Hamas, the US big media, and the world

Ahmed Yousef, a senior political advisor to recently ousted Palestinian Ismail Haniyeh, scored an impressive double victory today by having slightly different op-ed articles published in both the WaPo and the NYT.

More on the content of these two significant articles later. But first, we should note that the existence of these two soberly argued articles indicates a couple of very important things that are often overlooked in the US discourse: First, that the Hamas leaders are eager to reach out to and engage intellectually with the US mainstream discourse, and secondly that they have maintained a good capability to do this, even in circumstances of great tension and difficulty for all Palestinians, in Gaza and elsewhere.

Regarding their desire to engage with the US discourse, there have of course been numerous other examples of this, including earlier op-eds that Haniyeh himself, Mousa Abu Marzook, and other Hamas luminaries have published in the WaPo and the NYT. The decision to reach out and engage is not a trivial matter– and maybe, amidst all the anti-Israeli and anti-US anger that pervades much of the Hamas base, it was not an easy one to take.

Regarding the ability of the Hamas leaders to continue to pursue their intellectual-engagement decision, even in very tumultuous times, this is also significant.

A noticeable amount of the discourse in the US “big media” these days about the situation in Gaza and the role played by Hamas has focused heavily on (and quite possibly disproportionately magnifies) the negative aspects of the situation. Mainstream commentators seem to want to portray Hamas-controlled Gaza as a wild place, ungoverned except by wild men in scary ski masks, while painting the (currently Fateh-dominated) West Bank as a potential haven of stability.

However, on Monday, Karen AbuZayd, who’s the head of the UN agency, UNRWA, that’s responsible for providing basic humanitarian needs to the refugees who make up a large proportion of the Palestinian population in both areas, announced that,

we are now operating in Gaza as we did before the recent violence… UNRWA is working at full capacity once again, delivering services to a population that has been so badly affected by chronic insecurity.

And in the West Bank city of Nablus, the World Food Program reported on Saturday that unidentified armed men “ransacked the well-marked warehouse this morning, stole several tons of WFP food and looted office equipment including computers and fax machines.”

Of course, considerable problems remain in both territories. A number of Fateh-related families and Palestinians eager to be reunited with families in the West Bank have been camped out for many days now at Israel’s dreadful, always-inhumane, cattle-yard/crossing at Erez. The plight of these families is terrible. Many of them have expressed strong (and currently, probably untestable) fears regarding their fate if they remain in Hamas-controlled Gaza; and the Israeli authorities have also treated them extremely badly, and in clear, very racist violation of all international codes regarding the obligation of states to offer a safe refuge to people suffering from a well-founded fear of persecution in their homelands.

Plus– and this is very relevant in the context of the present topic– Hamas-affiliated gunmen have attacked pro-Fateh media installations in Gaza and Fateh-affiliated gunmen have attacked pro-Hamas media installations, and one journo associated with one of these, in the West Bank. See PCHR’s report on these serious violations of the freedom of the press, here. Plus, of course, BBC’s Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston is still one of the many thousands of people in today’s Middle East who are being quite unjustifiably deprived of their liberty.

So, on to the content of Ahmed Yousef’s two pieces:

In his WaPo piece, he writes:

The Palestinian National Authority apparently joins the list of elected governments targeted or toppled over the past century by interventionism: nations that had the courage to take American rhetoric at face value and elect whomever they would…

Hamas’s actions to secure Gaza from the horrific recent violence of the Palestinian contras have been out of self-defense. The assassinations of Hamas officials and supporters, attempts on the life of the elected prime minister, and kidnappings and bombings by some in President Mahmoud Abbas’s paramilitary groups had to stop. The PA has a clear legal right, indeed an obligation, to prevent this violence, by force if necessary, and to protect the Palestinian people.

It is not Hamas that has “outlawed” the government. (When has an elected party with a voting majority ever resorted to banning the government to get its way?) The success of the Reform and Change Party is [ i.e., the ’front name’ under which Hamas participated in– and won– the parliamentary elections of January 2006] neither a chimera nor a momentary lapse in reason on the part of the electorate. Rather, it is the result of four decades of hard work in Palestinian society.

His arguments are interesting. Of course, parties or states that go to war against others always claim that they do so out of justified self-defense. There were, surely, many other ways in which the Hamas leaders could have “defended” themselves against the attacks they were suffering– and the even larger-scale attacks that the Fateh extermists were apparently planning against them, with the backing of Israel and the US– than simply by “going in for the kill” against the Dahlanist extremists who had dug themselves into the so-called “Preventive” Security Force in Gaza?? Sometime I would love to have all the books opened regarding how all the decisions on all these sides were taken over the past few weeks.

Anyway, Yousef goes on to argue– fairly successfully, in my view– against critics who argue that “Hamas and [the Hamas-dominated Palestinian] parliament are a stalking horse for Salafi jihadists”, or Al-Qaeda. I really do think many in the west still need to learn a lot more about the difference between those Islamist organizations (like Hamas, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, or Turkey’s Justice & Development Party) who have built strong constituent bases by providing real services to the people, who become elected by them, and retain a strong degree of accountability to a settled constituent base– and those like Al-Qaeda whom one could describe as the most nihilistic, extremist, and irresponsible kind of “rootless cosmopolitans” whom one could imagine…

For more on Hamas’s record in this regard, go read the longish article I had on the topic in Boston Review in May/June 2006– or the JWN post I had describing the interview I had with infuential Gaza Hamas leader (and later, Foreign Minister) Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar, in March 2006.

All of that post is worth re-reading (and I hope to try to reflect on some of what Zahhar said there, and on what I wrote in the BR piece, in a future JWN post.) One small portion of what I wrote there was this:

I asked [Zahhar] about Hamas’s relations with Al-Qaeda. He said,

I want to tell the American people: we are not against the American people, but we do note those individuals who support Israel’s aggressions against us.

The Muslims are not against any other people. In history we have been the most tolerant, and we have had relations with all other civilizations. We believe in cooperation, not conflict.

Americans should understand: We are a moderate organization. We are not Qaeda at all.

… I found Zahhar to be forthright, smart, self-confident, and fairly inflexible. But above all I found him determined. Earlier, one of his colleagues in the Hamas leadership had expressed quiet satisfaction to me that, though in 2003-2004 the Israelis tried to wipe out all of Hamas’s top leadership– and in the course of that, they did succeed in killing Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and four or five other top leaders– “Still, we not only survived that wave of assassinations, but we also, in the election, showed that our organization emerged from it intact, and strong.”

Anyway, back to Ahmed Yousef and his WaPo piece today. He wrote, interestingly:

Palestinians want, on their terms, the same thing Western societies want: self-determination, modernity, access to markets and their own economic power, and freedom for civil society to evolve. Those who warn of “failed states” and “Hamastan” as a breeding ground for terrorism forget where blame for failure belongs — at the feet of the American administration, which has chosen to isolate, rather than deal with, the elected government.

He held out some hope of reconciliation with Fateh:

it remains that Hamas has a world in common with Fatah and other parties, and they all share the same goals — the end of occupation; the release of political prisoners; the right of return for all Palestinians; and freedom to be a nation equal among nations, secure in its own borders and at peace. For more than 60 years, Palestinians have resisted walls and checkpoints intended to divide them. Now they must resist the poisonous inducements to fight one another and resume a unified front against the occupation.

His piece in the NYT was much shorter. Once again he gives the narrative of how Hamas felt itself “forced” to fight against a growing threat from some elements in Fatah:

For 18 months we have tried to find ways to coexist with Fatah, entering into a unity government, even conceding key positions in the cabinet to their and international demands, negotiating up until the last moment to try to provide security for all of our people on the streets of Gaza.

Sadly, it became apparent that not all officials from Fatah were negotiating in good faith. There were attempts on Mr. Haniya’s life last week, and eventually we were forced into trying to take control of a very dangerous situation in order to provide political stability and establish law and order.

(I note that some people in Fateh have also been saying that there have been attempts on Abu Mazen’s life. It would be very interesting of both the parties making these potentially incendiary accusations would reveal their evidence for it.)

Yousef ends the NYT piece thus:

We reject attempts to divide Palestine into two parts and to pass Hamas off as an extreme and dangerous force. We continue to believe that there is still a chance to establish a long-term truce. But this will not happen unless the international community fully engages with Hamas.

Any further attempts to marginalize us, starve our people into submission or attack us militarily will prove that the United States and Israeli governments are not genuinely interested in seeing an end to the violence. Dispassionate observers over the next few weeks will be able to make up their own minds as to each side’s true intentions.

Once again, there, a request for the “international community” to engage with Hamas. Will we see it happen? I don’t see the Bush administration or its various junior partners around the world taking any steps to do this. It is not completely improbable, however, that Israel might take some initiative to do so. (In which case, as with the Oslo Accords of 1993, the US administration and congress, might be expected to come running along behind.) Not a huge probability of this, in my book. But if you want to see something of the reasoning behind why it just might happen, go read my BR piece.

As of now, though, the Israelis are battering southern Gaza pretty hard.