Israel’s neighbourhood reality: Hamas can change

By A. B. Yehoshua

TEL AVIV - During the military operations in Gaza, code-named "Fused Lead" (after a Hanukkah song about a small spinning top - one of that holiday's symbols - made out of fused lead), we Israelis have been reminded of a fundamental fact: Gaza is not Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Lebanon. It is a region composed of a common country that we share with the Palestinians. It is a country that we call Israel and they call Palestine.

One and a half million people live in Gaza. They are part of a people of whom another 1.3 million live in Israel, and another two million in the West Bank. The men and women of Gaza are our neighbours and have lived back to back with us for a long time, even if we are separated from them by a border.

A street is decorated with Israeli flags in the border town of Sderot, one of the towns in southern Israel that have been hit by Hamas rockets, on January 15. AFP

Our homes and our cities are just a few kilometres from each other, our fields brush up against theirs. The men of Gaza, the activists or policemen of Hamas whom we observe through our military binoculars, were in the past the activists and policemen of Fatah.

They were born in Gaza or pushed there as refugees during the war of 1948, or in other wars. Over the course of the years, they were the masons who built our homes, they washed dishes in the restaurants where we ate, they were the merchants from whom we used to buy goods, and workers in the greenhouses of the kibbutzim.

They are our neighbours, and they will be our neighbours in the future. So, when we decide to fight a war against them, we have to consider very carefully the character of that war, its duration, and the effect of its violence. We Israelis have no power to extirpate the Hamas government from Gaza, much as we did not have the power to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the voice of the Palestinian people's national aspirations, or Hezbollah from Lebanon in the war of 2006.

Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin went all the way to Beirut in the early 1980s, paying a terrible and bloody price, to try to eliminate the PLO - a result that could never be obtained. And what happened? In the end, Sharon and then Binyamin Netanyahu both ended up sitting down at the negotiating table with Yassir Arafat and his representatives to try to reach an agreement. Now Arafat's former deputy, Abu Mazen, is a frequent and welcome guest in our country.

We Israelis must begin to realize this simple fact: the Arabs are not metaphysical creatures, but human beings, and human beings have it within themselves to change. After all, we Israelis change our positions, mitigate our opinions, and open ourselves up to new ideas. So we would do well to get out of our heads as quickly as possible the illusion that we can somehow annihilate Hamas or eradicate them from the Gaza strip.

Instead, we have to work, with caution and good sense, to reach a reasonable and detailed agreement for a lasting ceasefire that has within it the perspective that Hamas can change. Such a change is possible and can be acted upon. Such fundamental changes of heart and mind have happened many times in the course of history. To be sure, even if, beginning today, we start working for such a lasting truce, there will inevitably be further days of war ahead. Rockets will, no doubt, again be launched against us. But at least we will know that we are not fighting for an impossible objective that can only result in blood and devastation — blood and devastation that will weigh on the collective memories of the sons and grandsons of our neighbours, who will remain our enemies, even if the spinning top continues to turn.

* A. B. Yehoshua is one of Israel's pre-eminent novelists. His latest novel is Friendly Fire.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009. Exclusive to The Sunday Times

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