Israelis Want to Talk to Hamas

When paramedic Yerach Tucker arrived at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem last Thursday night, gunshots were still cracking through the halls. As he inched closer to the front door, a stream of young men frantically poured out of the Jewish seminary, their shirts stained with blood. Tucker ducked behind a bus, waited for the shooting to stop, and then crept with his team through the front gates. Inside the school's library, he found students lying slumped at their desks, heads collapsed over their books. "You couldn't see the floor," Tucker recalled. "It was covered in red." Outside, news filtered through the growing crowd that militants in Gaza had celebrated the shooting with their own bursts of gunfire. "We bless the operation," Hamas said in a statement. "It will not be the last." Tucker looked on as an angry mob of ultra-Orthodox men broke into a roar and began to shout, "Death to the Arabs!"

With eight students dead and nine more wounded, the attack was Jerusalem's worst in four years. Tucker, like most Israelis, says he hopes his military will hit back hard--even if it's not clear whether the gunman, an Arab from East Jerusalem, was working on his own. Yet when it comes to longer-term policy toward the Islamists, the paramedic just sighs. "Hamas controls everything in Gaza--we can never finish them off," he says. "They run the place. I don't want to talk to terrorists, but what can you do? Eventually we'll have to talk to them." In the United States, the notion of face-to-face talks with Hamas, which the State Department classifies as a terrorist organization, has long been a political third rail. Yet in the Jewish state a growing chorus of security officials, academics and regular Israelis like Tucker have begun calling for negotiations with the Islamists. In a Haaretz-Dialog poll last month, 64 percent of Israelis said they supported direct talks; among those who belong to the country's dovish Labor Party, 72 percent favor negotiations. Yet even among those surveyed from the hawkish Likud Party, almost half--48 percent--said they favor a face-to-face dialogue. Already in recent weeks, even as the two sides have traded some of the most ferocious bombardments in months, a number of nongovernmental channels have opened between Israelis and the Islamists.

The numbers are a reflection of the Israeli public's growing frustration at what they see as a failing Gaza policy. Since the Islamists won power in parliamentary elections two years ago, Israel and the United States have enforced a punishing embargo on the coastal strip, hoping support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his moderate West Bank allies could help turn public opinion against Hamas. Yet the Islamists have survived and learned to effectively play the spoiler, sabotaging Abbas's peace talks with a few well-placed attacks. Israeli military raids into Gaza have similarly backfired. After Israeli troops killed more than 50 Palestinian civilians in Gaza operations last week, international public opinion turned sharply critical. "Hamas is not going to disappear," says Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli military chief of strategic planning. "They're not Al Qaeda; they're a national political movement." Brom, who favors indirect negotiations with Hamas, says he believes a dialogue could help moderate the Islamists. Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told NEWSWEEK last year that his organization would also be open to direct talks, as long as there are no preconditions.

Yet the fragility of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition makes any high-profile contacts unlikely. Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who supports direct negotiations, says that there's "a huge gap" between current Israeli policymakers and public opinion on the issue. Part of the problem is that Olmert, whose approval ratings are hovering in the single digits, depends on the support of right-wing parties like the Sephardic Orthodox Shas bloc to stay in power.

Rather than direct talks, the government has quietly blessed Egyptian efforts to arrange a ceasefire between the two sides. Abbas, too, is conflicted. He has refused to discuss a unity deal with Hamas, arguing that the Islamists took over Gaza illegally last June and must submit to his authority first. Any deal that excludes his Palestinian Authority may weaken Abbas's standing among Palestinians, and his ability to continue longterm peace talks with the Israelis.

Even if Israel did choose to hold direct talks, there are a number of practical obstacles. The Hamas takeover of Gaza last June has sharply divided the Islamists, fracturing the organization into a number of independent power bases. "When you talk to Hamas you don't have one address," says a former Israeli intelligence operative who has held direct talks with the Islamists in the past, and requested anonymity before describing the sensitive talks. "You have to deal with several figures in order to achieve approval for anything."

Israel has long held quiet, behind-the-scenes talks with key Hamas figures. The Jewish state still provides the vast majority of the West Bank's electricity; after Hamas began winning local elections three years ago, Israeli officials sometimes had no choice but to talk with Islamic municipal officials over practical issues like utilities. Mohammad Ghayyada, the Hamas-affiliated mayor of the West Bank town of Nahalin, says that just last month he traveled to Israel to meet with electric-company officials after a blackout darkened his town. Israeli intelligence agencies have also long held talks with Hamas leaders in Israeli jails; since the Islamists seized power in Gaza last year, Israel has arrested more than 2,000 Hamas activists in the West Bank, according to the organization's spokesman, Yazid Khader. Last summer, Ofer Dekel, a former officer in the Shin Bet intelligence agency responsible for the hunt for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, traveled to Israel's Haderim prison to meet with a group of jailed senior Hamas officials.

Still, Shalit's case highlights the difficulties of any such talks. After indirect negotiations through Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman went nowhere, Shalit's father, Noam, spoke several times by phone about the case with Gaza-based Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad. Those conversations have since stopped, but several months ago the senior Shalit retained a team of French lawyers to reach out to Hamas. One of them, Emmanuel Altit, told NEWSWEEK that he has made contact by phone with a number of Hamas factions in Gaza, including the hard-liners, and is trying to travel to Gaza to hold face-to-face talks. (The Israeli government, so far, has refused to issue Altit a permit.) "I really don't care much about the politics," says Noam Shalit. "My only interest is to resolve the issue of my son and bring him home. From my point of view, direct negotiations are the most effective. The two parties need to sit together. Hamas controls Gaza whether we like it or not."