Digesting Hamas II -
Collective Punishment Is Wrong

By Terrell E. Arnold
In its first election try last week, the Palestinian insurgent group Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. Prior to this election campaign Hamas and its followers had held themselves aloof from politics, asserting that the politicians, mainly in Fatah, were corrupt, inept and unable to resist the occupation, land theft and harassment of the Israelis. Meanwhile, as it continued to resist Israeli occupation, Hamas became the most effective provider of human services in Palestine. Other insurgencies--e.g., the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines--have had to do some of that to be convincing, but none has equaled the back door political maturation of Hamas through organized public service.
Outside of NGOs actively working in Palestine, the public service side of Hamas has gone virtually unnoticed, certainly unheralded. That is because the western media and political mantra for Hamas is "Islamic extremist terrorist group". Public service does not make headlines, but lobbing a mortar shell from the Gaza Strip into an Israeli street does, especially if people are harmed. The fact that it is the right of any determined individual to resist the presence of an invading army is ignored in this case. An invading Israeli army can destroy homes, towns, the Palestinian infrastructure in pursuit of suspected militants and that is OK, but fighting back is not. "Collateral damage" to innocent bystanders, including women and children is an unfortunate product of Israeli warfare in Palestinian territory, but Palestinian attacks against their oppressors in Israeli territory are labeled terrorism, not warfare.
This harsh double standard is among the reasons Hamas has avoided the political process up to now. Even before the occupation, the Israelis practiced "targeted assassinations" and other attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But those attacks were justified in the West, especially in the United States, as Israel's right to defend itself. At no time was it ever conceded that the Palestinians, e.g., Hamas, the al Aksa Brigades, or other Palestinian resistance groups, had any right to defend themselves or their homes or their communities.
This dichotomy has been rigorously observed in Israeli and US official positions. It was unlikely to be questioned so long as the resistance groups had no political standing. Last weeks's election changed the situation, both for Hamas and for its critics.
The struggle of Israel and the west to digest the Hamas parliamentary victory in Palestine has moved the US, Britain, France, Germany, the Quartet concerned with Middle East peace talks and the UN to assertive bargaining by pronouncement. After a meeting on Monday with the Quartet, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sided with the US on cutting aid to Hamas. Britain's Jack Straw, the French PM and Germany's new Chancellor voiced similar sentiments. Basically Annan said that any Hamas government would have to recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce violence. Aid to Palestine, he said, "would be reviewed by donors" with an eye to assuring Palestinian compliance with such requirements. On that basis, aid would be withheld from all Palestinians, even those who voted for Fatah and other parties, unless Hamas meets those commitments with others contained in the Road Map.
This week Jordan and Egypt voiced the accepted litany, saying they would not do business with Hamas unless it renounced violence and recognized Israel. Egypt went so far as to suggest that Abu Mazen form a government with the minority parties, that is leave the majority party out of the new Palestinian government. This position was taken no doubt as a result of heavy US pressure.
Meanwhile, the US Congress has gotten into the act, A Senate resolution sponsored by Senator John Thune of South Dakota provides: " it is the sense of Congress that no United States assistance should be provided to the Palestinian Authority if any representative political party holding a majority of parliamentary seats within the Palestinian Authority maintains a position calling for the destruction of Israel."
The Palestinian Democracy Support Act, introduced in the House by automatically pro Israel Representative Tom Lantos of California and similarly committed Representative Iliena Ros-Lehtinen of Florida provides that if the Palestinians do not carry out a litany of 8 or more actions this law would end US assistance: prohibit Palestinian diplomats from entering the US; would designate Palestine as a terrorist sanctuary; and reduce US contributions to the UN by the same percentage that UN money is spent on Palestine. A second House bill introduced by Representative Vito Fossella of New York would also cut aid to Palestine.
While western governments and the UN are threatening to reduce aid, the Israelis are indicating that they may withhold customs duties that have been paid by Palestinians and are due to the Palestinian Authority. The Israelis act as tax collector for the Palestinians and collect revenues amounting to about $50 million per month. They have withheld these revenues before as a blackmail tool.
This is an outburst of indignation that neither Washington nor, for that matter, European governments are likely to mount on their own. They only could or would mount such a flurry under the political lash of Israeli outrage. But behind that outrage is obviously a fear that the Palestinian election might just have to be taken seriously. That means such things as the hardline Hamas stand against Israel, which has been known for decades, now must be addressed. Others might hope that all involved might also search out why that hardline position exists.
But what would be different about a government including Hamas? Palestinian insurgent groups have always been suspicious and distrustful of the peace process. That process generally has involved a proposed trade of immediate Palestinian concessions for promises of equally painful future Israeli ones. Arafat was less and less able to make any headway in negotiations as that lopsided trading pattern became obvious to more and more Palestinians and their Arab backers. What Hamas saw was a peace process that led only to talking and still more talking while the Israelis continued to annex new territory. The Hamas strategy has been to seek real and present concessions for real and present concessions.
Hamas has maintained that posture while continuing to carry and, from time to time, to use the insurgent stick. That posture obviously had more appeal to Palestinian voters last week than the lackluster negotiating performance of Fatah. But the western reaction and now the reactions of all of Palestine's neighbors except Syria are to find ways to suppress the results of the Palestinian election.
President Bush put the last nail in the Palestinian election coffin before and during the State of the Union Tuesday night when he said the US will not support a Hamas government unless it gives up its arms and recognizes Israel. This posture supports the long term Israeli negotiating practice of extracting present Palestinian concessions without any Israeli quid pro quo. All of the heat is on Palestine.
Meanwhile, Hamas leadership is proceeding very carefully. Some Hamas voices are speaking out, but the organization is basically keeping its head down. It is useful in this context to review just where Hamas has stood in the past. Since the election, Hamas spokesmen have begun a process of (a) reminding people where Hamas has stood for years on the leading issues, and (b) of subtly laying a negotiating strategy on the table for interested parties to view. As indicated by one Hamas interpreter, "Hamas will end violence but keep the Dream."
The elements of the dream were probably first outlined by the late leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who was blown away several years ago by an Israeli air to surface missile. Yassin said that the Palestinians (a) would never recognize the theft of their land, but (b) they were willing to negotiate a cease-fire, even one that could last for a generation. In exchange, (c) Israel would have to give back "what it occupied in 1967"--meaning move back to the green armistice line. That would mean give up all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza (the latter already having been done). A final condition would require Israel to release all Palestinian prisoners, now numbering more than 9,000 individuals.
Those prisoners include the most popular Fatah political figure, Marwan Barghouti, who is now serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for crimes hardly as horrendous as those for which Sharon and other Israeli terrorists never even went to jail. While no one can speak for him, as founder of the insurgent al Aksa Brigades he would quite likely side with Hamas.
As anyone who has worked on the issues knows, such an agenda, if put forward by Hamas, would involve enormous concessions by the Palestinians as well. It would grant the existence of Israel. But it would not forgive the very large bill for Israeli confiscated Palestinian property. The Palestinians have claims for property that could cover more than 400 villages ravaged since the late 1940s. New settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land continue to add to that bill. The enormity of these property claims may well be a principle driver of Israeli efforts to make the Palestinians go away without a struggle.
It is important and urgent for all the agitated critics of Hamas and the election outcome to note that the Hamas charter, which has defined its recruitment effort and graphically defined Palestine's enemy, does not appear in its negotiating demands. What does appear clear in the Hamas posture is it is time to stop temporizing. It is time to recognize that a stalled "peace process" has been systematically used by the Israelis to maintain a conflict that provides cover while they slowly but surely absorb the West Bank. That tactic is at once a provocation and an everyday preoccupation to the Palestinians. It must stop. It is time for all those who are now dancing around in indignation over the election of Hamas to begin looking candidly at the mounting crimes of the Israelis against the Palestinian people. That means at the least that some sense of fairness must come into play here. Hamas won the election because Palestinians had concluded that Fatah was totally bankrupt, while Hamas, in sharp contrast, seemed capable in Palestinian eyes of doing something about those problems.
Much has been made in western media about the so-called peace process. However, that process has been celebrated more by outsiders than by the Palestinian people. On the day after the election they had real cause to be proud of themselves. Bringing the main insurgent group into the political process was a major step forward. If the outside world succeeds in suppressing this first real breakthrough in the Palestinian configuration for peace, the burden of guilt will be on them, not on Hamas, and not on the Palestinian people.
Ultimately it is time for outsiders to stop telling a newly elected political party what it must do to take office. What it must do--under the rules of democracy--is respond to the needs of its constituency. Hamas made the first move in the right direction when it put its members forward as candidates in a democratic election. If the leadership of Hamas has not yet understood how large a problem it faces, it will soon know in spades how tricky it is to transit from insurgency to governance.
How Hamas may govern and respond to its foreign policy needs, including relations with Israel, cannot be determined in advance. It certainly should not be determined by western and Israeli dictate. Nor should the Hamas posture be changed without real Israeli concessions. All outstanding matters, including the Hamas posture, are proper issues for future bargaining, but Palestine needs its new government--and time--to do that.
Whatever message the very well mobilized supporters of Israel may have hoped to deliver, the Palestinians must not be told they cannot decide for themselves who will govern them. It is therefore time for all the critics to back off and give the Palestinian people room. It was by all accounts a fair and open election. They should be applauded, not punished for it.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, _A World Less Safe_, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State who held several senior diplomatic positions, including Consul General, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Deputy Director of the State Department Office of Counterterrorism, and Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



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