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.)
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.