Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Misinterpreting the Middle East

This is a response I wrote to an editorial written by Michael O'Connell, the interactive editor for Broadside, the student newspaper of George Mason University. O'Connell levels allegations against Palestinian and Arab politics, without proper documentation. Many of his points are either overly general or downright false and I felt the need to refute them.

To read Michael O'Connell's editorial, see:

My reply is below:

Editorial on HAMAS Ignores Critical Facts Regarding Election

In a recent editorial [“Democracy, Middle Eastern Style,” Feb. 6, 2006], Michael O’Connell makes several over-generalized or downright erroneous claims about the current Israeli-Arab conflict. In doing so, he pushes forward an incorrect view of the Arab world. After describing the surprise of the international community after the landslide electoral victory of the Palestinian militant organization HAMAS, he claims that, “the Arab world is strangely silent.” In fact, this has not been the case. In the immediate aftermath of HAMAS’ electoral triumph, multiple editorials were published in Arab newspapers about the group’s success, some extolling the “resistance,” others bemoaning its continued use of violence. This casts doubt on the assertion that there is a single “Arab” approach to politics.

Many Palestinian journalists have called upon HAMAS’ leadership to adjust its politics in order to deliver on its promises. Ahmad Dahbur, writing in al-Hayat al-Jadidah, observed, “Technically, the winners [HAMAS] have no problem in forming a government…However, with their ideological legacy…they will find it difficult to find a mechanism to meet current and future requirements. It is not enough to say that a long truce can make things work. We should all work towards a single plan.”

Throughout the Arab world, there were also calls for HAMAS to tread carefully. In the London-based pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, ‘Abd al-Bari Atwan wrote, “HAMAS’ victory could turn into a defeat if its leadership does not act properly, rationally and responsibly in the forthcoming days…In order to form a new government, it will have to change its ways, negotiate with Israel, and abandon resistance in response to U.S. and Israeli conditions.” Similar editorials were also published in Lebanon’s The Daily Star, Egypt’s largest daily al-Ahram, the pan-Arab al-Sharq al-Awsat, the United Arab Emirates’ Khaleej Times, and the Palestinian newspapers al-Ayyam and al-Quds.

Arab political leaders have also called upon HAMAS to enter into real negotiations with Israel in order to reach a final-status peace agreement. “If HAMAS wants to establish a government, HAMAS must recognize Israel…without recognizing Israel, it won’t work,” said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. Mubarak’s sentiments were echoed by Yemeni President ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh, who wrote Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas [right] saying, “We hope that the new legislative council and HAMAS…will go ahead in the peace process, according to international resolutions.” Amr Musa, secretary general of the Arab League, has called for HAMAS to follow the basic principles set forth in the league’s 2002 peace proposal, which call for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 4, 1967 borders in return for full recognition and peaceful relations with the Arab states.

O’Connell also criticizes Arab governments for failing to address the needs of Palestinian refugees. His inference seems to be that the Arab states should grant the Palestinians citizenship, ignoring the fact that the majority don’t wish to become Syrians or Lebanese or Egyptians. He lumps Jordan into the list of countries he accuses of ignoring the Palestinians’ suffering, despite the fact that Jordan is the only Arab state to have granted them citizenship, in 1954. Today, less than 20 percent of Jordan’s Palestinian population lives in refugee camps.

O’Connell ends by claiming, “you do not vote for HAMAS if you want peace.” Polling data gathered over the last decade in the Palestinian Territories shows a different picture. In a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, one of the largest polling agencies in the territories, in September 2005, the vast majority of Israelis (66 percent) and Palestinians (63 percent) support mutual recognition of each other’s states. Polls have shown that the majority of Palestinians, even many of its tacit supporters, reject the idea of an Islamic state. The evidence, including polling and survey data, seems to show that the majority of Palestinians who voted for HAMAS were actually voting against Fatah corruption, mismanagement and nepotism.

There are already signs that HAMAS leaders inside the territories, including Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahhar and Isma’il Haniya, will be more pragmatic in their negotiations with Israel than the group’s external political leadership, led by Khaled Meshaal [right]. However, even Meshaal in recent days has budged on the issue of entering into direct talks with Israel and his chief aid, Musa Abu Marzuq recently wrote and editorial than ran in The Washington Post acknowledging, “There must come a day when we will live together, side by side once again.”

Although they still must meet certain benchmarks, considering that HAMAS leaders in the past refused to enter into discussions with Israel and refused to take part in Palestinian elections, it seems that the pragmatic transformation or split of HAMAS may have already begun.

To see the editorial on the Web, see:

For more in-depth personal views on what the electoral victory of HAMAS may lead to, see my previous post, "The Unthinkable Palestinian Revolution: HAMAS Sweeps Parliamentary Elections":

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