Thursday, 5 February 2009


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

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