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Opinion

Canada and Hamas: Isolation or Inclusion?

May 30, 2006

by STEPHEN BARANYI and BASEL ALASHI and KHALIL SHIKAKI

The Globe and Mai

When the new Hamas-led government was sworn-in on March 29, Canada announced that it was suspending all direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and restructuring projects that could indirectly benefit the PA. The official explanation is that Canada, like the United States and the European Union, will only cooperate with Hamas once it has renounced terrorism, laid down its arms and recognized the legitimacy of the Israeli state.

This position is profoundly at odds with Canada’s commitment to support democracy in the Middle East. Canada sent a mission to observe the second Palestinian legislative elections at the end of January, in which Hamas won 74 out of 132 parliamentary seats freely and fairly, according to most observers. Yet soon after it became clear that Ottawa did not accept the outcome of those elections. Canada stood by as US diplomats lobbied Palestinian moderates not to cooperate with the new Hamas administration, reinforcing its image as a radical government.

The West’s position will fuel the conflict that Canada wants to see resolved. Over the past three years, the “What Kind of Peace is Possible?” project led by The North-South Institute has examined the dynamics of peacebuilding in six societies. A clear conclusion is that militaristic, exclusionary approaches do not work over the long run. Including stakeholder representatives in dialogue and peace implementation is crucial, especially when they have been freely elected. One of the case studies, by the Palestinian Center for Survey Research, convincingly argues that Hamas’ electoral victory could be a major step towards democratization and peace. It shows how the isolation of Hamas and other radical groups in Palestine, despite their electoral successes, gives them few incentives to moderate their stance and negotiate with Israel. The transformation of militant groups into democratic political parties is a lengthy process. Peace efforts will be futile if the international community continues to exclude Hamas from democratic politics.

Differentiating between providing aid to the Palestinian Authority and aid to the people is not helpful either, given the vital role the PA plays as the main service provider in sectors like education and health. Poverty reached an alarming level of 44% at the end of 2005; this is expected to climb to 67% by end of 2006, according to a recent World Bank report, if the international community does not change its approach.

Suspending aid to the PA now will only increase the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, who are the target beneficiaries of the Canadian aid. The decision to restructure CIDA funded projects to bypass the new government will also result in the weakening of the PA institutions, and will nullify many capacity-building programs that Canada was supporting. Those programs aimed to build the capacities of various PA ministries and municipal institutions to manage large donor-funded projects, and to make them reliable partners in the development process.

Russian FM Sergei Lavarov recently criticized the West’s denial of financial support to Hamas government, suggesting that isolation was a blind alley. He called for permanent contacts with the group. Moscow invited the political leadership of Hamas for an open dialogue at the beginning of March, hoping that this would soften Hamas’ platform. Russia has also sent an emergency grant of $10m to Palestinians. The grant came at a crucial time when the PA was unable to pay salaries to the 165,000 government employees, for the second consecutive month, due to the Israeli government’s continued withholding of tax revenues collected on behalf of the PA, and to the suspension of aid by the West.

Recent statements by Hamas leaders suggest that they understand the difference between being in the opposition and being in government. Committed to the ceasefire agreed with other Palestinian factions since March 2005, Hamas has sent messages implying acceptance for a two states solution as the only acceptable way of ending the fierce violence with Israel. At the same time, Hamas has also warned of the likely return to violence if the new government fails to secure the basic needs of Palestinians, including the PA’s monthly wages of $120m, due to the economic embargo imposed by the US administration.

Maintaining the suspension of aid to Hamas-led government might result in a collapse of the PA, but it will also close a rare window of opportunity to break the cycle of violence in the Middle East. We therefore call on the government of Canada to reconsider its decision to suspend projects with the PA. Opening direct and unconditional dialogue with a government elected in transparent and fair elections is the best way to support democracy and peacebuilding in the Middle East. Canada must re-position itself as an active, effective and balanced player in the region.