Inside Hamas

hamas.jpgZaki Chehab’s new book, Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the  Militant Islamic Movement is well worth taking a look at. Chehab, a Palestinian refugee raised in a refugee camp in Lebanon, had unprecedented access to the highest levels of Hamas leadership, including Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin (who was assassinated in 2004).  The book also highlights never-before-read files and letters from PLO leaders and bureaucrats. His book takes a controversial and challenging perspective –  from his claims of Israeli encouragement and arms deals to the movement with the expressed intention of weakening Arafat’s rule to the supposed notion that Hamas was “surprised” or did not want to win the elections that brought them to majority rule within the Palestinian Authority in 2006.

Chehab provides a compelling history of this divided movement from inception to election.  Policy-makers could do a lot worse than taking a few hours to read it. Chehab explains that Hamas, like most publicly elected parties, is political in nature and values power and respect above ideology. Understanding all the relevant actors better should help move the peace process forward.  –MSA

Words of Wisdom from Former Israeli Foreign Minister

Shlomo Ben-Ami

A must-read, wise rebuttal from ex-Israeli FM Shlomo Ben-Ami to all those arguing that we should continue to freeze Hamas out of the political process and deal similarly with all political Islamists.

Ben-Ami exposes the key flaw in the argument of those who claim that the Mecca Agreement and Palestinian National Unity Government has set back a nascent peace process.

Actually, with Hamas now prospectively inside that process – the chances of success could increase if Israel and the United States open their eyes to the formula that is on the table.

PA and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is authorized to negotiate a political agreement with Israel. Any such deal agreed would then have to be accepted in a Palestinian referendum or PLO vote, the result of which Hamas would respect.  So, if we put this to the test, there can be a negotiated resolution that Hamas can accept, even if it does not support the details.  That’s the formula right now for a Palestinian negotiating partner.

Ben-Ami goes on to place Hamas and the need for engagement in the wider regional context of democratization and working with non-Al-Qaedist political Islamists.

Hamas’ transition to parliamentary politics is part of a process many movements from the mainstream of fundamentalist Islam are undergoing today, as they seek to disassociate themselves from global jihad founded by Al-Qaida, and instead seek to integrate themselves in their country’s political fabric.  In Egypt, this is the direction being taken by the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is also that of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, of the Renaissance Party in Tunisia and of the Justice Development Party in Morocco.

This could be the approach in other places, too.  In Morocco, Mohammed VI made it clear that he intends to forge “a historic compromise” with political Islam, given the possibility that the Justice and Development Party will be victorious in the country’s June elections.

He is dead right.  The stupidity of the neo-cons in proposing in parallel democratic opening and the inadmissability of the Muslim Brotherhood to the political process is devastating even by their low standards of logic.

We will need to discover how to cohabit a regional political environment with political Islamists.  The alternative is unlikely to be our old clientilist friends – but, more likely, Al-Qaedist forces.

Read the entire Ben-Ami article Haaretz piece here.

Another Brick in the Wall: What can forty years of Israeli occupation teach us about America’s four years in Iraq?


Posted on Comment Is Free.

A lead story out of Iraq in recent days has been the construction of a 12-foot high and three-mile long wall in the Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad. It represents the latest tactic used to quell the ever-spiralling sectarian bloodshed. Standing alongside Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa in Cairo, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki announced that building of the wall would be halted, while US generals continue to explain that the matter was under discussion with their Iraqi counterparts. To make the situation even more awkward, coverage of the wall issue began just as US defence secretary Gates arrived in Baghdad as part of a regional swing-through that included a stop in Israel. Comparisons were inevitably drawn locally and internationally between Israel’s separation barrier and this latest addition to the Baghdad skyline. Separation walls are a very sensitive issue in the Arab Middle East right now. One Baghdad pharmacists was quoted as asking, “Are we in the West Bank?”

Indeed, there are certain similarities – both the Americans and the Israelis are pursuing military, or even architectural, palliatives where political solutions are required. In both instances the barriers may temporarily decrease violence before new, and perhaps more devastating, means are used (missiles come to mind). American Generals used the seemingly over-laundered phrase “gated communities” (presumably golf courses will be added later), while Israel refers to a security fence. But in both instances this gentler language unsurprisingly fails to mitigate local anger. Secretary Gates’ visit came at the halfway point between two rather unwanted Middle East anniversaries, the four-year anniversary of the US occupation in Iraq in March and the forty-year anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories coming up in June.

The word occupation – ihtilal – is a powerful one in Arabic, and with even the Saudi leader, King Abdullah, referring to the American presence on its doorstep as ihtilal, the labelling issue is apparently decided.

Of course, the differences between the Iraqi and Palestinian situations outweigh the similarities. America is not a territorial neighbour of Iraq and the two countries are not in the same kind of territorial dispute. US forces are still there at the invitation of a democratically-elected government. While the ongoing Israeli occupation needs to be ended, Israel was at least clearly threatened by its neighbours in 1967 when the invasion took place, and has since faced frequent terrorist attacks launched from Palestinian territory. We now definitively know, if it was ever in doubt, that the same cannot be said about America and Iraq. The Israel Defence Force is a national service, conscription military, while the US has a volunteer army. Oh yes, and there are not too many American civilians queuing up to build permanent American settlements in Anbar province or anywhere else (temporary private contractors don’t count).

But, ihtilal is ihtilal, and Robert Gates’ trip to Israel might have been more productive (for American soldiers, at least, if not for military contractors) had the defence secretary spent more time with veteran critics of the occupation, rather than cutting deals on what weaponry would be sold to the Gulf and the shiny new toys Israel would receive in return. An honest conversation about occupation with Israelis could impart at least four lessons to Americans: you will make few friends; those friends you do make will pay a domestic price; you, too, will pay a domestic price; and life as an occupier will come to define your military.

Nobody will thank you. Simply put there is no such thing as a benevolent occupation and an ever-decreasing number of locals will see benefit in defining themselves as your friends. Part of the American conversation has become about those ‘ungrateful Iraqis’, but this misses the point. Appreciation cannot coexist with the level of violence and daily suffering now prevalent in Iraq. This round in the battle for legitimacy has been lost. You are an occupier and everything you do will be treated with suspicion. (By the way, pushing the government to pass legislation on oil revenue that will principally benefit your own companies hardly helps to allay those suspicions.) An old Israeli publication on “myths and facts” of the Palestinian question used to claim that the Palestinians benefited under Israeli rule. There were more universities, more freedoms than elsewhere in the Arab world, and so on. Long gone are the days when Israel tried to make such claims.

Those you consider friends will not have an easy ride and will spend most of their time avoiding the charge of collaborating with the occupation. The Sadrist forces recently joined the Fadila Party in quitting the Iraqi government becuase there was no timetable for American withdrawal. The non al-Qaedist Sunni opposition has trouble trying to ally itself with an American backed coalition, and even Prime Minister al-Maliki has occasionally sought to publicly distance himself from US positions. In the Palestinian Authority, Fatah tied its colours to the peace process with Israel and the assumption that America would deliver an end to occupation. It didn’t. When Parliamentary elections came along, Hamas ran a stunningly simple set of campaign ads: “Israel and the US want you to vote Fatah.” So, befriending you will carry a domestic burden, but there is another burden that will be all your own.

Occupation is a costly thing, even without civilian settlements. The supplies, logistics and bases for troops are all dollar-guzzling. Budgetary priorities are skewed and even the parameters for the debate on domestic social spending are narrowed. My Israeli social and education activist friends are well versed in the devastating domestic impact of investing in an occupation.

Finally, what will the American military look like when it gets deeper into the groove of occupation? One of the key findings of the Israeli commission investigating last summer’s war in Lebanon is that the Israeli military cut back on its training and its preparedness for major military battle as a result of focusing on its duties in the Palestinian territories. Already in the US, with all the added burdens of a voluntary military, the strains on the army are being felt.

Of the US army’s 44 combat brigades, all have served at least one tour in Iraq. Except for the one brigade permanently based in South Korea, the army’s own deployment policy has been violated in extending tours of duty to 15 months. America has become seriously ill-prepared to assume its role in any trouble spots or threats that may emerge elsewhere in the world.

Yesterday was Independence Day in Israel, but the celebrations were somewhat lacklustre, and the ongoing occupation is a big part of that. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when Palestinians and Iraqis can mark their respective and authentic independence days, it will also be a time for Americans to celebrate. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be just as important in restoring US credibility in the Middle East and undermining the forces of implacable extremism in the region, as the discovery of a holy grail to Iraqi de-occupation.

The solution on Israel-Palestine is known – just read the Clinton Parameters or Geneva Initiative. The majority of Israelis and Palestinians can support such solutions, and a formula also exists for engaging Hamas and allowing them to acquiesce in such an outcome. Solutions for Iraq are less readily available, but arrangements for a new political dispensation in that country, as well as for regional involvement and assistance, could all begin to be elaborated at next month’s Iraq conference, which secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is due to attend.

In both situations, political will, creativity and courage are the missing prerequisites for success. Until the focus shifts in both Iraq and the Palestinian territories from the military to the political and diplomatic, it’s all just another brick in the wall.

Palestinian Voices You Don’t Hear

The endless alarms from self-assigned monitoring groups dedicated to exposing the true face of Palestinians, Arabs, and their media makes a veritable cottage industry.  Normally the media is culled for the most hard-line and often minority trends that “prove” all the Islamophobic stereotypes so fashionable today.

One of the claims you may be familiar with is that the Palestinians blame everything on Israel and are incapable of self-criticism or even taking responsibility for anything.

Yes, there is a tendency among occupiers and the occupied to blame everything on the “other side,” but the base generalization of such an assertion barely merits debunking.

Neverthless, just for the record, and for next time someone uses that line with you, send them, as one example among very many, this piece from the Palestinian press.  These kinds of articles are far too rarely translated.

This is by Rajab Abu Sirriyeh from the Palestinian daily, al-Ayyam.

Before discussing the reasons that lie behind the breakdown of law and order in the Palestinian territories, it must be pointed out that fundamentalism, extremism, and a general propensity for violence all provide fertile soil for anarchy to grow. In other words, security measures alone cannot hope to eradicate the phenomenon of lawlessness.

In my opinion, many years of random and misguided policies created forces that exploited the resulting chaos for their own ends. These forces succeeded in forging economic and social ties with certain elements in the Palestinian power structure, which makes it very difficult for the Palestinian Authority to fight the phenomenon of anarchy. It can even be said that there are significant forces within the Palestinian political hierarchy that strongly resist a return to law and order.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s recent call for the various Palestinian factions to unite in support of the government security plan will come to nothing unless the forces of good come together to back and indeed develop the plan.

All political forces and movements, which have allowed lawless elements to infiltrate their ranks – and that includes Fateh and Hamas – must be pressured to expel them.

Palestinian leaders must encourage the people to defend their country not only against outside occupiers but also against those who have made a career of exploiting their suffering for their own ends.

The Palestinians who are struggling for their rights must set an example by uniting behind the government and not leave it to face anarchy and those behind it on its own. Even those who are opposed to the government must stand beside it as it tries to restore the rule of law and turn the page on the anarchy that all the Palestinian people suffered under for so long.

Shoe on the Other Foot?

Henry Siegman

Henry Siegman is a man who deserves to be listened to.  He has traveled a long path.  He has led several Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.  Formerly an expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, Siegman is now the director of the US/Middle East Project and a research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Siegman has advocated a two-state solution and ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories as measures vital for Israeli security, future, and morality.

Most recently he has turned his considerable understanding and diplomatic prowess to the question of how to engage with the Islamists of Hamas and whether engagement with them can create a more solid basis for a peaceful future in the region.  He has met with Hamas leaders and clearly thinks the answer is ‘yes.’

Siegman had this piece in last week’s Financial Times.  He gets it right.

Mr Olmert and his associates devote their diplomatic skills to finding ever more tortured pretexts for blocking every opportunity for peacemaking, while posturing as peace-lovers in search of “reasonable” Arabs who qualify as partners for peace. Their goal remains to prevent a peace process that would require them to halt Israel’s expansion of its settlements and its effort to cut off East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland.

This deception worked well for a while and perhaps still convinces president George W. Bush and those he relies on to understand the Middle East – the folks who gave us the Iraq war – but has worn thin with much of the rest of the world, including many Americans. Several US columnists who bought into the old paradigm, or avoided the subject for fear of be¬ing labelled anti-Israel, now reject it.

Israel has lost the high moral ground. It will not regain it until its citizens elect a government that understands that the price of peace – whose outline was agreed to by both sides in the Taba talks after the failed Camp David negotiations – is far less than the cost of its current rejectionism.

To be sure, the moral high ground does not necessarily provide security. But for a western country – located in the heart of the Arab and Islamic world – that has been the beneficiary of vastly disproportionate US and western support because it has been seen as a moral avatar, the loss of that high ground could not be more devastating to its long-term security.

Read the full piece here.