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Thursday, January 15, 2009

William Sieghart: We must adjust our distorted image of Hamas

Gaza is a secular society where people listen to pop music, watch TV and many women walk the streets unveiled

-- William Sieghart

Last week I was in Gaza. While I was there I met a group of 20 or so police officers who were undergoing a course in conflict management. They were eager to know whether foreigners felt safer since Hamas had taken over the Government? Indeed we did, we told them. Without doubt the past 18 months had seen a comparative calm on the streets of Gaza; no gunmen on the streets, no more kidnappings. They smiled with great pride and waved us goodbye.

Less than a week later all of these men were dead, killed by an Israeli rocket at a graduation ceremony. Were they “dangerous Hamas militant gunmen”? No, they were unarmed police officers, public servants killed not in a “militant training camp” but in the same police station in the middle of Gaza City that had been used by the British, the Israelis and Fatah during their periods of rule there.

This distinction is crucial because while the horrific scenes in Gaza and Israel play themselves out on our television screens, a war of words is being fought that is clouding our understanding of the realities on the ground.

Who or what is Hamas, the movement that Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, would like to wipe out as though it were a virus? Why did it win the Palestinian elections and why does it allow rockets to be fired into Israel? The story of Hamas over the past three years reveals how the Israeli, US and UK governments' misunderstanding of this Islamist movement has led us to the brutal and desperate situation that we are in now.

The story begins nearly three years ago when Change and Reform - Hamas's political party - unexpectedly won the first free and fair elections in the Arab world, on a platform of ending endemic corruption and improving the almost non-existent public services in Gaza and the West Bank. Against a divided opposition this ostensibly religious party impressed the predominantly secular community to win with 42 per cent of the vote.

Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because it was dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel or because it had been responsible for waves of suicide bombings that had killed Israeli citizens. They voted for Hamas because they thought that Fatah, the party of the rejected Government, had failed them. Despite renouncing violence and recognising the state of Israel Fatah had not achieved a Palestinian state. It is crucial to know this to understand the supposed rejectionist position of Hamas. It won't recognise Israel or renounce the right to resist until it is sure of the world's commitment to a just solution to the Palestinian issue.

In the five years that I have been visiting Gaza and the West Bank, I have met hundreds of Hamas politicians and supporters. None of them has professed the goal of Islamising Palestinian society, Taleban-style. Hamas relies on secular voters too much to do that. People still listen to pop music, watch television and women still choose whether to wear the veil or not.

The political leadership of Hamas is probably the most highly qualified in the world. Boasting more than 500 PhDs in its ranks, the majority are middle-class professionals - doctors, dentists, scientists and engineers. Most of its leadership have been educated in our universities and harbour no ideological hatred towards the West. It is a grievance-based movement, dedicated to addressing the injustice done to its people. It has consistently offered a ten-year ceasefire to give breathing space to resolve a conflict that has continued for more than 60 years.

The Bush-Blair response to the Hamas victory in 2006 is the key to today's horror. Instead of accepting the democratically elected Government, they funded an attempt to remove it by force; training and arming groups of Fatah fighters to unseat Hamas militarily and impose a new, unelected government on the Palestinians. Further, 45 Hamas MPs are still being held in Israeli jails.

Six months ago the Israeli Government agreed to an Egyptian- brokered ceasefire with Hamas. In return for a ceasefire, Israel agreed to open the crossing points and allow a free flow of essential supplies in and out of Gaza. The rocket barrages ended but the crossings never fully opened, and the people of Gaza began to starve. This crippling embargo was no reward for peace.

When Westerners ask what is in the mind of Hamas leaders when they order or allow rockets to be fired at Israel they fail to understand the Palestinian position. Two months ago the Israeli Defence Forces broke the ceasefire by entering Gaza and beginning the cycle of killing again. In the Palestinian narrative each round of rocket attacks is a response to Israeli attacks. In the Israeli narrative it is the other way round.

But what does it mean when Mr Barak talks of destroying Hamas? Does it mean killing the 42 per cent of Palestinians who voted for it? Does it mean reoccupying the Gaza strip that Israel withdrew from so painfully three years ago? Or does it mean permanently separating the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, politically and geographically? And for those whose mantra is Israeli security, what sort of threat do the three quarters of a million young people growing up in Gaza with an implacable hatred of those who starve and bomb them pose?

It is said that this conflict is impossible to solve. In fact, it is very simple. The top 1,000 people who run Israel - the politicians, generals and security staff - and the top Palestinian Islamists have never met. Genuine peace will require that these two groups sit down together without preconditions. But the events of the past few days seem to have made this more unlikely than ever. That is the challenge for the new administration in Washington and for its European allies.

William Sieghart is chairman of Forward Thinking, an independent conflict resolution agency

1 comment:

  1. This is an important and timely point for discussion and raises issues on many people's minds.

    In my view the issue for the movement in the United States is to focus on our own government's involvement in undermining a just peace in the Palestinian struggle against occupation and for a nation, for dignity, and for the ability to meet their basic needs. In that light, in my view, we should be demanding an end to all US economic and military support for Israel until the United Resolutions on a Palestinian state are implemented. There is no real threat from Hamas or anyone else to the existence of Israel. The one-sided policy that the US has followed will hopefully be reconsidered by President-elect Obama after 1/20.

    As regards Hamas, I think that we in this country have the responsibility to express our support for the Palestinian people's right to self-determination and to have the nation that was promised to them decades ago. To try to distinguish the internal organizations to which we can express support plays into the hands of those who attempt to claim that Israel's actions are a response to terrorist activity by Hamas. I get the sense from reading online reports that the support for Hamas is very complicated, and is in part a result of Fatah being undermined by the the US and Israel, and by its apparant policy of commitment to a peace process brokered by forces completely antagonistic to the goals, and even to the lives, of the people the Palestinian Authority is supposed to represent. No matter what the truth, the PA appears to be corrupt and ineffective. In that light Hamas appears to be a partisan fighter for the people it represents, no matter the underlying political position it takes.

    In any case, here in the United States I strongly feel it is our responsibility to be partisan for and to express support for the occupied Palestinian people and not to get lost in the rationales that Israel offers for its behavior, nor in the internal affairs of the Palestinians.

    People on the right and on the left are questioning whether the two-state solution is viable any longer. I have read accounts that seemed to indicate that the Palestinians were asking the same question. Its a good question to ask when peace remains an ephemeral hope three or four generations into the struggle. Right now there are no other viable alternatives.

    Of course, there are many embers of hope that the Obama election fanned into flickering flames. While I expect some motion forward in the near term, I think that a strong people's movement in the US will help to both set the parameters for a just peace and to create the space for the President-elect to support a just peace in the Palestinian/Israeli struggle.

    While the Israelis trumpet the fact they are a democracy, the implication that the Gaza government or the Palestinians are not operating in a democractic context is false. It should also be remembered that Israel is a religious state. It should also be remembered that Israel is blockading Gaza, continuing to expand via settlements into Palestinian territory, and in many other ways inflicting ongoing pain and loss on the Palestinians.

    The secular forces that used to be predominent in the Palestinian struggle have been consistently undermined by Israel, much as the US destroyed the secular communist and left trends in Afghanistan and opened the way for the Taliban. The rise of Hamas needs to be seen in the proper context, possibly as an outgrowth of US and Israeli cynical political maneuvers.

    In any case, I certainly reject the Israeli position, that it has the right to apply state power to slaughter an occupied and starving people in the name of "self-defense".

    I stand completely against any attack on a civilian population at any time. However, the real solution to that problem is to change Israel's behavior, not Hamas's response.

    I look forward to new initiatives by President-elect Obama, and even more to an end to the occupation and slaughter of Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state.