Commentary: We know what Hamas rejects - but do we know what they want?
Commentary: We know what Hamas rejects - but do we know what they want?
Tuesday, September 25,2007 16:09
By Hussein Ibish
The conflict that has developed between Fatah and Hamas poses new-and-unprecedented challenges for supporters of the Palestinian cause.
    
    A rational response to this crisis should focus on reformulating a viable strategy for ending the occupation. The only serious prospect of ending the conflict and gaining independence for the Palestinian people, is a negotiated end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.
    
    To work effectively toward that aim, there is no need for supporters of Palestine to become partisans of Fatah. However, important choices need to be made, and there are serious consequences to words and deeds.
    
    In the United States, a small-but-vocal group of left-wing commentators has reacted by defending Hamas and heaping vitriol on Fatah. However well-intentioned, their rhetoric might significantly undermine efforts to help end the occupation.
    
    Such support for the Muslim far-right is symptomatic of a broad trend in Arab left circles.
    
    Some of the Arab left has, in effect, abandoned many of its traditional values, including class analysis and a materialist program for social change, secularism, and iconoclasm, feminism and the cause for women"s rights, not to mention, internationalism. What remains intact is Arab nationalism, suspicion of the West, and hatred of Israel.
    
    There are still many honorable pockets of bona fide leftist thinking in the Arab world. However, some of the Arab left now finds itself reading politics mainly through the lens of ethnic nationalism, an orientation presently dominated by Islamist organizations.
    
    Thus, Islamist groups can seem appealing to some on the Arab left. What gets lost or ignored in the process is the far-right"s reactionary, repressive, and theocratic agenda.
    
    In the United States, the most strident of these voices are Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad, As"ad Abu Khalil of California State University, Stanislaus, and Ali Abunimah and others on the Electronic Intifada Web site.
    
    Massad has drawn an extended analogy comparing Hamas to the deposed and murdered Chilean leftist President Salvador Allende, and Fatah to the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet.
    
    When someone on the left starts looking at Khaled Mishaal and seeing Salvador Allende, their moral and political compass may be so badly broken that there is little hope of them ever finding their way back.
    
    Similarly, Abunimah has repeatedly compared Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to the Nicaraguan contras arguing, "These are Palestinian contras."
    
    Rather than seeing the obvious faults on both sides, these writers insist the division is between a gang of traitors versus the defenders of Palestine.
    
    Massad passionately defended Hamas" extremely-violent takeover of Gaza, claiming that Fatah had "pushed it into a corner, in the hope of slaughtering all its leadership in Gaza" and that, therefore, Hamas "could not but defend itself against their final onslaught."
    
    In May, 2006, Abu Khalil urged Hamas to "to preempt their enemies if they want to rule," anticipating the bloody scenes in Gaza, a year later.
    
    Abunimah has gone so far as to accuse Fatah of waging a "war against the Palestinian people."
    
    Massad takes every opportunity to create the impression that Hamas and democracy are organically linked, declaring that: "the supporters of Hamas, whether believers or atheists or secularists or Islamists, are the supporters of the real Palestinian democracy, because Hamas" struggle is a struggle against dictatorial traitors [under the legal definition of treason]."
    
    However, when it was obvious that Mahmoud Abbas was about to be elected Palestinian president in January 2005, Abunimah"s Web site published several articles questioning the possibility of democracy under occupation, and arguing that "the elections are a liability for the Palestinians."
    
    His site then published: "The False Promise of Western Democracy," which claimed that the election of Abbas "added to a growing, worldwide skepticism about Western notions of democracy [i.e. institutionalized suffrage, parliamentary procedures, and so forth]." The article argued that: "the value of Western democracy is questionable for the Palestinian people," and condemned the international community for "an invasive imposition of democratic practices" on the Palestinians.
    
    There were no articles to this effect following the Hamas parliamentary victory.
    
    The explanation these commentators offer for any support for Fatah and opposition to Hamas is willful wickedness and greed.
    
    Singled out for especial condemnation has been the beloved Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who Massad frankly accuses of being a prostitute: "Perhaps Mahmoud Darwish"s recent poem in support of the coup, published on the front-page of the Saudi newspaper Al Hayat, can be explained by the monthly checks he receives from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, and he is not alone."
    
    Abu Khalil claims that Darwish supports Fatah only because the "Oslo regime gave him a nice house in Ramallah." He adds that: "I expect him [Darwish] to declare [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert the "knight of Zionism" any day now," and that Darwish"s recent poetry reading in Haifa was, properly translated: ""I want Nobel. Please give me Nobel. I really want Nobel. Please give it to me NOW. If you give me Nobel, I will keep repeating that Arabs are in love with Israeli nuclear weapons.""
    
    These hyperbolic and hyper-personalized attacks on Darwish typify the approach to Palestinian politics that has been adopted by some leftist and secular defenders of Hamas. These accusations can border on incitement to violence. What is to be done to those condemned, as Massad put it, "under the legal definition of treason?"
    
    The Palestinian public, in contrast, has had the good sense to blame both sides. Majorities urge reconciliation and continue to support an end to the conflict, based on a negotiated agreement for two states. They also continue to give an edge to Fatah over Hamas, to an increasing degree based on the most recent polls that showed 49-percent support for Fatah and 31-percent backing for Hamas.
    
    Abunimah has suggested: "We know what Hamas is against, but no one is clear what it is for."
    
    In fact, Hamas has been very clear and consistent that its aim is to establish an Islamic state, in the Muslim Brotherhood model, in all of mandatory Palestine. It also seeks to "Islamize" Palestinian Muslim society along ultraconservative salafist lines.
    
    After its election victory, Hamas was urged to renounce deliberate attacks against civilians, abide by the treaty obligations undertaken by its predecessors, and express a willingness to negotiate an end to the occupation, based on mutual recognition with Israel, in accordance with international law. Hamas adamantly refused to take any such steps, preferring to stick to its well-established positions (i.e. "what it is for.")
    
    Those presently inclined to be sympathetic to Hamas need to step back and ask themselves: are we really laboring to support the creation of another theocracy in the Middle East? Would we want to live in such a society? Is that what liberation looks like?
    
    The suicide-bombing campaigns have done more than anything else to harm the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the world, unify Israelis, and give them a false sense that the occupation is some kind of self-defensive necessity. That is a gift that no occupier should ever be granted.
    
    This is not to mention the corrosive effect that the ideology and rhetoric of "martyrdom" has had on Palestinian society. There are limitations on what is acceptable in the pursuit of freedom.
    
    Fatah also has serious problems, not only with corruption and cronyism, but also with incompetence, disunity, and a history of poor management of Palestinian diplomacy. It is also clearly no model of democracy.
    
    Abbas has demonstrated an unshakable dedication to the goal of establishing a viable and independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, a principled position that has required both personal and political courage. However, he has proved to be an uninspiring leader, lacking in charisma and systematically undermined by Israel.
    
    Nonetheless, Fatah"s approach at least offers the possibility of a negotiated agreement with Israel and the development of a secular state. The real alternative is not some utopian reconciliation and post-nationalist bliss but, rather, unending conflict and untold suffering.
    
    Friends of Palestine in the United States must be clear about the principles that inform their activism.
    
    If people are genuinely in sympathy with the aims and methods of Hamas, then that is one thing. But those of us who seek first to end the occupation, and then support the development of a democratic and pluralistic Palestinian state, have to hold firm to those commitments.
    
    Dismissing those who hold firm to these important values and goals as "diplomatic fronts," or "Washington lobbies" for narrow Palestinian political factions, or, most preposterously, as "neoconservatives," is beneath contempt.
    
    In order to achieve an end to the occupation, Palestinians must come to an agreement with Israel, just as in order to have peace and security, Israel must make a deal with the Palestinians.
    
    An approach that simply condemns Israel and the United States, now lamentably extended to include - and even focus on - other Palestinians and Arabs, is trapped in the limitations of its own negativity. By offering nothing of positive value, it functions as a terribly-weak argument for ending the occupation.
    
    Any successful approach to pro-Palestinian advocacy should, therefore, emphasize the benefits to the United States and, indeed, Israel, of freedom for the Palestinian people.
    
    The Palestinians cannot achieve their aims without international backing that applies pressure on Israel, and that provides the context and the support that a workable agreement and a fledgling state would obviously require. This is why Hamas" policies that reject international law outright are so damaging to the Palestinian cause.
    
    Therefore, building international support for an end to the occupation must be the principal aim, above all, in the United States. The single greatest tool to achieve this end that the Palestinian and Arab Americans possess, is their citizenship. The primary task is to engage the political system nationally, and the policy conversation as it actually takes place in Washington.
    
    A politically-receivable message is urgently required. This could emphasize the benefits to US policy goals in the region, generally, reducing the appeal of anti-American extremism in the region, and enhancing the US role as a responsible world leader, the promotion of American values such as independence and citizenship, and economic benefits to the region and the United States.
    
    Friends of Palestine must also help build a serious coalition to end the occupation. The motivations for such support are irrelevant, as are differences on other issues.
    
    Jewish and Arab Americans who are serious about peace, also need to develop functional, working relationships. I do not mean, here, simply Jewish and pro-Israel groups that oppose the occupation on moral grounds, but also those that wish to end it simply for practical purposes.
    
    Israel has every reason, in its own manifest self-interest, to come to reasonable terms with the Palestinians, and its American supporters have every reason to encourage it to do so, even though not everyone has fully comprehended this yet.
    
    If we say we want the same thing, we should, at least, try to call each other"s bluff and test the waters rather than concluding from the outset that it is inconceivable that self-interest might actually bring friends of Palestine and Israel to the same place at the same time, with the real potential of mutual benefit.
    
    Palestinian Americans have to recognize that their traditional approaches have failed, and see the poverty and pointlessness of a purely-negative agenda of condemnations without any positive content.
    
    The keys to success are to take much better advantage of our status as Americans, develop new and effective forms of advocacy, and forge the alliances that can actually achieve results.
    
     Hussein Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.
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