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":

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Unthinkable Palestinian Revolution: HAMAS Sweeps Parliamentary Elections

*Edited and expanded on February 2 to include new information.

On January 25, the unthinkable happened: al-Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Resistance Movement), better known by its acronym HAMAS [right], swept the Palestinian national elections, winning 76 out of the 132 seats in the parliament and crushing the ruling Fatah party, which is led by the current Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen.) Fatah won only 43 seats, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical Marxist group led by Palestinian Christian George Habbash, won 3 seats, and the remaining 6 seats being divided amonst smaller Palestinian groups and independents. HAMAS picked up the lion's share of the votes in the majority of Palestinian urban centers, including Gaza City, Hebron/al-Khalil, Nablus, Qalqiliya, and Jerusalem. Only in Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, and Jericho did Fatah receive the majority of the votes. In Jenin and Bethlehem, HAMAS and Fatah received roughly equal numbers of votes.

After years of corruption among the upper echelons of Fatah's leadership, particularly among late PNA President and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and his senior aides, the Palestinian people surprised Middle East experts, policy wonks, world governments, and the PNA ruling class by choosing to give HAMAS a landslide electoral victory whereas most analysts had predicted before the elections that the organization would win a sizeable minority, but not the majority, of the parliamentary seats. As it turned out, 77-78% of Palestine's eligible voters turned out to cast ballots in an election that was deemed by international monitors to have been democratic, fair, and free from serious violence or electoral inconsistencies.

For more information on the landslide HAMAS victory, see:



For a detailed view of the Palestinian parliamentary elections, see:

In the immediate aftermath of the HAMAS victory, Israel and other countries reacted with shock. Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert [left], a member of the Kadima Party formed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shortly before he suffered a massive stroke, quickly issued a statement that said his government would not enter into talks with "an armed terrorist organization dedicated to Israel's destruction," which is a call included in HAMAS' 1988 Charter.

To read the HAMAS Charter, see:

Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the hardline Israeli Likud Party, said, "...'HAMAStan' was formed, a representative of Iran and in the image of the Taliban."

Shimon Peres [right], a former Israeli Labor Party elder and current Kadima member, was also critical of the HAMAS victory, saying, "I think it is first of all a problem for the Palestinian people, not for Israel because Hamas is for a unilateral war not for a unilateral peace or withdrawal.
We shall not change our position. If HAMAS doesn't want peace, doesn't want negotiations, if they want to continue their terrorist activities I don't think they will have any support from outside or from Israel." He was however, more pragmatic in his choice of language than Israeli hardliners like Netanyahu, leaving open the possibility of talks with a HAMAS-dominated Palestinian government if the organization changed its charter and policies.

U.S. President George W. Bush [left] was also cautious in his use of language when asked about the HAMAS victory: "The United States does not support a political party that wants to destroy our ally Israel. People must renounce that part of their platform. A political party that articulates the destruction of Israel as part of its platform is a party with which we will not deal." The option of future U.S. engagement with HAMAS, if it adjusts its policies, was this left open.

Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, was more biting in his criticism of the U.S. government's reaction to the HAMAS win, remarking, "The U.S. can't promote democracy but then reject the results of this democracy."

Angry Fatah supporters took to the streets in several Palestinian cities to protest the corruption of their party's leadership, which they claimed led to its electoral defeat. Many urged PNA President Abbas [right] and other senior Fatah leaders to step down to make way for a new, younger leadership. Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Fatah has no desire to enter into a coalition government with HAMAS and that it will form the opposition.

For more information on the splits in Fatah, see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4655882.stm

The European Union and the United States, two of the largest contributors of aid to the PNA fumbled over whether or not to suspend their aid after the HAMAS victory, which will result in the organization forming the next PNA government.

For more information about the economic pressures that will face the new HAMAS-dominated government, see:

One of the most pressing questions that remains in the aftermath of HAMAS' victory is how the organization will react to actually having real political power over the fledgling Palestinian state, instead of acting as an opposition group opposed to both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian leadership of Abbas and PNA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Israel. One of the difficulties in predicting how HAMAS will react, and possibly change to fit the new political realities, is the fact that it is led by an often divided senior leadership.

Between 2002 and 2004, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) succeeded in assassinating most of HAMAS' senior political and military leadership, including several of its founding members, among them spiritual leader Shaykh Ahmed Yassin, 'Abd al-Aziz Rantissi, Isma'il Abu Shanab, and Salah Shehadah.

Currently, HAMAS' senior political leader is Khaled Meshaal [left, with portraits of Rantissi (left) and Yassin (right)], who resides in Damascus, Syria, and is known to be the leader of the organization's hardliners. He has continued to deny that HAMAS will enter into talks with Israel or recognize it as a state.

For more information on HAMAS leader Khaled Meshaal, see:

Generally speaking, the HAMAS leadership residing in the Palestinian Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) have been more pragmatic in their approach toward Israel and how to resist its continued occupation. In recent days, following their parliamentary election victory, HAMAS leaders, including West Bank/Gaza political chief Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahhar,a surgeon, and his second-in-command Isma'il Haniyeh [right], in the Territories have sent mixed signals about their intentions. According to some statements by senior leaders, including al-Zahhar in a Jan. 29 interview on CNN's Sunday news show Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, HAMAS is willing to reach what is essentially a longterm agreement, or hudna (truce) in HAMAS parlance, with Israel. Haniya, in the past, has expressed willingness to enter into talks with Israel after that country recognizes Palestinian rights.

For more on HAMAS leader Mahmoud al-Zahhar, see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4653706.stm

For more information on HAMAS leader Isma'il Haniyeh, see:

Although al-Zahhar [left] also said that HAMAS would remain committed to armed resistance/terrorism when made necessary by external threats, it is doubtful that the organization would start a new intifada if the majority of the Palestinian people were reaping the benefits of a peaceful, two-state solution with Israel. Despite apocalyptic claims made by American and Israeli neo-Conservative intellectuals, such as Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, HAMAS is not dedicated to the endless worldwide jihad, as is al-Qaeda. Instead, HAMAS' focus is solely on the conflict with Israel, ultimately over its continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sami Abu-Zuhri, a HAMAS spokesman in Gaza, said recently, "We have no enmity toward any Western country. Our enmity is only toward the occupation, which stole our land, displaced our people, and continues to kill us."

In an editorial by Musa Abu Marzuq, the deputy chief of HAMAS' politcal bureau, run in the Jan. 31 edition of The Washington Post, another sign that the organization is willing to adjust its policies in the face of new political realities was made clear. After maintaining HAMAS' position that on Palestinian rights and criticizing the current peace process as flawed, he issues a policy statement of sorts on the future of the organization in the peace process. "As the Israelis value their own security, Palestinians are entitled to their fundamental rights to live in dignity and security, he said. "We ask them to reflect on the peace that our peoples once enjoyed and the protection that Muslims gave the Jewish community worldwide. We will exert good-faith efforts to remove the bitterness that Israel's occupation has succeeded in creating, alienating a generation of Palestinians. We call on them not to condemn posterity to endless bloodshed and a conflict in which dominance is illusory. There must come a day when we will live together, side by side once again."

Marzuq [right] also recognized that HAMAS' victory was the direct result of Fatah corruption and its failure to lead the Palestinian people to a lasting solution and a state. "The results of these elections reflect a need for change from the corruption and intransigence of the past government. Since its creation 10 years ago, the Palestinian Legislative Council has been unsuccessful in addressing the needs of the people. As the occupation solidified its grip under the auspices of 'peace agreements,' quality of life deteriorated for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Poverty levels soared, unemployment rates reached uncharted heights and the lack of basic security approached unbearable depths. A grass-roots alternative grew out of the urgency of this situation. Through its legacy of social work and involvement in the needs of the Palestinian people, the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) flourished as a positive social force striving for the welfare of all Palestinians. Alleviating the debilitative conditions of occupation, and not an Islamic state, is at the heart of our mandate (with reform and change as its lifeblood)."

Marzuq also pledged that HAMAS would not fall into corruption like Fatah and recognized the need for his organization to work with all Palestinians: "Despite the pressures of occupation and corrupt self-rule, Palestinian civil society has demonstrated its resilience in the face of repressive conditions. Social institutions can now be given new life under a reformed government that embraces the empowerment of the people, facilitates freedoms and protects civil rights. Our society has always celebrated pluralism in keeping with the unique history and traditions of the Holy Land. In recognizing Judeo-Christian traditions, Muslims nobly vie for and have the greatest incentive and stake in preserving the Holy Land for all three Abrahamic faiths. In addition, fair governance demands that the Palestinian nation be represented in a pluralistic environment. A new breed of Islamic leadership is ready to put into practice faith-based principles in a setting of tolerance and unity. In that vein, HAMAS has pledged transparency in government. Honest leadership will result from the accountability of its public servants. Hamas has elected 15 female legislators poised to play a significant role in public life. The movement has forged genuine and lasting relationships with Christian candidates."

To read HAMAS leader Musa Abu Marzuq's editorial/letter in its entirety, see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/30/AR2006013001209.html

However, the transformation of HAMAS into a more pragmatic political party from its paramilitary and social roots will likely take years. In a recent statement, Meshaal announced that HAMAS would be willing to merge its armed faction, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Battalions [right], with the new Palestinian army it plans to form. "As long as we are under occupation, then resistance is our right," he said. "[HAMAS will] unify the weapons of Palestinian factions, with Palestinian consensus, and form an army like any independent state...an army that protects our people against aggression." It is key to note the use of the concept of Palestinian consensus, which illustrates the fact that HAMAS is keen to remain a popular movement among the Palestinian people.

For more information on Khaled Meshaal's statement about the formation of a Palestinian army, see:

Currently, several major Palestinian daily newspapers have called for HAMAS to act in a pragmatic fashion and criticized Fatah for its failures. Hasan Madin in Al-Quds, wrote on January 28, "HAMAS must behave as a political party and not just a resistance faction. As the party with the greatest power, its responsibility has doubled. HAMAS can no longer act the way it has acted till now."

Ibrahim Sha'ban wrote on January 28 in Al-Quds, "HAMAS' overwhelming victory will transform it from theory to practice. It will come to see that words are easier spoken than implemented and that satisfying people is difficult to achieve. HAMAS will have to provide citizens with their basic needs which is difficult even for an independent country, not to mention an authority under occupation and largely dependent on foreign aid."

To read more Palestinian editorials on the HAMAS victory, see:

HAMAS, above all things, including its ultra conservative Sunni Islamic worldview, is a pragmatic in its approach to Islamist politics/political Islam. It thrives on the support of the Palestinian public, who are grateful for the hospitals, schools, food banks, and other social institutions that HAMAS operates more than for the hardline Islamist politics the organization espouses. If the Palestinian public desires peace, it is difficult to see how HAMAS would continue to thrive or even exist if it decided to go against the will of the majority of the Palestinian people.