MOTION: “That the West should engage with Hamas: a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict?”


The Vice-Chancellor’s Public Debate at Monash University on Tuesday 13 October drew an overwhelming number of people to hear two formidable teams including Australia’s former prime minister the Right Hon Malcolm Fraser speak to the topic “That the West should engage with Hamas: a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict?”

The lecture theatre was packed to the rafters while hundreds more had to be turned away when the organisers tried unsuccessfully to arrange for a live video transmission in another theatre.  People were literally sitting three abreast in the aisles and standing up the back.  The following report attempts to give some idea of the positions taken by each speaker, but it is only a very generalised outline.  The full recording will be aired on the ABC’s Radio National “Big Ideas” program and we will provide the link as soon as it becomes available.

The Debate

IMG_1609The Right Hon Malcolm Fraser (affirmative): Mr Fraser, opened strongly and reminded the audience that speaking with the enemy was not at all unusual in order to find peaceful solutions to seemingly intractable problems.  It had been done during the West’s Cold War with Russia, during the bloody and bitter feud between the British-aligned Protestants and Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland, and as recently as this year when “diplomatic relations” were unfrozen between Britain and Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Despite that, he said, people still say “you can’t talk to Hamas.”  According to Mr Fraser, not talking to one’s enemy is a sign of significant weakness.

In isolating Hamas, Israel and the West had hoped to give its opposition Fatah, greater legitimacy, but this had not happened.  Instead Fatah was weakened and Hamas was strengthened.

Israel has not paid much regard, he said, to US President Obama’s demand that Israel stop its illegal settlement building, which raises the question about Israel’s real intentions. Engaging with one’s enemy does not mean that anything is conceded or that the enemy is legitimised, but rather, it is necessary to negotiate peace.  Obama should get more support for his efforts and it would behove Australia to give him that support.

IMG_1611Dr Danny Lamm (negative): In response, Dr Lamm, a general dentist and President of the Zionist Council of Victoria said that while Mr Fraser obviously seeks a peaceful solution, the one word that does not fit in is Hamas because its own charter seeks the destruction of Israel and sees Palestine as Islamic land.  According to him, nothing that Hamas has said or done can give Israel the confidence that it wants a solution.  Dr Lamm interpreted the words of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal “Palestine from the sea to the river, from the west to the occupied east, must be liberated” to mean that Islam will obliterate Israel.

In trying to dismiss Mr Fraser’s argument for engaging with Hamas, Dr Lamm said that the reason talks could be held with the IRA was that their conflict with the British was not based on religious differences. He also raised the failure of Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler and that war was sometimes the only way to defeat a tyrant who wanted to unleash terror on the world.   In the case of Hamas, Dr Lamm claimed that it is training children to be holy warriors for death and this is why talking with Hamas will not achieve anything.

Gaza, he said, needs something like the global stimulus package to change the way people live and incredibly described to the audience the economic recovery achieved under Fatah in the Palestinian West Bank where places like “Chapel Street” (an affluent shopping strip and tourist attraction in Melbourne) were thriving.  This showed that it was the Palestinian Authority that should be supported and not Hamas.

Dr Lamm ended by saying that Israel and the West are for life whilst Hamas thrives on death.  In other words, there can be no accommodation of Hamas.


Debra Smith (affirmative): Monash academic and expert in Global Terrorism, Debra Smith said that in fact the IRA did call for the elimination of the British from North Ireland and that one needs to view Hamas as a political actor, rather than a fanatical one.  Furthermore, she said, Hamas is in transition because, unlike al Qaeda, it is making attempts at political legitimacy.  The West should support those efforts in order to bring them into the realms of good governance and away from violence.  This is precisely what the West is doing with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is clear, she said, that the crippling sanctions on Gaza are not working and that Hamas’ losses are not necessarily the opposition party Fatah’s gain.  By isolating Hamas, the West is pushing it into extreme positions and it is becoming clear that the West needs to prioritise a re-united Palestine between Hamas and Fatah.   Debra Smith concluded by emphasizing that only a negotiated peace will work and by refusing to engage in dialogue with Hamas, the West undermines its own legitimacy.


Tim Jeffries (negative): Mr Jeffries, Australasian Debating Champion for the negative, said that his team accepted that Hamas is a political actor, but that did not mean therefore Hamas had a right to a seat at the negotiating table.  Negotiating should not be subjected to pre-conditions.  He said that he did see similarities between Hamas and Al Qaeda because they both are striving for an Islamic Caliphate.

While Tim Jeffries accepted that Fatah had not always been well-liked by its own people, he said that by bringing a violent party (Hamas) to the negotiating table, one risks undermining the moderates (Fatah).  He said that Israel should not have to give up anything if it does not get anything in return and that the best outcome will only be when Israel feels safe and secure.


Michael Shaik (affirmative): Mr Shaik, Public Advocate for Australians for Palestine said that the West’s current policy of isolating Hamas had failed. The West had left Hamas with no alternative but to continue its armed struggle.

He said that if the negative team wanted to quote the Hamas charter than equally one could point to current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party charter, which says “the Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.”

Israel’s argument is that Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist.  In fact, the Palestinians had unilaterally agreed to recognize Israel in 1988 and Hamas has long accepted the reality of Israel’s existence.  States, said Mr Shaik, are not ends in themselves but agencies whose right to exist is derived from their willingness to protect and promote the human rights over those they govern. To insist that Palestinians unconditionally accept Israel’s right to exist while it is systematically violating their human rights is a demand that Palestinians accept Israel’s right to exist as infinitely more important than their human rights as the country’s indigenous non-Jewish population. This demand flies totally in the face of common sense and basic morality.

Turning to the negative team’s claim that Hamas must renounce violence, Mr Shaik said “Occupation is violence; colonization is violence.” The words were hardly out when the audience erupted in thunderous applause.  He continued to receive applause as he described checkpoints, curfews, torture chambers, assassinations, house demolitions, land confiscations and water theft as acts of violence inflicted on a defenceless civilian occupation. He recalled Nelson Mandela had refused numerous offers to release him from prison in exchange for renouncing violence because he said he had no right to compromise his people’s struggle for freedom while they remained under the yoke of oppression.

In finishing, he challenged the last negative speaker to answer three questions
which lie at the core of the debate:
1.    On what basis legally or morally should the Palestinians be required to unconditionally recognise Israel’s right to exist when it is systematically violating their human rights?
2.    On what basis legally or morally should a population that has been violently oppressed and dispossessed be called upon to renounce violence?
3.    What possible Western influence is served when the West rightfully upholds democracy and human rights in other parts of the world, but refuses to do so in the case of the Palestinians?

IMG_1618Mark Dreyfus MP (negative): Mr Dreyfus, Labor member for Isaacs, immediately refused to address the three questions and said that he had to check the topic of the debate because it was obvious that his opponent had strayed from its intent. He adamantly repeated his team’s position that engagement is not a solution because Hamas is committed to violence and the destruction of Israel.

Reading from the 1988 Hamas Charter, he said that it was fixated on an Islamic caliphate in the whole Middle East.  He then raised the kidnapping and holding of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and went on to enumerate Hamas’ litany of failings: its rejection of democracy, its treatment of women, its rejection of trade unions, its use of human shields, its dismissal of West education, its abhorrence of liberal ideals, its glorification of suicide bombing, its barbaric treatment of traitors and collaborators, and its gratuitous violence against its own people like the coup against Fatah and the recent savage crackdown on an extremist Al-Qaeda-inspired group.

These issues, said Mr Dreyfus, are all indicative of Hamas reaching out to the West with a closed fist.  Engaging with Hamas undermines the moderate Palestinians and to say that it was democratically elected ignores the behaviour it has engaged in since.  The Nazis were also elected and their subsequent behaviour showed that appeasement never works when vile regimes refuse to compromise and moderate.  We should choose life and not the way of death.

In conclusion

Questions followed the debate and the only person to receive enthusiastic applause that evening other than Michael Shaik was Mr Fraser when he said that the Hamas coup in Gaza had been forced on it by Fatah’s attempted coup as a result of Western interference.  Just as it had in 2006 prevented Hamas from taking up government after fair elections, the Bush administration wanted to ensure a Fatah victory in Gaza and backed its efforts to overthrow Hamas.

The debate ended after several other questions had been answered and although no win was declared, there was no doubt that the affirmative team had presented the most cogent and persuasive arguments for engaging with Hamas. They went beyond the skeletal framework of the debate and addressed the elephant in the room – that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people is the violence that is the root cause of the conflict.


Both teams had their share of partisan support in the audience, but judging from the spontaneous rounds of applause, there were many others who had either been persuaded by the arguments for engagement or already had feelings that the Palestinians are not being treated fairly.  Perhaps if Mr Dreyfus had answered rather than avoided Michael Shaik’s questions, the negative team may have done themselves a better service.  It is always hard though to present a convincing argument against truth and the truth was heard loud and clear that night.

It will certainly be worthwhile to listen to the full debate when the recording becomes available.

- SK

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