Palestine is Still the Issue: On American Principles for Negotiating With Official Enemies

My fortnightly column published by Ceasefire.

By Asa Winstanley

This week Barack Obama confirmed something the US government had been moving towards for a long time: opening negotiations with the Taliban. “America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban,” Obama said in a speech Wednesday. This has been in the works for a while. On Channel 4 News Thursday, minor celebrity soldier Captain Doug Beattie said that British forces had been talking with the Taliban “on a local level in Helmand since 2007”.

The US military, along with satellites such as Britain, are being defeated by the Taliban. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the fact that, at exactly the same time negotiations were being made public for the first time last week, Taliban military activity was very much ongoing. Indeed, as reported by AP Saturday, quasi-puppet Afghan president Hamid Karzi announced to the world the US was in talks with the Taliban “even as insurgents stormed a police station near the presidential palace, killing nine people.

And yet, we are dealing with the very same United States establishment that absolutely rules out any talks with Hamas, despite the fact that the Islamic Resistance Movement forms the elected majority of the Palestinian Authority’s parliament; and despite the fact that Hamas has by now presented multiple offers to Israel of long term negotiated ceasefires.

In Gaza Hamas has even, at times, enforced truces with Israel, imposing them on smaller armed factions that had continued to fire rockets at Israeli positions – and even arresting Al-Aqsa Brigades fighters (members of the rival Fatah faction of Mahmoud Abbas, lately propped up by the US).

Ideologically, Hamas is a conservative movement which has much in common with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (indeed they share historical roots). Reactionary as they have proven to be, both of these Arab movements are a world away from the Taliban.

The Taliban is far more reactionary and brutal and has zero democratic legitimacy. Hamas on the other hand is essentially a popular resistance movement – a Palestinian nationalist movement with Islamist tendencies.

It is true that the corruption of the Fatah-dominated PA was an important factor behind Hamas’s 2006 election victory, but I find this is usually over-emphasised. The movement’s reputation for resistance to Israeli occupation was the main reason. Since then, it has more and more moved away from armed resistance and tried to make itself appealing to the West.

Instead of negotiating with Hamas when they won the elections, the US initiated a proxy conflict that sparked a mini-civil war in Gaza, until Hamas fighters ejected what had been termed the “Palestinian contras”.

It is quite instructive that even while the Taliban continues to fight America it gets negotiations. Hamas stops fighting Israel (a US client state by any definition), reconciles with Fatah, increasingly moves towards the “two state solution” – and yet is still shunned by the US government. It follows then, that the stated pretexts of Empire – pious declamations about democracy, freedom and women’s rights – cannot possibly be the real reasons for shunning Hamas.

It looks very much like the Taliban have forced America to sit at the negotiating table. The US are essentially trying to save face, because they know they can’t stay in Afghanistan forever: the American people simply do not support it any more. By now the war is so unpopular that even some Republican presidential candidates have started to call for American troops to come home. The message this “softer” American strategy sends is, in effect: if you want America or its regional clients to back down, do NOT stop fighting.

Indeed, the only meaningful negotiations Israel has ever had with Hamas have been over an occupation soldier captured by Hamas in Gaza, in 2006, and still held prisoner. Should the long-discussed prisoner exchange for him eventually go ahead, it would be proof that armed resistance by liberation struggles can still achieve concrete gains despite the military odds.

However, the Hamas government’s “morality campaigns” in Gaza in recent years have led to a decline in its popularity. At the same time, Fatah’a “security coordination” with Israel, corruption and a succession of scandals have meant they too remain unpopular. Recent polls show low approval ratings for both, with a majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories favouring no political party at all.

The fledgling Arab revolutions have changed the rules of the game. The Palestinian people are unlikely to tolerate Hamas and Fatah’s mutual delay in implementing the April deal to form a unity government and prepare for new elections.

Although Fatah and Hamas probably think they have diffused popular Palestinian discontent by signing their unity deal, the way things are going the third Palestinian intifada, an increasingly plausible prospect, is highly likely to cast them aside for a better, more unified strategy, transcending party politics.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is