view, is the subjective issue of this debate,the veritable truth is that before Hamas’s power threshold in the Palestinian people, the US-cum-European policy in terms of the pragmatic search of the Middle East conflict, have been the right reflections on nothing but political gradualism.

  5. Alabama John wrote:

    Is Iran funding terrorists, or freedom fighters?
    Our federal government has declared all Moslem ruled nations ungodly, and as a result we have invaded and established dictatorships in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. The end result being both Bush and Obama have declared war on Iran claiming it might use uranium to build nuclear weapons. Comes now our CIA to tell us that Pakistan is supporting terrorism.

    A self-destruction mentality, for they are the second largest religion, and going back over 100 years no Moslem nation has ever gone to war except in self-defense. For Moslems will always fight to the death to protect their right to have a government ruled by royalty, a priestly royalty that passes from father to son.

    Palestine for example lived for over 1300 years in peace and friendship with it’s small 5% Jewish population. Then the US and Europe started shipping millions of Jews and billions of dollars in war materials to Palestine. Then in 1949 the Jews so terrorized the Moslems in Palestine that 780,000 fled into exile, and the rest were imprisoned in two concentration camps, West Bank and Gaza strip.

    So the civilians in Israel are the ones who voted for and now support their dictatorship over Gaza. Surely, and such civilian terrorists may not use their children as human shields. Not morally or legally, otherwise we will never have an end to slavery.

    Now does it not seem somewhat strange that even though 90% of Americas stand opposed to invading Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, still our federal government arbitrarily does it? Surely and not too hard to understand, for politicians get most of their campaign funds from rich corporations, and our war materials industry has the richest of corporations. Bingo — a defense economy.

    And why does news media keep telling us that Obama won the election by an overwhelming majority, when half of the nation felt so disfranchised they refused to vote? For less then 27% of adults voted for Obama, and no one I have talked to has anything but a very doubtful indifference.

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