Monthly Archives: September 2007

Defend the Palestinian cause against its most unreasonable supporters

The conflict that has developed between Fatah and Hamas poses new and unprecedented challenges for supporters of the Palestinian cause. A rational response to this crisis should focus on reformulating a viable strategy for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The only serious prospect for ending the conflict and gaining independence for the Palestinian people is a negotiated solution to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.

To work effectively toward that aim, there is no need for supporters of Palestine to become partisans of Fatah. However, important choices need to be made and there are serious consequences to words and deeds.

In the United States a small but vocal group of left-wing commentators has reacted by defending Hamas and heaping vitriol on Fatah. However well-intentioned, their rhetoric, or more significantly what it advocates, might significantly undermine efforts to help to end the occupation.

Such support for the Muslim far right is symptomatic of a broad trend in Arab leftist circles. Some in the Arab left have, in effect, abandoned many of the left’s traditional values, including class analysis and a materialist program for social change, secularism and iconoclasm, feminism and the cause of women’s rights, and internationalism. What remains intact is Arab nationalism, suspicion of the West, and hatred of Israel.

There are still many honorable pockets of bona fide leftist thinking in the Arab world. However, some Arab leftists now find themselves reading politics mainly through the lens of ethnic nationalism, an orientation now dominated by Islamist organizations. Thus, Islamist groups can seem appealing to those on the left. What gets lost or ignored in the process is the far right’s reactionary, repressive and theocratic agenda.

In the United States, the most strident of these voices are Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, Asaad AbuKhalil of California State University, Stanislaus, and Ali Abunimah and others writing on the Electronic Intifada Web site.

Massad has drawn an extended analogy comparing Hamas to the deposed and murdered Chilean leftist President Salvador Allende, and Fatah to the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. When someone on the left starts looking at Khaled Meshaal and seeing Salvador Allende, their moral and political compass may be so badly broken that there is little hope for them to ever find their way back. Similarly, Abunimah has repeatedly compared Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization to the Nicaraguan Contras, arguing: “These are Palestinian Contras.”

Rather than seeing the obvious shortcomings on both sides, these writers insist that the fault line is between a gang of traitors on the one hand and the defenders of Palestine on the other.

Massad has passionately defended Hamas’ extremely violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, for example, claiming that Fatah had “pushed it into a corner in the hope of slaughtering all its leadership in Gaza” and that, therefore, Hamas “could not but defend itself against their final onslaught.” In May 2006, AbuKhalil urged Hamas to “to pre-empt their enemies if they want to rule,” anticipating the bloody scenes in Gaza over a year later. And Abunimah has gone so far as to accuse Fatah of waging a “war against the Palestinian people.”

Massad takes every opportunity to suggest that Hamas and democracy are organically linked, declaring that “the supporters of Hamas, whether believers or atheists or secularists or Islamists, are the supporters of the real Palestinian democracy because Hamas’ struggle is a struggle against dictatorial traitors (under the legal definition of treason).” However, when it was obvious that Mahmoud Abbas was about to be elected Palestinian president in January 2005, Abunimah’s Web site published several articles questioning the possibility of democracy under occupation and arguing that “the elections are a liability for the Palestinians.”

Electronic Intifada then published “The False Promise of Western Democracy,” which claimed that the election of Abbas “added to a growing worldwide skepticism about Western notions of democracy (i.e. institutionalized suffrage, parliamentary procedures, etc.).” The article affirmed that “the value of Western democracy is questionable for the Palestinian people” and condemned the international community for “an invasive imposition of democratic practices” on the Palestinians.

There were no articles to this effect following the Hamas parliamentary victory.

The rationalization many of these commentators offer to explain Palestinian support for Fatah and opposition to Hamas is that it is the fruit of willful wickedness and greed. Singled out for special condemnation has been the beloved Palestinian

poet Mahmoud Darwish, who Massad frankly accuses of being an intellectual prostitute: “Perhaps Mahmoud Darwish’s recent poem in support of the coup published on the front page of the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat, can be explained by the monthly checks he receives from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, and he is not alone.”

AbuKhalil claims that Darwish supports Fatah only because the “Oslo regime gave him a nice house in Ramallah.” He added that, “I expect [Darwish] to declare [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert the ‘knight of Zionism’ any day now,” and that Darwish’s recent poetry reading in Haifa was properly translated as: “I want Nobel. Please give me Nobel. I really want Nobel. Please give it to me NOW. If you give me Nobel, I will keep repeating that Arabs are in love with Israeli nuclear weapons.”

These hyperbolic and hyper-personalized attacks on Darwish typify the approach to Palestinian politics that has been developed by some leftist and secular defenders of Hamas. These accusations can border on incitement to violence. What is to be done to those condemned, as Massad put it, “under the legal definition of treason?”

The Palestinian public, in contrast, has had the good sense to blame both sides – Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Majorities urge reconciliation and continue to support an end to the conflict based on a negotiated agreement leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Public opinion also continues to give an edge to Fatah over Hamas to an increasing degree, based on the most recent polls that showed 48 percent support for Fatah and 31 percent backing for Hamas.

Abunimah has suggested, “We know what Hamas is against, but no one is clear what it is for.” In fact, Hamas has been very clear and consistent that its aim is to establish an Islamic state, according to the model of the Muslim Brotherhood, in all of Mandatory Palestine. It also seeks to “Islamize” Palestinian society along ultraconservative Salafist lines.

After its election victory, Hamas was urged to renounce deliberate attacks against civilians, abide by the treaty obligations undertaken by its predecessors, and express a willingness to negotiate an end to the Israeli occupation based on mutual recognition with Israel in accordance with international law. Hamas adamantly refused to take any such steps, preferring to stick with its already well-established positions.

Those presently inclined to be sympathetic to Hamas need to step back and ask themselves: Are we really laboring to support the creation of another theocracy in the Middle East? Would we want to live in such a society? Is that what liberation looks like?

The suicide bombing campaigns have done more than anything else to harm the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the world, unify Israelis, and give them a false sense that the occupation is some kind of self-defense necessity. That is a gift that no occupier should ever be granted. Nor are we even mentioning the corrosive effect that the ideology and rhetoric of “martyrdom” has had on Palestinian society. There are limitations on what is acceptable in the pursuit of freedom.

Fatah also has serious problems, not only with corruption and cronyism but also with incompetence, disunity and a history of poor management of Palestinian diplomacy. It is obviously no model of democracy either.

Abbas has demonstrated an unshakable dedication to the goal of establishing a viable and independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, a principled position that has required both personal and political courage. However, he has proven an uninspiring leader, lacks charisma and has been systematically undermined by Israel.

Nonetheless, Fatah’s approach at least offers the possibility of a negotiated agreement with Israel and the development of a secular state. In order to achieve an end to the occupation, Palestinians must come to an agreement with the Israelis, just as in order to have peace and security Israel must make a deal with the Palestinians.

The real alternative is not some utopian reconciliation and post-nationalist bliss, but rather unending conflict and untold suffering. Friends of Palestine in the US must be clear about the principles that inform their activism. If people are genuinely in sympathy with the aims and methods of Hamas, then that is one thing; but those of us who seek first to end the occupation and then support the development of a democratic and pluralistic Palestinian state have to hold firm to those commitments. Dismissing those who maintain these important values and goals as “diplomatic fronts” or “Washington lobbies” for narrow Palestinian political factions, or most preposterously as “neoconservatives,” is beneath contempt.

An approach that simply condemns Israel and the US, now lamentably extended to include, and even focus on, other Palestinians and Arabs, is trapped in the limitations of its own negativity. By offering nothing of positive value, this method functions as a terribly weak argument for ending the occupation. Any successful approach to pro-Palestinian advocacy in the United States should therefore emphasize the benefits to the United States, and indeed to Israel, of freedom for the Palestinian people. The Palestinians cannot achieve their aims without international backing that applies pressure on Israel and that provides the context and support that a workable agreement and a fledgling state would obviously require. This is why Hamas’ policies that reject international law outright are so damaging to the Palestinian cause.

Therefore, building international support to end the occupation must be the principal aim above all in the US. The single greatest tool for this that Palestinian- and Arab-Americans have is their citizenship. Their primary task is to engage the political system nationally and the policy conversation as it is taking place in Washington. A politically receivable message is urgently required. This could emphasize the benefits to American policy goals in the region generally, reducing the appeal of anti-American extremism in the region, enhancing the US role as a responsible world leader, the promotion of American values such as independence and citizenship, and economic benefits to the region and to the US.

Friends of Palestine must also help build up a serious coalition to end the Israeli occupation. The motivations for such support are irrelevant, as are differences on other issues.

Jewish-and Arab-Americans who are serious about peace also need to develop functional working relationships. I do not mean here simply groups friendly to Israel that nevertheless oppose the occupation on moral grounds, but also those that wish to end it simply for practical purposes. Israel has every reason, in pursuit of its own manifest self-interest, to come to reasonable terms with the Palestinians; and its American supporters have every reason to encourage it to do so, even though not everyone has fully comprehended this yet.

If we say we want the same thing, we should at least try to call each other’s bluff and test the waters, rather than conclude from the outset that it is inconceivable that self-interest might actually bring friends of Palestine and Israel to the same place at the same time, with the real potential for mutual benefit.

Palestinian-Americans have to recognize that their traditional approaches have failed and see the poverty and pointlessness of a purely negative agenda of condemnation without positive content. The keys to success are to take much better advantage of our status as Americans, develop new and effective forms of advocacy, and forge the alliances that can actually achieve results.