The unity and reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas holds promise for the future. Clearly, we have to take a wait-and-see attitude. But I consider it potentially a turning point in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Israelis reacted negatively to the news and quickly assumed that Hamas would dominate. But let’s consider a few issues.
Hamas and the Theory of Contamination
The argument that this reconciliation will result in something positive is based on the assumption that the PLA will moderate Hamas rather than Hamas “contaminating” the PLA. The theory of contamination is based on the theory of disgust. Briefly, disgust is an evolutionary emotion probably related to knowing what to eat and avoiding food that is bad or contaminated. We always assume that contamination passes from the dirty to the clean and therefore “contaminates” the clean. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, the dirty floor contaminates the clean food. Nobody assumes that cleanliness passes to the dirty and purifies it; the “clean” food does not pass to the dirty floor and make it cleaner.
And so it is psychologically. Things that are considered dirty, harmful, or just plain “bad” are always assumed to contaminate the “good.” A racist will consider his or her neighborhood “contaminated” if a member of an undesirable minority group moves in. Most people assume that Hamas will “contaminate” the PLA. But in the realm of human interaction, in the socio-symbolic world, it is possible to avoid contamination and have influence move in the other direction. The normal theory of contamination would clearly have Hamas contaminating the PLA and making matters worse between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the extension of theories of contamination and disgust into the social world has its limits. It is not inevitable that desirable social processes be contaminated; in fact, contamination as a psychological construct is culturally created. It was learned, and that means it can be unlearned. Let’s hope the PLA can withstand the normal flow of contamination and have a positive influence on the culture of Hamas.
First, a united Palestinian people are going to be more responsive to the peace process. Did anyone ever really think the peace process would be successful with Hamas and Fatah separated and in conflict with one another? Did anyone ever really think a solution to the conflict would include a separate West Bank and Gaza, under separate political entities? The unity of Hamas and Fatah was inevitable. This will be especially true if the two groups unite on some fundamental issues regarding the peace process and international recognition. The United Nations and European Union welcomed the efforts toward reconciliation and the possibility for new dialogue.
Everybody with an opinion on this matter could turn out to be wrong. Two possibilities bound the ends of the continuum. The worst-case scenario is Hamas overtaking the PLA and the government and security services. Hamas maintains its rigidity and continues to call for the destruction of Israel. Hezbollah continues to prosper in Lebanon and the Islamic Brotherhood gains a stronger foothold and provides support for a Hamas driven Palestinian Authority. This scenario will guarantee war, not peace.
The best case scenario, and the one that I think is most likely, is that Hamas is moderated by the PLA and becomes more normally integrated into a Palestinian governing body that realizes the need for certain practicalities. The new Palestinian unity government gains credibility and brings a fresh voice to the peace process. It will take some time for the Palestinian unity government to prove itself to the Israelis. Netanyahu will not go gently into a relationship with Hamas. The Israelis and PLA currently share certain security responsibilities, and it’s hard to imagine continuing this shared security relationship with Hamas. But a Fatah Hamas reconciliation is necessary to a successful peace process. It solves the problem of Israel needing someone to talk to who represents all of the Palestinians.
Hamas is an Islamic militant group and Fatah is a secularist party. The two groups have always opposed one another with respect to tactics and their relationship to Israel. They have separate security systems and there are plenty of stories of Palestinians who are arrested one day by the PLA and the next day by Hamas. But the unity arrangement will strengthen the Palestinians in their quest for a Palestinian state – not two states (Gaza and the West Bank) but one state. This unity agreement could be a new era for the Palestinians.
According to some analysts, it was Hamas who made most of the concessions that enabled the unity agreement. They are perceived as weak and known to have difficulty carrying out legitimate elections. The reconciliation between Hamas and the PLA will present a unified stance for the Palestinians. There is a clever sleight-of-hand operating here also. The United Nations will undoubtedly support a Palestinian state and this will confer legitimacy on Hamas. Hamas will go from a militant Islamist party steeped in violence with extreme political attitudes that are unsustainable in any context, to an internationally recognized political operation that represents the Palestinian people. Although there is an irony to this, it does pressure Hamas to yield to international demands.
The United States and Israel should see this reconciliation as an opportunity. Hopefully, talks can continue and Hamas will find itself in a situation where it must cooperate and engage with United States and Israel. This will include stronger pressures on Hamas to maintain cease fires, eliminate rocket attacks into Israel, and control violence. There’s a good chance that any resultant political platform will be more consistent with the PLA than Hamas. The hope is that Hamas will not contaminate the PLA, but the influence will run in the other direction.
Revised slightly from May 8, 2011.