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PRINCIPLE OF EXCLUSION - Is solidarity with the Gazans same as solidarity with Hamas?

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 15.01.09

As Israel’s monstrous destruction of Gaza grinds on, Hamas becomes, by bloody default, the face of Palestinian resistance. Mahmoud Abbas, nominally the president of the Palestinian Authority, and the party he leads, Fatah, have begun to seem, fairly or otherwise, creatures of Israel and the West. At the very moment that Fatah, whose headquarters were bombed into rubble by Israel in the time of Yasser Arafat, is being hailed by Israel and America as the legitimate representative of all Palestinians and their only bridge to a Palestinian state, Hamas has become, in the eyes of most Palestinians and Arabs, the emblem of that aspiration.

At a time like this we need to ask if solidarity with Gazans in particular and Palestinians in general is the same thing as solidarity with Hamas and its objectives, and the answer to that must be, no, it isn’t the same thing. It is a tragedy (and the prime movers in this tragedy are the United States of America and Israel) that the remarkable, secular struggle for a genuinely independent Palestine has come to a pass where a sectarian, Islamist party is seen as the last best hope of a beleaguered people.

Hamas was founded just over twenty years ago as the Palestinian chapter of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Arab version of India’s Jamiat-e-Islami. Its extraordinary success in supplanting Fatah can be measured by the fact that in less than twenty years of its founding, Hamas swept the parliamentary elections held in January 2006, winning a clear majority of seats. Fatah’s rout (it won less than a third of the total number of parliamentary places) was partly on account of its well-deserved reputation for corruption, but mainly because the long promised two-state solution, put forward by the US and that slippery creature, the international community, began to seem like a cruel mirage. Since Fatah had signed on to the two-state idea and had got nothing in exchange (except for the bantustan sponsored by President Clinton and accelerated Jewish settlement on the West Bank), it began to be seen as both corrupt and co-opted by the enemy. After Yasser Arafat’s death, American and Israeli patronage of the more pliant (or less intransigent) Abu Mazen confirmed this impression.

Hamas moved quickly to fill this vacant nationalist space. Its maximalist vision (Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and sees as its object an Islamic Palestinian state encompassing all of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank), the goodwill it has earned by its charitable work and its reputation for armed jihad resonated with a Palestinian population brutalized by the Israeli occupation and desperate for inspirational leadership.

Hamas’s legitimacy and its heroic credentials were confirmed when the Western powers, acting in concert with Israel, refused to recognize the results of the 2006 elections because the party they preferred, Fatah, hadn’t won. Denied a power-sharing arrangement in the West Bank, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip by violently ousting Fatah members from administrative and security positions. In retaliation, Israel blockaded Gaza, the European Union and the US imposed sanctions on Hamas, and the ‘international community’ acquiesced in the punishment of a population guilty only of voting in a free and fair election.

Hamas began rocketing southern Israel partly to show it couldn’t be cowed, but mainly to protest the economic strangulation of Gaza. Israel’s policy of collective punishment was explicit: an Israeli general described one particular blockade as a way of “putting Gazans on a diet”.

So it isn’t difficult to understand why Hamas has come to symbolize the resistance to the occupation to Palestinians and to people the world over who feel a sense of solidarity with Palestinians. But though Hamas speaks for Palestinians at this moment in the present, it cannot, indeed must not, embody their future. Whether you support a two-state solution or the more utopian vision of a single state for Jews and Arabs alike, Hamas’s version of Palestine is likely to be antithetical to it and to any just or workable resolution of the Palestinian question.

Israel’s propagandists point to the anti-Jewish feeling that disfigures Hamas’s documents; they cite the influence of discredited conspiracy theories like the Protocols of Zion; they invoke Iran’s aid to Hamas and its potential nuclear threat to Israel’s existence. Jeffrey Goldberg, once an Israeli army officer, now an American journalist, tells of the time when a Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, confirmed to him that he believed a passage of scripture suggested that God had turned disobedient Jews into apes and pigs; in this way do Hamas’s enemies seek to shape world opinion by invoking the spectre of anti-semitism and the Holocaust. It’s hard to judge without a working knowledge of Arabic how accurate these citations in English are and it’s increasingly hard to take Western reportage on any aspect of the Palestinian question seriously.

But Hamas doesn’t have to be anti-semitic for sensible Indians to oppose its vision for the future, even as they acknowledge its current service to the Palestinian cause. It is enough for us to know that Hamas is at once a nationalist party and a fundamentalist Muslim organization that envisions the Palestinian nation as an Islamic state. Its leaders claim that Muslims, Jews and Christians can co-exist under ‘the wing of an Islamic state’, but surely the point is, why would any Palestinian Christian struggle to build an Islamic state, leave alone live in it. Nationalism and self-determination aren’t in themselves laudable things. Palestinian suffering can’t be the only raison d’être for a Palestinian state — that state must contain within itself a pluralist commitment to equality, to equal co-existence. Why would someone like Edward Said give his life to intellectually opposing a majoritarian Jewish state if its successor was to be a majoritarian Muslim nation? Why would the Palestinian struggle have a claim on our solidarity, if it’s only goal was to create yet another denominational state?

A radical friend of mine objected to my characterization of Hamas as a fundamentalist and sectarian party. Think of its extraordinary record of public service, he said, the schools it runs, the hospitals and orphanges that it has built, the commitment it has shown to constructively improving the lot of the Palestinian people. I had to point out to him that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh could claim credit for exactly the same achievements. And since he wouldn’t want Indian Muslims, Christians and Sikhs to live in an India defined by Hindutva, we should be wary of a party like Hamas that would have Christians, Jews and Muslims live in a state defined by political Islam. Paradoxically, then, even as we empathize with the sufferings of Palestinians in Gaza and admire the fortitude of their leaders in their rearguard action against the Israeli assault, we should hope that when Palestine comes into being, it will leave behind it the narrow, sectarian nationalism of Hamas.