by Gaither Stewart
The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January struck like a political earthquake in the Middle East. Hamas has been on America’s black list of terrorist organizations since 1997 and on the European Union list since 2003, along with al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and various jihads. Today Hamas green flags wave triumphantly throughout Palestinian territories. With Israeli leader Sharon sidelined, hardliners in power in Tehran and Damascus, the three-year old war still raging in Iraq, and Lebanon in turmoil, the dreaded Hamas on the threshold of power in Palestine would seem to be the last straw for Israel, the United States and Europe.
HAMAS. The very word rings ominous. For Westerners it means terrorism, kamikaze death squads and its terrifying black-hooded militia armed with Kalashnikovs marching across TV screens of the world.
However in the eyes of Palestinians, Hamas means resistance to a foreign invader. Its hard line resistance to Israel has now won out politically over the corrupt al-Fatah Party of the deceased Yasir Arafat.
Hamas in power turns the Middle East upside down. Some more hysterical commentators have compared the Hamas electoral victory to that of Adolf Hitler elected by the German people. For all concerned, it is a turning point in the Middle Eastern drama.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
The United States and Europe are obligated to deal with the reality of the Hamas win, achieved in the democratic process that America allegedly went to war for in Iraq. With fundamentalists and/or radical governments now in power in Iran, Syria, Palestine, and strong in Lebanon and Egypt, the Pax Americana in the Middle East has never seemed so shaky. President Bush will have to eat his words that he would never negotiate with terrorists.
Hamas is so deeply entrenched in Palestinian society that military action is excluded. On the other hand, the hard Hamas position vis-à-vis Israel is unacceptable to the USA and Europe. Both Washington and European nations have warned Hamas that it must lay down its arms and recognize Israel before normal relations can be established. No problem, cynics and realists reply, terrorists of yesterday can become friends today.
WHAT IS HAMAS?
It is a simplification to label Hamas just another terrorist organization. That has been the Western position toward Hezbollah, which has become a major political party in Lebanon.
Though the history of Hamas includes terrorism, the story does not end there. Hamas is not al-Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden is not its leader. Its participation in western style elections violates al- Qaeda principles. Hamas is double-headed. It is both a nationalistic political party and a terrorist/resistance organization.
Here is a historical note available on line: In 1973, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin founded the Gaza al-Mujamah, a social organization linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Israel itself encouraged the Yassin movement in order to counter Yasir Arafat’s Al-Fatah. This forerunner of Hamas established schools and clinics among poor Palestinians, founded newspapers and created a lively social life. The Islamic University of Gaza became its ideological base, gradually dominated by radical fundamentalists.
The Hamas tie with the Muslim Brotherhood is fundamental. Born in Egypt in 1928 as a semi-political fraternal society with Wahabbist fundamentalist leanings, the Brotherhood has spawned other extremist organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood has a way of creating terroristic-resistance organizations, then backing away from them, an effective policy of opposition. The Brotherhood’s most illustrious member years ago was Osama Bin Laden. The CIA supported the Brotherhood and Bin Laden in Afghanistan during the Cold War for their anti-Soviet position. The Muslim Brotherhood is the major opposition group in Egypt, with over 60 seats in Parliament.
On the foundations of welfare-oriented Gaza al-Mujamah, Yassin and the Muslim Brotherhood created HAMAS, the Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, to combat Israeli occupation. A distinction emerged between Hamas the nationalistic political party and Hamas the terrorist/resistance organization.
Arafat’s al-Fatah, the Palestinian party-state of some forty years, and Hamas took different paths. In the later years before Arafat’s death last year, al-Fatah displayed more traditional nationalistic aspirations, with a close eye on the international scene. Hamas instead was broadening its power base among the poor, especially in the refugee camps.
In 1991, Hamas created its military wing that organized kamikaze attacks on Israel, killing over one thousand people, an enormous number for that small nation. At the same time, a separation of objectives between the political and the military wings of Hamas took place. Hamas’s social welfare program on one hand and its armed resistance to Israel on the other combined to enhance its image among the people. In Palestinian eyes it was resistance of the weak against the strong, of the poor against the rich. The masses of Palestinians today credit Hamas with chasing Israelis out of Gaza. The feeling is widespread that terrorism pays.
Israel and the United States have never recognized the distinction between social Hamas and terroristic Hamas. In a raid in 2004, Israel killed Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin and has announced it will continue its program of pinpointed killing of Hamas leaders. But until Hamas got on the infamous black list of terrorist organizations, Europe distinguished between its two major factions, one welfare, and the other military.
Negotiations with Hamas do not mean acceptance of terrorism. Not to talk would be to ignore reality. Terrorism or resistance has always been a point of view. The democratic country of Israel itself came about on the back of its terrorism/resistance against British occupiers of the Holy Land.
Hamas boasts that what is happening in Palestine has never happened in any other Arab country: free elections pointed toward democratic alternation in power between two parties. This development, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, thirty minutes from Jerusalem, might well turn out to be the foundation of peace in the area.
Not even Hamas expected such a crushing victory that awarded it 76 seats in the Palestinian Parliament, and 43 to al-Fatah. Why, one wonders, did the Palestinian majority swing their vote to Hamas?
An Italian journalist who has spent much time in Palestine describes why one educated secular middle class Palestinian switched his vote to Hamas. Though this voter considered the use of force against powerful Israel madness, he lost faith in al-Fatah leaders to stop Israel’s colonization of the occupied territories. Negotiations could not gain Israeli recognition of the Palestinian state nor block the growing wall around his lands. Negotiations could not eliminate the roadblocks, the humiliations and crude treatment of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, the uprooting and felling of their olive trees.
This voter shows how foreign invasion of Iraq, torture in Abu Gharib, and arrests and trampling of citizens’ rights from Morocco to Indonesia has created new support for Islamic radical fundamentalism.
THE NEW SITUATION
Israeli writer David Grossman notes the paradox that just at the moment a majority of Israelis are ready to negotiate a peace, Palestinians have chosen the radical path. The Hamas victory, Grossman says, is a nightmare also for moderate Palestinians. He does not believe Hamas will change its real nature but he thinks its leaders once in power will become more pragmatic. A survey in Israel shows that 48% of Israelis favor dialogue also with Hamas.
Today Hamas has the support of many Arab states, some of which urge it to recognize Israel. Since Hamas never supported Saddam Hussein as did Arafat, the rich Emirates, enemies of Saddam, have rewarded it with funds that previously went to Arafat’s al-Fatah party. Egyptians interviewed on the streets of Cairo by Italian TV favor Hamas. The European Union is ready to continue its annual aid of 500,000,000 euros to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas will observe the ceasefire.
Though the West is bound by the election results, the question remains: Is there a meeting ground between the West and Hamas?
Some European observers and also George Bush believe there must be. Since peace in Palestine has in recent years seemed achievable, many agree with Grossman that Hamas in power will be more careful. As an uncontrollable party-movement-organization, its hands were free. As the political leader of the Palestinian people, Hamas must become pragmatic. With a majority behind it, Hamas can eliminate terrorism against Israel and make real peace, as al-Fatah could not.
It should be kept in mind that Palestine is not a state. It is two territories, Gaza, free of Israeli troops, and the West Bank still subject to Israeli occupation. The goal of both al-Fatah and Hamas is the creation of a Palestinian state. President Bush shares that objective, therefore Palestinian President Abu Mazen’s and Hamas insistence on good relations with Washington. The problem is the inclusion in the peace plan of an armed Islamic party heretofore ready to use terrorism.
If Palestine is not yet a state, it is a laboratory in which optimists hope to recycle former terrorists. Some Hamas leaders appear to be ready for recycling just as happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Meanwhile the economic situation of the Palestinian people is a nightmare. The European Union classifies 40% of Palestinians as poor, living on less than $2 a day. Unemployment in the Gaza Strip runs up to 70%, on the West Bank 45%. Aid from abroad, totaling some 900 million euros last year, is essential. At risk are also the 2.5 billion euros a year promised to the Palestinian Authority by the G-8 countries in the next three years. Israel has vowed it will block import customs duties collected by Israel which it holds for the Palestinian Authority if Hamas takes political power.
If the monetary threats sound like blackmail, the fact is, no one wants to finance arms or terrorism. Blackmail or not, the blocking of vital funds from abroad is a brake on fiery Hamas spirits. First of all Hamas itself must face the reality of its two faces, the more pragmatic political wing and the hard line radicals. Also recognition of this difference by the West would be useful.
Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza convinced Hamas that it can gain immediate advantages with its hard line. Those same successes can now convince its leadership to rally around a “truce-with-Israel” position. Truce means Hamas adhering to the Road Map, which was Sharon’s objective in his rumored secret negotiations with Hamas prior to his illness. A pragmatic Hamas in power can calm hot Palestinian spirits and find a compromise with Israel.
HAMAS AND ISRAEL
Today, the Arab League, the USA, Russia and Europe are urging Hamas to disarm and recognize Israel, using the flow of funds as a hammer. Negotiations with the Hamas political wing- political majority in the PA are possible.
Yet Hamas militants recall the killings of their leaders, the massacres of Sabra and Chatila and the bombing of Jenin. They demand that Israel first give back the lands it conquered in the 1967 war and then Hamas will recognize Israel.
A few nights ago I heard an interview conducted by an Italian journalist with a newly elected Hamas parliamentary deputy. Mahmoud Ramahi who studied medicine in Rome from 1980-89 pointed out that Hamas has maintained the truce with Israel for over a year while Israel has continued killing Palestinian civilians. Hamas, he said, is not a terrorist organization and does not belong to Al Qaeda. It is a resistance movement against foreign occupation. Hamas has never engaged in activities outside its lands and Israel. Its political goal is a government of national unity in Palestine and it has no plans for instituting the Shariah, the fundamentalist Islamic law. Asked if Hamas would recognize the state of Israel, Ramahi responded that Israel has not yet recognized the Palestinian state, implying that mutual recognition is a possibility.
The Italian journalist asked about the Hamas position on the violence throughout the Islamic world in response to the “blasphemous” cartoons published by a far rightwing newspaper in Denmark and in other European newspapers. Ramahi said that Hamas has tried to calm the violence.
One final word: The leader of Hamas, Khaled Meeshal, has spoken from his Damascus exile of the formation of a Palestinian army to unite the various militias, including that of al-Fatah. Al-Fatah answered, not on your life, and is reportedly piling up arms in its military depots. The implication is that al-Fatah is preparing for armed conflict with Hamas. One should hope that the USA, Europe and Middle Eastern countries will not be tempted to support any such machinations. Civil War would be a brutal nightmare within the nightmare.
© Gaither Stewart
Rome, February, 2006
P.S. On Saturday, February 18, the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, swore in the new Palestinian Parliament dominated by radical Hamas. The ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah was witnessed by 2000 diplomats and dignataries gathered in Gaza City for the hookup video conference. President Abu Mazen charged Hamas to form the next PA government. The apparent Hamas choice of the next Premier is the pragmatic moderate Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, number one on the Hamas electoral ticket. Hamas now has five weeks to form the next cabinet. Israel and the United States still brand Hamas as a terrorist group. Israel, USA and the European Union threaten financial sanctions if Hamas does not renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from
. After studies at the Asheville, NC at Universityof California and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Berkeley , then in Germany , alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, Italy , France and Mexico . After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Russia daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Rotterdam and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (www.windriverpress.com or http://stewart.windriverpress.com) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Italy . Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in ourArchives. Rome