Very good friends recently shared some advice with me.
“Talk and write more about the mainstream challenges that Palestinians in Gaza face — like climate change, population pressure, water quality and quantity, economic vitality, equity, democracy – rather than as victims because then we could better identify with them as humans facing similar challenges that others face.”
As it stands now, my friends (and probably most Americans) have a difficult time feeling sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza despite knowing intellectually about their tremendous struggles and difficult circumstances. Their apathy (my word, not theirs) results from a feeling of not being able to make a difference, and so they turn their attention in a different direction.
My friends continue:
“Like it or not, given the sources of information available, we view the Gazans primarily as victims. But we believe that they have brought a portion of their victimhood upon themselves by selecting Hamas as their government. While we can agree that Israel’s oppressive actions are excessive, the Gazans will continue being victims as long as Hamas continues their adversarial role toward Israel. Gaza’s chance for a better future might happen if the Gazans would go to the streets to protest and insist that there should be a fair and free election that might bring a government that has their well being as it’s first priority. We have no idea if this is possible, or if it’s what the Gazan’s really want. Perhaps we can talk more about this.”
Now I know I really have my work cut out for me … because my friends represent IMHO (in my humble opinion) the cream of the crop of American society. They are highly educated, well-read on the Middle East and politics, world-wide travelers, open-minded and willing to learn.
Yet, they think Hamas is the problem and the Palestinians are partially responsible because they elected Hamas.
There is SO MUCH to say in response. Where do I begin?
My friends have given me a gift. I’m going to do my best to respond over the next couple of days. I’ll begin — but not end — with this opinion piece published in the Guardian this week.
Judge Hamas on the measures it takes for its people
It really doesn’t matter what political party you belong to in Palestine because every single one has first to deal with Israeli occupation, settlements, theft and expropriation before it can begin to campaign about public policy on jobs, healthcare and the economy. Despite this stark reality, the question I have faced most frequently since returning to Gaza in 2006 is this: does the Hamas charter, which contains passages deemed offensive to Jewish people, truly represent the movement’s vision and political goals? Diplomats, journalists, academics, parliamentarians and politicians from numerous nations have empathised with Palestinians; yet they all seem to struggle with this document.
The question is understandable given how frequently much of the foreign media refers to it. The reality, however, is that one would be hard pressed to find any member of Hamas who is fully versed in the content of the charter – a treatise that was actually never universally endorsed by the movement. Earnest students of Palestine should consider the context. This was a text written in the early days of the first intifada. Our youth rebelling against the Israeli occupiers needed a rallying cry – a written expression of their resolve. The charter was designed to be that inspirational document and it was never intended to be the governing instrument, the guiding principle or the political vision of the movement.
Hamas is a Palestinian liberation movement that uses traditional Islamic teaching as its point of reference. Israeli media and many of the western channels that mimic it have far too easily succumbed to the Israeli establishment’s propaganda that the group is akin to al-Qaida and/or a front for Iran and/or a combination thereof. Were pundits to truly scrutinise Hamas’s actions since its inception, they would find not a single official statement or position that is based on denigrating another faith, certainly neither Judaism nor Christianity. Nor can anyone produce a shred of evidence that Hamas formally encourages prejudice against anyone’s ethnicity. And the group has been far more conscious of avoiding civilian casualties than the Israelis. We in Gaza are witnesses to the deaths of scores of our children, while Israeli television has largely been able to parade only the coffins of soldiers.
Hamas is simply a movement resisting occupation and besiegement. The cause of our conflict with the Israelis is their desire to make of us a servile minority or an emigrant memory and they have done nothing that would grant us the dignity of self-determination. Even now, it is the Israelis who issue a Palestinian his or her identity card under the terms of Oslo. Hamas draws inspiration from faith; yet religion has little to do with our struggle. Our faith determines our values, not our platform. What every Palestinian – Muslim or Christian and of every political hue – struggles for is dignity and freedom, for the right to be recognised in our own land, a struggle for our political and economic rights, a struggle for sovereignty and the right to govern ourselves.
Palestinians are no different from any other people around the globe. But we certainly are less capable than the Israelis of manipulating the media. First they rallied the world against communism, then they labeled the nationalists terrorists; and now Islamists are the true villains. Yet look beneath the rhetoric with a just eye and you will discover that we are not fanatics who want to impose beliefs that others don’t share. All we seek is to be given our rightful place among the family of nations.
Scrutinise the manifesto upon which we were elected to govern in 2006 if you really wish to understand the political vision of Hamas, not a charter drawn up decades ago and long forgotten. Sadly we were deprived of the opportunity to implement in full many of the reforms set out in that policy document. Nonetheless our record of government in Gaza, despite the almost impossible circumstances created by the eight-year-old siege, demonstrates our willingness to work for the overall good of society and not just our own supporters. Hamas believes in the democratic process and that is why in 2006 we relinquished the right to govern alone in favour of a broader coalition that would reflect the aspirations of all Palestinians. Unfortunately our proposal was rejected, a fact that seems to have been conveniently overlooked in the desire to demonise our movement as power-seeking fanatics. Again more recently in our wish to move forward and to promote Palestinian reconciliation, we voluntarily handed over power in Gaza to a technocratic government.
When Hamas decided to engage fully in the political process we did not abandon our legal and moral right to resist occupation and the daily Israeli aggression. This we hold in common with many other liberation movements around the world. The price we have paid for this is exclusion by many western countries that at the same time chose to overlook the brutal and illegal actions of our Israeli occupiers. The right of the occupier to purportedly defend itself trumped our right to exist in peace.
We have been condemned for firing home-made rockets in protest at a siege that is aimed at depriving over a million and a half people of the basic necessities of daily life: electricity, clean water, medical drugs and equipment. We are also blocked from importing everyday building, industrial and farming materials necessary to provide jobs and develop a viable economy. Our students and our sick are denied the right to travel for their education and healthcare. The list is endless and yet we are the ones who are condemned. When we enter into ceasefires and our forces impose months of calm despite no change in the status quo, we see no tangible results – the relentless, dehumanising weight of the siege continues unabated. Why, then, is the world surprised when we resist? What people on this planet would sit quietly and allow themselves to bleed out a slow death without fighting for survival?
Judge Hamas on the measures it takes for its people. Do not rely on the words of a document – the charter – written under entirely different circumstances. Declare it dead, some have said; and yet, to do so would be to succumb to yet another Israeli demand. We do what is right, not what we are told by an occupier. We will continue to resist so long as the injustices inflicted upon the Palestinian people go unaddressed. But we will also continue to look for ways to move forward and to address the core issues of our conflict with the Israelis.
We embraced the ballot box as a way to advance the Palestinian cause in 2006; but despite the democratic mandate we received from our people we were ejected from the political process by a set of preconditions (imposed by the Quartet) that no serious political party would sign up to without prior negotiations. We relinquished our control in Gaza in favour of Palestinian unity in 2014 for the sake of our people. A united Palestinian front is an essential step towards finding a just and durable solution to this conflict; and yet, perhaps, it is this unity that worries the occupier. A divided people, after all, are far easier to subjugate. Hopefully the international community will not be duped again by Israeli hawks and will give the dove a chance to carry the olive branch forward.