Hamas is a difficult (or impossible?) thing to change
A question posed by the folks at Augean Stables:
Michael Portillo, Conservative Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea (UK) hopes that Hamas will change. He makes the following analogy in an Op-Ed piece in the London Times:
Terrorist organisations do sometimes metamorphose into law-abiding political parties. Anything is possible if Menachem Begin, once leader of the Irgun movement that carried out the murderous attack on British forces in Jerusalem ’s King David hotel, could go on to be Israel’s prime minister and a Nobel peace prize winner.
I heard this analogy many times (including by those who are strong supporters of Israel, such as Michael Portillo). Israelis were once terrorists and then changed. The same will happen with the Palestinians. My question is: is it a fair analogy?
Well, there's a short answer, a long answer, and a very long answer. The very long one could be a multi-part series (oh no, another?) Perhaps some day I'll tackle it. But today I'll take the (relatively) short route.
The history of Israeli terrorism, and the definition thereof, is complex. One problem with looking up the history of Israeli terrorism online--where I've done most of my research so far-- is that most of the websites offering information have a rather transparent agenda, either pro-Israel or con. Now, having an agenda doesn't mean that a site can't offer correct and objective information. But it certainly can make it hard to evaluate the truth and completeness of the information one finds there.
From my own rather brief foray into researching the topic, my impression is that one of the better sites for general information about the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict is this one. The article is long, but I think you'll find it worth reading if you're interested in the details.
The oft-cited example of the bombing of the King David Hotel, mentioned in the London Times op-ed piece quoted by Augean Stables, is one of the most famous instances of Israeli terrorism. The details of that event are shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, but the preponderance of evidence (check out that link, and the ones that follow this paragraph) seems to make it fairly clear that the bombers only intended to demolish the building and some incriminating documents within it. A warning was delivered by the Irgun in enough time for the inhabitants to have evacuated, and this warning was apparently ignored or the evacuation bungled (it's not clear which).
But some may deny or question that fact. What's the truth? Here are some further sites on the subject: this and this.
What of the case for the other side? I've spent some time searching for the Palestinian viewpoint on the King David Hotel bombing. My search couldn't be called exhaustive, but it wasn't brief, and all I've been able to find are the usual cursory references to the bombing as terrorism, and the fact that people were killed--nothing that contradicts the official Israeli story. (I found an article at Al Jazeera on the subject, but I've lost the link and can't find it now--I'll try to recover it later).
So as best we can conclude from the historical record, the King David Hotel bombing differed in many important respects from the usual terrorism employed by a group such as Hamas. The site had strategic value, and a warning was given. If we concede that the King David bombing was only intended to destroy the building rather than the people in it, and that it went horribly wrong, then I think it's clear it should have been called an act of sabotage rather than terrorism.
But those who place a bomb in a building loaded with people, even for purposes of sabotage and with a warning, are aware that they are putting those people at risk. I'll even go so far as to speculate, for the sake of argument, that the Irgun actually intended to kill British soldiers, and even understood that some civilians might die in the process. If so, this would certainly have made the bombing a terrorist act--and, in fact, if you read the Irgun links, you will see that there were definitely other Irgun operations that had the explicit purpose of killing British soldiers and which did accomplish that end, as well as killing some others into the bargain.
But even so, are all terrorist acts the same? Are terrorist attacks that target only soldiers always morally acceptable for that reason, for example? I don't think so, but I absolutely refuse to put them on the same moral plane as purposely targeting as many civilians (including women and children) as possible. I think there is a hierarchy of terrorist acts, and that the latter is considerably more heinous.
So, did the Irgun ever target Arab civilians rather than British soldiers? The plot grows thicker here, and murkier. Here are two interesting articles on the history of the Irgun: this and this. The first site is the official Irgun site, but it seems relatively straightforward; the second, of course, is Wikipedia, which has its own drawbacks.
In fact, speaking of drawbacks, take a look at this. It gives you an idea of the quicksand into which one almost immediately sinks when attempting to research this area. It's a discussion of whether many of the alleged Irgun attacks (especially some on Arab civilians) in fact happened, and whether they can be attributed to Irgun. It's way beyond the purview of this post to even try to sort it out right now. But again, for the sake of argument only, let's just say that some attacks on Arab civilians occurred, and that Irgun was responsible. This would make the Irgun/Hamas analogy more tenable. However, there still remain many differences, which I will get to in a moment
Getting back to the original question--whether Hamas is likely to undergo some sort of change and renounce the use of terrorism, as Irgun did--it is extremely important to look at context. Much Israeli terrorism existed in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, and was a desperate attempt to allow the Jews of Europe a place to emigrate when all other avenues were largely blocked. The terrorism was always considered temporary and strategic, with the long-term goal of driving the British out of the country and establishing the only Jewish refuge on earth.
Some, of course, would say this is the goal of Hamas re Israel: driving out the "occupiers," and creating a Palestinian homeland. However, the history is quite different: for one thing, the Palestinians had a chance for their homeland in 1947, and refused to take it. Also, take a look at their charter and study it; see whether you think it resembles the goals of the Israelis in regard to the British, or if you think Hamas would be satisfied if the Israeli "occupiers" left the current area known as Palestine, and whether Hamas would allow Israel to exist.
Another very important difference is in the context of the societies involved: among the Israelis there were, and are, no generations systematically and broadly steeped and educated in deepest hatred (although no doubt there are individuals), no children wearing bomber belts in parades, no glorification of the act of bombing as martyrdom, no deliberate intent to maximize the number of women and children as casualties. In fact, there have been no deliberate martyrs, as far as I know; the perpetrators of the Irgun bombings wished to live. There was/is no glorification of killing and death itself, no nihilistic fury, except by one or two random individuals.
Israeli society as a whole has consistently condemned terrorism, whereas Palestinian society has come to embrace and elevate it. This, along with the careful education of an entire generation in hatred of Israelis and Jews, is one of the most unfortunate and deepest obstacles to any change in Hamas.
In summary, I don't think the analogy to Irgun is a valid one; there are too many points of difference.
Is change impossible for Hamas, then? I would never say "impossible," especially if we are looking at change over a very lengthy time. But is it likely to happen, if only the Palestinians can get their own country, as occurred with Irgun? My answer is a most definite "no," although I sincerely hope I'm wrong.