Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Take Hamas seriously

"Hamas" -- I think most Americans think of it as some kind of cross between al-Qa`ida and the PLO. A combination of the two craziest kinds of brown-skinned savages (Palestinians and Islamists). It becomes so overwhelming that they can't think, their brains shut down. And so "Hamas" is just a buzz-word that TV people can throw out there to make people think "scaaary."

It seems, though, that people are going to have to start rethinking that stereotype. Akiva Eldar has a very interesting article on Ha'aretz about the recent meetings between Europeans and Americans and Hamas officials. It might be that Americans -- driven by their fear and hatred of Hamas evoked by images of suicide bombers and the twin towers and whatever else springs up inside the "American mind" -- want nothing to do with the group, want to alienate it, designate it a "terrorist organization" and make sure that there are no contacts between the U.S. government and Hamas. But in order to have any kind of meaningful dialogue about the Middle East, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no way of avoiding Hamas.

Eldar writes:
Middle East scholar Mati Steinberg, who was a special advisor to the two most recent heads of the Shin Bet security service, said he sees in the comments of Abu Marzouq's group signs of a Hamas plan to take over the Palestinian government using democratic means. "It is evident that they are trying to transmit to the West, particularly to the United States, the message that Hamas is not only a political factor but that it is also the most effective organization among the Palestinians," said Steinberg, immediately adding an assessment of his own: "They are indeed the most dynamic factor in the territories and therefore they have an interest in fair elections and also in foreign observers, and a promise in advance that the results will be accepted at home and in the West. Hamas sees the elections as setting a seal on the character of the regime of the Palestinian state and its constitution," he said.

Steinberg said Abu Marzouq's remarks on the intention to join the PLO confirm the suspicion that Hamas will not be content with just taking control of Palestinian society in the territories. At a demonstration held in Beirut a few days after the encounter with Crooke's group, Khaled Meshal, Abu Marzouq's boss, said that Hamas wants to become the patron of the Palestinian refugee leadership in Lebanon and presented plans of action. Meshal emphasized the weak presence of Fatah among the refugees and he knows how to use their anger and frustration, which is growing as a result of their feeling that Fatah has abandoned them, Steinberg said.
You see, Americans like to talk a big game about "democracy in the Middle East," but promoting democracy in the Middle East means that you accept the results of democracy, whether you like them or not, and you work with what you get. The situation of the U.S. government with regards to Hamas is now that they have so demonized Hamas (with the help of the media) that they are now in a position that if Hamas wins, they are stuck between their two rhetorics: Hamas is evil and cannot be negotiated with, and democracy in the Middle East. Of course, there's no real way to undo the image of Hamas in the U.S. quickly. And, of course, the "democracy in the Middle East" rhetoric is not subject to strict enforcement in terms of actions -- we already know that. However, simply ignoring the situation is not going to result in good things for the U.S. You'll have another situation, as with the PLO before Oslo, where the U.S. refuses to recognize the validity of the Palestinians. And as the U.S. learned then and may have to learn again, ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away. It's time for the U.S. to start taking Hamas seriously as a political force, and not simply as a convenient boogieman to scare little Americans.

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