Wearing kaffiyehs, the terrorists slipped into the hotel with 350 kilograms of explosives hidden in seven milk churns. It was midday, and the property was teeming with civilians and government types either enjoying or schlepping through yet another sunny day in Jerusalem. It was a potential suicide mission, but the participants were steeled by their goal: an end to foreign rule and, ultimately, their own country.
The bombs went off at 12:37, when the lower floors of the hotel were at their busiest. In all, 91 men, women and children died in the blast, including 54 civilians guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pulled from the rubble, the dead—28 British, 41 Arabs, 17 Jews—were caked in blood and dust; the terrorists themselves were unrepentant. “If my sacrifice for that is to be called a terrorist, then I am glad to have been a terrorist for liberation,” one of the participants said decades later.
Carried out not with missiles but by would-be martyrs bent on a cause, the attack has many of the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda attack, circa 1990, or Hamas’s Passover attack on Israel’s Park Hotel in 2002. Yet the participants in what was known as the King David Hotel bombing in 1946 were members of Irgun, a Jewish resistance organization that regularly meted out ruthless and imaginative violence in the name of a separate Jewish state.
With its indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, near-biblical hatred of its enemy (in this case, the Arabs vying for the same land) and a canny knack for digging tunnels, there is an easy analogy to be made between Irgun of yore and present-day Hamas. But there is a more telling historical pattern further along in Irgun’s narrative. Israel was founded two years after the King David Hotel bombing, after which Irgun suddenly looked out of place in this burgeoning Middle East democracy. Its weapons were decommissioned, its ranks dissolved into the IDF, Israel’s military force. Its leader, Menachem Begin, went on to become Israel’s sixth elected prime minister. Begin helped plan bombings that killed dozens if not hundreds of innocent civilians; in 1978, he won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Egyptian president Anwar Saddat.
If there is a lesson to be learned in Israel’s history, it’s the moderating effects the eventual Jewish state had on extremists in its midst. And not just Jewish extremists, either: witness how, after decades of violence against Israel, the PLO and Fatah have become the force of moderation in Gaza and the West Bank. This was due in large part to Israel’s (often grudging) willingness to engage PLO leaders, most notably Yasser Arafat, in honest negotiations for peace. As the Gaza Strip digs itself out of the rubble, and as its citizens dig some 1,600 graves, the question must be asked: can Israel negotiate with Hamas?
Israeli hawks and commentators are mostly unanimous on the question. Pointing to Hamas’s covenant, which lays out the group’s founding principles, these critics say negotiating with anyone who has as a founding principle the killing of Jews would be akin to negotiating with Hitler. Fair enough. Yet Hamas will remain a political and military threat in Gaza for the middle if not the long term, whether Israel negotiates with the group or not. By not politically engaging the group, however, Israel only risks giving oxygen to the extreme fringes of the group, thereby starving any chance of moderation.
Contrary to what many say about Hamas, there seems to be evidence of grudging moderation within it. Witness how in 2006 Hamas removed a call for the destruction of Israel from its campaign plank. It’s an incredible climbdown for a group founded with the expressed aim of obliterating Israel and its occupants from the map, and it came as a result of realpolitik on the part of Hamas political leaders. The people of Gaza, they realized, wanted honest governance—namely, an end to Fatah corruption—not blinkered ideology.
Realpolitik again reared its head within Hamas when the group entered into a coalition government with Fatah in 2007. Though Hamas despises Fatah, in part because Arafat’s party dared negotiate with Israel, its leadership recognized what was plainly obvious in the streets of Gaza: Hamas couldn’t pay its bills. Though Fatah could have had a moderating effect on Hamas—it would have likely meant an end to the rocket attacks from Gaza, at the very least—Israel refused to engage the Fatah-Hamas coalition government. The country has suffered as a result. Gaza has suffered even more.
Finally, Hamas has another reason to moderate itself: it might not have a choice. The group is politically and militarily isolated from Egypt, Syria and Iran. Its financial suitors in Turkey and Qatar are more or less powerless to recharge Hamas’s weapons stockpiles. As time grinds on, the division between Hamas’s military and political wing will likely grow, if only because the latter must eventually deal with the messy business of getting re-elected. If the destruction of Israel wasn’t a growing concern amongst Gazans in 2006, imagine how low on the list it will be after this last bloody demonstration of Israel’s overwhelming firepower.
No Hamas leader will ever wave the Israeli flag, but the extreme elements of the group can only be isolated through engagement, not isolation. Israel’s own history dictates it.