Tikun Olam on Hamas & the “destruction of Israel” canard

Richard Silverstein over at Tikun Olam posted a gutsy debunking of the latest "evidence" being held by war-mongerers up as proof of Hamas (and, by unspoken but unmistakable extension, all who support the Palestinian right to self-defense) being frothing at the mouth with genocidal anti-Jew hatred. This kind of hysterical and offensively dehumanizing rhetoric is not only misleading and dis-informative vis-a-vis the realities on the ground in the conflict, but highly counterproductive to the cause for peace in that it obfuscates rather than illuminates.

Specifically at issue is a recent claim by the Israeli paper Maariv that a recent statement by Hamas committed it to, surprise, the destruction of Israel. The actual statement does not support this sweeping declaration.

The way this mother of all propaganda myths, that the Palestinians don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, is relentlessly exploited by Arab-baiters and Islamophobes to achieve their own nefarious agendas reminds me of the way Khrushchev’s infamous "We will bury you" line–which while hardly conciliatory was not a threat but an unsurprising prediction (i.e., that the USSR would outlive its ideological competitor)–was spun by American Cold War hawks as a grave threat and justification for jingoism and the promotion of the then nascent Military-Industrial State that now so dominates American foreign policy. President Eisenhower, in a moment of breathtaking statesmanship and prophetic foresight, warned  the nation about this constellations of destabilizing forces in his farewell address in 1961. (A little known, and profoundly frustrating fact: In his first draft of this speech, Eisenhower rightly dubbed this dangerous behemoth the "Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex". Tragically, he marred his courageous jeremiad by dropping Congress out of concern about embarrassing Congressional allies. In doing so, he inadvertently let the perhaps the most egregious and inveterate offenders off the hook, as Congress is the enthusiastic enabler of this endless orgy of pork and corruption.)

Tikun Olam-תקון עולם: Make the World a Better Place » Maariv Mistranslates Hamas, Stoking Fires of Anti-Arab Enmity

Again, we can argue whether Hamas has a faulty grasp of history. But the main point as far as Jerry Haber and I are concerned is that we not allow Maariv, JTA and the thousands of right-wing commentators who have grasped this botched translation job to argue that Hamas has gone from being in favor a unitary state combining Palestinians and Jews; to an exterminationist position advocating the elimination of Jews from all of Palestine.

Why is this important? Sure, pro-Israel ideologues are going to argue what’s new and who cares. Hamas hates us. The statement whether accurately quoted or not merely confirms this. But I’ll tell you why it is important. What people in political conflicts say matters. When words are put into someone’s mouth that they did not say–this can matter even more. Demonizing Hamas by turning them into genocidaires serves the interests of the pro-Israel right. That’s what JTA and Maariv have done. They may have done so inadvertently or carelessly rather than maliciously. But they have done so nonetheless. And given the powder keg of hatred that is the current Middle East what we don’t need more of is provocation and distortion. Reality is bad enough without introducing incitement into the equation.

Silverstein’s succinct explanation of why this matters and why it warrants widespread consideration is dead-on. I’d add to his excellent points one more that is perhaps implied by the others.

This is not just about Hamas, or even the Palestinians. The double standards and hysteria that undermine MSM analysis of Hamas constantly bleed over into general discussions of Muslims and Arabs. Rare is the debate in Washington about the right of Palestinians to defend themselves against Israeli violence. (A bit of an understatement, as such evenhanded discussions of the Middle East appear in the Beltway with less frequency than Halley’s Comet.) Yet rarer still is for such a debate not to culminate in the clicheed accusation of the defender of Palestinians being "pro-Hamas" and, ipso facto, pro-terrorism. In most cases, it’s a dirty trick, a cheap diversionary tactic, employed to short-circuit legitimate and rarely heard debate, not to mention tar principled critics of Israeli policies as beyond the pale of civilized debate. But it’s lethally effective–in a intellectually thuggish sort of way–at silencing dissent and intimidating others into ostracizing those thus labeled.

There are many problems with the way Hamas "support" is spun in American politics. The more obvious involve 1) how its reasoning (such as it is) ignores the, shall we say, paucity of "rooting options" for observers to almost any military conflict, 2) the many different possible motivations that can be behind "support" for Hamas or any other large, organizationally-complex and widely popular insurgent movement like it; and 3) the selective nature and constantly focus nature of "political support" in general.

To speak to #1, most conflicts involve two primary combatants, both of which fight dirty, and the Arab-Israeli war is no different.  Remaining scrupulously neutral is rarely an option and one’s own background and affiliations are quite naturally determinative in most cases for one’s allegiances. Even if one takes the demonization of Hamas at face value, to expect Arabs and Muslims not to instinctively side with it to some extent–even if only for the simple political reason that it claims to champion the Arab/Muslim cause–in this conflict is, I think, either astoundingly naive or betrays an incredibly blinkered view of the evidence (i.e., it overlooks how to neutral observers neither side appears wholly a victim or villain, and treats Israel’s inevitably biased narrative of the conflict as self-evident). Putting aside the question of the legitimacy or lack thereof of Israeli justifications for what it does, do Beltway pundits honestly expect Arabs and Muslims to side with Israel in a conflict with fellow Arabs and Muslims?   When you get down to it, that is the absurd subtext to the sanctimonious outrage over widespread reluctance to endorse Washington’s demonization of Hamas, however problematic a representative of Palestinian aspirations to freedom and equality  it may be.

For my part, I yearn to see to see credible, non-violent vehicles for change emerge, but that has yet to happen on either side, as Israel regularly engages in violence every bit as illegal and reprehensible  as Hamas, and often with a far higher body count resulting.  And the ever worsening dynamics of this conflict don’t encourage the emergence of nonviolent political actors, either. (A fact that suits hardliners in control on both sides just fine.) So one is left having to choose the lesser of two evils, and I don’t think that choice is self-evident to informed people who care about peace and justice in the region.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think you can pursue peace by selectively condemning violence, by outlawing one side’s crimes while whitewashing those of their (in this case, far more powerful) opponents.  When the international community begins to treat violence against Palestinians with the same standard as it does that committed by Palestinians, the kinds of absolute calls for demilitarization routinely targeted at Hamas will have moral authority.  Until then, it more often than not serves as hasbara by proxy and on balance probably undermines rather than furthers the cause of peace.

Issue #2 concerns how, whatever one thinks of it,Hamas is not simply a terror organization. Providing health clinics to the poor, employing large numbers of people in quasi-governmental bodies and fielding a range of candidates in elections aren’t exactly the hallmark of terror cells. However one judges their military actions from a moral standpoint, they clearly are a complex, hybrid movement that manifests itself in a multiplicity of ways in Palestinian society. Even accepting the one-sided Beltway line on Hamas’ violence,it is asinine to expect Palestinians to reduce Hamas to its military wing given its complex, multi-faceted role in their lives. Ergo, it is unjustified to treat all forms of political support for Hamas as an endorsement of terror. It just doesn’t follow.

And #3 isn’t rocket science. Support for someone or something at a particular point in time in particular circumstances does not mean unconditional support for the same in all times and circumstances. Most people don’t draw up ledgers to tally the sum of merits and and demerits of given political actors before supporting them. Such choices arise out of gut reactions and based on passions stirred up by current events which may or may not be consistent with their broader values. But these subtleties and elementary insights into human psychology are conveniently forgotten by Islamophobic ideologues the success of whose fear-mongering campaigns relies on such simplistic, decontextualized charges.

But all these are fairly obvious, I think, to anybody with a reasonably open mind and commitment to fairness. What is not intuitive to those of us doomed to primarily consume the often woefully  superficial and unconsciously pro-Israeli MSM analysis of Hamas is that it has evolved and moderated over time in important ways. Despite the importance of this fact for the prospects for peace, these transformation has gone unacknowledged by Western and especially American observers in the MSM.

Anyway, this post ended up being far longer than intended. I will leave you with this excerpt from   Khaled Hroub’s eye-opening analysis of Hamas’ political development in openDemocracy.net, "Hamas’s path to reinvention":

An internal shift from religion-based to politics-defined struggle is reshaping Hamas’s identity. Khaled Hroub, author of "Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide", explains how it has happened and criticises the west’s failure to understand this key Palestinian trend.
9 – 10 – 2006

A remarkable yet mostly overlooked transformation has been taking place within the thinking and political practice of Hamas over the past few years. The process started long before the radical Palestinian movement’s victory in the legislative elections of 25 January 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza. Its essence has been a shift in the justification behind Hamas’s "hardline" positions: in particular, from their rejection of any concession over the "land of Palestine" on religious grounds (based on the claim that Palestine is waqf [endowment] for successive Muslim generations which no one has the right to compromise on), to a political and pragmatic argument for this stance.

Fat chance these important facts, nuances and developments will trickle "up" into the discourse of the MSM or Washington policy circles. If fanatical, irrational Jew-hating Palestinians don’t exist, they must be created for the cameras. Otherwise, there might have to be dialog and meaningful concessions by the victors as well as the losers.  Perish the thought.

Update (2008-01-23): A few stylistic tweaks and fixed typos.

  • Abu Sinan

    Great post Svend. Very rational and one of the best I have read on the subject in a very long time.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/GCarty/ George Carty

    What about the supposed quote by Azzam Pasha (Arab League Secretary-General) in 1948, on the eve of the first Arab-Israeli War: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of ike the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades”?

  • Abu Sinan

    Ironic, Carty, that it was the Israelis who ended up making it a massive massacre and one of extermination.

  • svend

    Are we to take American promises to bomb Afghanistan “back to the Stone Age” literally as well? Wartime rhetoric is usually just that, heavy on hyperbole and bluster and light on substance. Such statements during a conflict don’t prove that a people or even a movement is committed to wholesale slaughter.
    Nor are statements made half a century ago of much use for understanding current political realities. Half a century ago, much of America was railing against women in the work place and racial integration.
    I’m not saying Hamas is a nice bunch. I’m saying they need to be examined in context like all political actors. Oversimplifications don’t help us to advance the cause of peace.

  • Alex

    Yes, svend, if George Bush had promised to “bomb afghanistan into the stone age”, you absolutely should have taken it seriously. But he didn’t. And what the hell do I care what some hick with no connections to the government may have said?
    Carty wasn’t quoting some random bystander on arab-street. He quoted the SECRETARY GENERAL of the Arab League! Are you so myopic that you can’t see the difference?
    “Nor are statements made half a century ago of much use for understanding current political realities. Half a century ago, much of America was railing against women in the work place and racial integration.”
    The difference is that America has changed since then, whereas Arab rhetoric has remained largely the same. Do you really need me to find you some quotes by Ahmadenijad, Nasrallah, and various leaders of the PLO, hamas, etc? Let’s not play stupid games – we both know that Israels enemies remain as dedicated to it’s destruction today as they were in 1948.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com Svend

    Thanks for the comment.
    I am not trying to imply that Hamas is peaceful or not often worthy of censure.
    However, the implicit premise of your and so much commentary on it is that Israel is basically a peaceful neighbor that gets attacked by homicidal, Jew-hating Palestinians out of the blue. That’s nonsense. It’s far more complicated than that. This is a long-standing war with equally enthusiastic participants.
    Second, what nations or peoples locked conflicts affirm their enemies “right to exist”? See http://www.counterpunch.org/whitbeck12212006.html
    Third, why does #2 even matter? Seems to me the violence (which is committed by both sides) is what we should be worrying about, as opposed to demanding that a battered people talk nice to those they view as their oppressors.
    Fourth, when has Israel affirmed Palestine’s right to exist IN PRACTICE? When Godla Meir denied the very *existence* of a Palestinian people? When it bombed the Palestinian parliament to smithereens?
    Fifth, why would you expect Palestinians to stop viewing Israel with enmity when THEY’RE IN THE SAME MISERABLE POSITION THEY WERE HALF A CENTURY AGO? WIthout accepting all the hysterial, perhaps they haven’t changed because the circumstances fueling such attitudes haven’t.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com Svend

    And the “Stone Age” attitudes are/were hardly limited to a few yokels on the street.

  • Alex

    “However, the implicit premise of your and so much commentary on it is that Israel is basically a peaceful neighbor that gets attacked by homicidal, Jew-hating Palestinians out of the blue. That’s nonsense. It’s far more complicated than that.”
    Prove it. Israel, if it so chose, could destroy Palestine tomorrow, but doesn’t. Israel has also managed to make peace with Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. Israel has repeatedly shown it’s willingness to exchange land for peace. What has Palestine done?
    “Second, what nations or peoples locked conflicts affirm their enemies “right to exist”?”
    Oh…I don’t know….let’s try “England vs US”, “allies vs Germany”, “US vs North Korea”, “US vs Afghanistan/Iraq”, etc, etc, etc. Pretty much every war throughout history where one side has refrained from enslaving or destroying their enemies.
    “Seems to me the violence (which is committed by both sides) is what we should be worrying about, as opposed to demanding that a battered people talk nice to those they view as their oppressors.”
    Nonsense. When two men get in a bar-fight, we don’t worry about “violence which is committed by both sides”, we worry about who attacked whom, and whether either of them tried to avoid or stop the fight. In the case of Israel vs Palestine, only one nation has made any real attempts to stop the conflict, and it’s certainly not Palestine, and only one nation has shown restraint in it’s use of violence, once again – not Palestine.
    “Fourth, when has Israel affirmed Palestine’s right to exist IN PRACTICE?”
    Do you seriously think that Israel couldn’t annex or destroy Palestine any time they chose to do so? The very fact that Palestine still exists is proof enough that Israel recognizes that right.
    “Fifth, why would you expect Palestinians to stop viewing Israel with enmity when THEY’RE IN THE SAME MISERABLE POSITION THEY WERE HALF A CENTURY AGO?”
    Yes, I suppose it’s unreasonable of me to expect them to stop and think “hey, maybe this half a century of suffering has something to do with our constant attacks on Israel”.
    “WIthout accepting all the hysterial, perhaps they haven’t changed because the circumstances fueling such attitudes haven’t.”
    Only an idiot keeps trying the same approach over and over again, while watching it fail over and over again. It’s like a farmer who refuses to water his crops, sees half his family starve to death as a result, and then the following year once again refuses to water his crops just to spite the sun. If you failed the first time, and the circumstances remain the same, then YOU NEED TO CHANGE IN ORDER TO DEAL WITH THEM. I don’t know why that’s such a difficult concept for you.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com Svend

    You and I are working from radically different readings of history.
    I see a tragic conflict where both sides have committed crimes and where outside forces have often prolonged the conflict by giving unconditional support to one side. You seem to see through the standard mythology of 100% Israeli innocence and 100% Palestinian guilt. Fine. There’s not much more for us to talk about.
    Bottom line: It takes two tango.
    The Palestinian groups fighting are certainly not angels (most nationalist movements aren’t, as even Israeli history shows) and I condemn Palestinian terrorism as strongly as Israeli terrorism, but demonizing them and giving Israel a carte blanche to do anything–no matter how destablizing or unjust–it wants doesn’t help get us any closer to an end to the carnage.
    The demonization of Hamas may be satisfying for those on the other side of the debate, but it does not get us anywhere. Hamas is a result, not a cause, of this conflict. Until we face that reality, we’re just prolonging the conflict

  • Alex

    Buddy, there’s only one question you need to ask yourself: what would happen if the roles of Israel and Palestine were reversed?

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com Svend

    Read David Hirst’s THE GUN AND THE OLIVE BRANCH for the mythology.
    I don’t idealize past Muslims anymore than any other group, but the fact is that Jews lived for the most part many centuries in relative peace in Muslim societies. Even historians like Bernard Lewis acknowledge a qualitative difference between the anti-Semitism of Christendom and that of the premodern Islamic world.
    There’s no reason to assume that Jews would’ve been “driven into the sea” had the roles been reversed.
    To the extent there is true hatred between Muslim/Arab and Jew today I think that can be traced to this conflict and resulting mutual dehumanization. It didn’t have be this way.

  • Abu Sinan

    When the supporters of Israel resort to asking what the dictators and tyrants around them would do if the tables were turned you should know they have already lost the battle.
    Israel is supposed to be a democracy so when it’s supporters are forced to justify their actions by pointing to the worst dictators, not Western democracies, they have lost and have no moral leg to stand on.
    Alex is a fanatic in the same vein as Hamas, just on the “other side”.