By Dr. Ahmed Yousef, Deputy Foreign Minister – Gaza
Israeli strategists covet the concept of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a convenient, all-encompassing tag easily applied to any bearded man, veiled woman or contrarian critic of Western politics who happens to be Muslim. The label has deftly been used to paint a poisoned picture of Islamism in Palestine; and distort Hamas’ policies as those of an extreme faction akin to Al Qaeda or Taliban – a useful reference given the West’s concerted efforts to neutralize those militants.
There is no doubt that Hamas leaders and government officials view their movement as a national liberation movement – a political and military one – which draws its inspiration from its religious roots (the only thing it has in common with its Israeli counterparts). And which works to affect freedom through all legitimate means as well as provide civil services to the Palestinian people wherever it operates and any area where circumstances permit.
Throughout almost a quarter century of existence, the movement has functioned on a platform of moderation; and has demonstrated no animosity except where the Israeli occupation is concerned. It has continued a Muslim tradition of respect for the Jewish and Christian faiths as Peoples of the Book, whose beliefs are protected and whose covenants must be respected.
Yet the advent of Zionism, and with it decades of occupation, necessitated measures of self-preservation. Since 1947, Palestinians of every ideology have fought for their freedom; and in recent years the legitimate resistance has intensified. The Israelis, however, need Western funds and grants; and, as such, cannot act without offering excuses.
Israeli leaders are astute politicians, perhaps more so than their peers across the globe; and they know that shortest path to gain sympathy from the international community and Western public opinion is to play the “Qaeda” and “Islamic fundamentalist” cards – cards which have helped divert attention away from their crimes against humanity.
Decades ago when Palestinian nationalists fought, they were tagged tools of the Soviets. With the demise of Communism as a credible threat, the Israelis realized they would lose their strategic value and financial backing. So for two decades, Israeli officials and generals have alternated between warning of an Iranian foothold or an Al Qaeda stronghold in Gaza; and they claim now Hamas turns a blind eye to this presence and actually offers a haven for all extremists.
The Israelis succeeded, at least in part, in marketing the premise that “Islamic fundamentalism is the enemy.” Al Qaeda’s activities in the 1990s against American interests and embassies helped bolster their position; yet the militant actions were feeble in action and restricted in geography. It was not until the eleventh of September 2001, when New York’s Twin Towers and America’s military and financial centers were targeted, that American policy transformed into a “War on Terrorism” under George Bush junior. The “war” targeted Islam and Islamic groups, particularly resistance movements, ignored the right of peoples to legitimate resistance under the premise of combating terrorism.
Al Qaeda essentially rejuvenated the Israeli propaganda machine; and gave it the excuse it needed to escalate its campaign against the Islamic resistance movement, assassinating a number of resistance and political leaders under the premise of combating groups on America’s list of so called terrorist organizations.
American policy did not change throughout the 8 years of George Bush Junior’s presidency. The new administration showed promising signs when Barack Obama seemed to extend an olive branch to the Arab and Islamic worlds. He spoke in Cairo and Ankara of a new era where the Islamic world was not the enemy and where solving the Palestinian cause would be given priority.
The Israeli body politic wasted no time in pushing its politicians and lobby groups into action to undermine the new president’s initiative since peace and stability in the region would undermine Israel’s raison d’être. Success came with a Republican victory in the US Senate, giving the Israelis’ conservative American backers the power to derail Obama’s international ambitions for the peace process; and the US administration, in fact, admitted defeat in December 2010.
The Israelis will be more emboldened to face-off with the rest of the international community which condemned its brutal attack on Gaza, defined in the Goldstone report as a replete with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Several European nations have also filed lawsuits against politicians and military personnel accused of war crimes. The Israelis, therefore, are now preparing for a public relations counter-offensive built on crime and punishment.
The Israelis, unshackled by America’s public withdrawal from its role as a broker, are preparing a list of accusations against Hamas to justify its inevitable follow up military campaign against Gaza, one where it will aim to further weaken Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s government and cripple the legitimate resistance in Gaza.
Israeli forces are again provoking skirmishes. Politicians and army officials more frequently claim that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are stockpiling weapons; and that these groups are ramping up their rocket attacks targeting Israeli cities. There are even claims that the Qassam Brigades possess rockets that threaten the Israeli navy and air force. All this to create enough hysteria about the dangerous situation in the Gaza Strip.
A telling indication of the pre-bombing fear mongering were Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor’s comments to the British Broadcasting Corporation on November 21, 2010 that Al Qaeda was trying to establish a presence in Gaza and destabilize the region. He said: "I think stability in that region requires another Gaza — not one ruled by Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Al-Qaeda, and similar groups." And therein lies the crux of the matter and the cornerstone of a new Israeli thrust to marginalize Hamas and eliminate the resistance capabilities of the Qassam and Quds Brigades.
The Gaza Strip: A Homeland Not a State
The Israelis found unlikely allies among members of the Palestinian Authority after the Battle of Gaza in June 2007, during which Hamas wrested control from personnel who had refused to accept Hamas’ victory in the 2006 elections. Alarmed at their sweeping losses, a number of PA politicians added their voices to Western pundits who claimed Hamas sought the establishment of an Islamic state in Gaza. Catchphrases such as “Hamasistan” and “A State of Darkness” were even created to dramatize the situation.
Several within the Authority tried to use statements made by individuals or members of the Interior Ministry and Ministry of Religious Affairs (Awqaf) as proof that Haniyeh administration approved the implementation of Shariah law and the application of religious punishment.
Nevertheless, while the issue of implementing Shariah law was, and is, proposed by some of the movement’s members, the majority understands that dealing with the occupation and already have a social conservative population negates the need for such measures. The reality on the ground has silenced the more hawkish members of the group in favor of maintaining the integrity of the national interest from petty squabbles over abstruse issues.
Gaza’s blockade has attracted many journalists and prominent Western personalities to evaluate and report on the situation; and several have questioned the Prime Minister about the idea of an Islamic state in the Gaza Strip. Mr. Haniyeh’s response has been unequivocal: “We have no desire to establish a state in Gaza, particularly as its limited resources renders it unfit for statehood. And from a strategic, political and national perspective, we say ‘There can be no state in Gaza, and there can be no nation without it.’ We have no desire to create a separate entity in the Strip, let alone a state, empire or any such nonsense.”
He added: “The government in Gaza is an elected authority; and it is committed before the world to human rights, democracy, pluralism, the protection of the masses and non-interference in citizens’ private lives on the basis of protecting Palestinian human rights and dignity. Our government operates in exceptional circumstances; and we seek to correct any errors or excesses as soon as we are aware of them. As for the Islamization of the state, it is impossible to define a nation before it has even been born because its identity is based on two factors: First, liberating the land and establishing a political entity upon it; and second, giving the people the right to present and choose. It is true we are Islamists; yet we respect our people’s choices. If our citizenry choose an Islamic identity, we will work towards that; and if they opt otherwise, we will equally understand and honor the people’s voice. In any case, it is still premature to debate this issue now as the proverb says: Don’t sell the skin before the bear is caught.”
The Israelis may be better served to play another game than this losing proposition. We live in a world transparency, where no lie endures. Fewer and fewer laymen and politicians are taken in by the stories and fabrications the Israeli marketing machine manufactures. The Gaza Strip is a castle that will defend Palestinian rights and resist occupation; and it is a virgin land ready for development. Gaza will always extend a hand of friendship to the international community; and will always welcome any dialogue that will help achieve stability, security and growth in the region.
– Dr. Ahmed Yousef is the Deputy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former senior political advisor to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.