The shock of Hamas’s victory in the recent Palestinian elections has led many western commentators and politicians to re-consider their assumption that western style democracy should be brought to the Muslim world. Some have argued that Islamists such as Hamas should never have been allowed to participate in the elections and, moreover, that free elections are not appropriate in conservative Muslim countries where secular parties are weak. In contrast, others have argued that no such conclusion should be derived from the Palestinian election results, asserting instead that the results represented a protest vote against the corruption of Fatah and that with time Hamas will become more pragmatic when faced with the challenge of governing. On two issues vis-à-vis Hamas, however, there seems to be almost universal agreement amongst western commentators: firstly, that Hamas should repudiate the use of violence against Israel and secondly that Hamas should recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist.
What western commentators and the international community in general fail to recognize is that peace between the Jewish peoples in Israel and the neighbouring Arabs cannot come by compelling one or more political parties or even states to recognize Israel. Real peace and security can only be achieved if, and when, the Arab and Muslim masses that neighbour them come to accept that Israel should be allowed to live in peace. Where there are peace agreements with Israel and other Arab countries such as in Egypt and in Jordan, there is still strong popular opposition and hostility to any form of normalisation with the state of Israel. The peace agreements with Israel made by unelected and unaccountable kings and presidents are unlikely to have much popular legitimacy, given the way that the vast majority of Muslims perceive the creation of Israel.
The many arguments – legal, historical, moral – that are made for the right of Israel’s existence may play well in the international community or in western nations, but have little traction or resonance amongst the societies that directly neighbour Israel. In these Arab and Muslim societies a completely different narrative is at work, one that makes Israel out to be an old style colonial enterprise; a state that established a Jewish majority by ethnic cleansing Palestinians in 1947; a neo-apartheid state that gives the Arabs in occupied territories no human rights and allows them to be oppressed and killed with impunity; a state that makes Israeli-Arab second class citizens with lesser rights than Jews living outside Israel. With the onset of global media channels such as Al Jazeera that directly address Muslim and Arab audiences, images of targeted killings, of tanks and fighter bombers being used in civilian areas, of the everyday humiliations inflicted upon Palestinian have become imprinted on a global Muslim consciousness.
The existence of Israel causes a doctrinal problem for many practicing and traditional Muslims. Firstly, Muslim orthodoxy considers the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem the third holiest place in the Islamic world. Muslims believe that it is from this place that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven and that, as such, Jerusalem must remain under the authority of Muslims. Secondly, many Muslim scholars extend the argument beyond Jerusalem by reasoning on Islamic textual grounds that the whole of Israel should be considered occupied Islamic land that all Muslims have a duty to liberate.