Gaza & other Palestinian crises need political action, not just “Bandaids”

Helena Cobban Blog, Gaza, Human rights, Humanitarian affairs, International law, Palestine

For the past eleven years of the Israeli siege of Gaza– or actually, for the past 70 years of the Palestinian refugee crisis in Gaza and elsewhere– numerous well-meaning people around the world, Palestinians and others, have worked tirelessly to try to ease the suffering involved. This is, of course, a good thing– but it is not nearly enough! The many forms of suffering of the Palestinian people are, after all, not the result of a natural disaster, but completely man-made. And only political action by various actors in the world community– undertaken with the goal of ensuring that all the people of the area of historic Palestinian can enjoy their full human rights— will end this suffering.

Around the world, various governments have started to take some first actions in this direction, in response to the recent wave of Israeli killings in Gaza. On June 13, the UN General Assembly met in a special “Emergency Session” and adopted, by 120 votes to eight (with 45 abstentions) a resolution (PDF here), stating that the UNGA,

“deplores the use of any excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate force by the Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and particularly in the Gaza Strip, including the use of live ammunition against civilian protesters, including children, as well as medical personnel and journalists, and expresses its grave concern at the loss of innocent lives.”

The resolution also, “demand[ed] that Israel, the occupying Power, refrain from such actions and fully abide by its legal obligations and responsibilities” under the fourth Geneva Convention; and that the Secretary-General, within 60 days, present  “proposals on ways and means for ensuring the safety, protection and well-being of the Palestinian civilian population under Israeli occupation, including “recommendations regarding an international protection mechanism.”

An international protection mechanism could be a good step forward– though it is almost impossible to see that Israel would ever allow a protection force to be deployed in the areas their military occupies– or, that the U.S. government, which is Israel’s main international backer, would ever put pressure on Tel Aviv to allow this to happen. (And the United States, of course, still enjoys a veto in the U.N. Security Council, which would have to be the body authorizing any protection force.)

But a “protection mechanism” would still not, in and of itself, restore to the Palestinians inside and outside their homeland the rights that have been denied them for the past 70 years. For that, a final peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis is still sorely needed.

Within the United States and most other “Western” nations, however, rational discussion of any part of the Palestine Question tends to run aground pretty quickly whenever Hamas is mentioned. Whenever concerned individuals ask for an easing of the siege against Gaza or the lessening of any of the measures Israel takes against Palestinians– or even, for the restoration of the Palestinians’ long-denied basic rights– they are very speedily confronted by a massed chorus of Prime Minister Netanyahu and all his acolytes in the U.S. elite saying, “But, Khamas!!!” (Many of these people, for some reason, like to mis-pronounce the organization’s name in this way.)

And too often, in discussions in the United States and elsewhere, when the well-funded hobgoblins of hasbara (Israeli propaganda) say “But, Khamas!” that is a  conversation-stopper– and an action-stopper, too.

Often, indeed, the people who’ve been expressing their concern about Israel’s gross rights violations will even insert into their expressions of concern some disclaimer to the effect, “I don’t support Hamas, but–” or “Of course, Hamas has committed violations, too” — even if they present no additional evidence that this is the case.

Hamas has been very thoroughly demonized in the political discourse in the West. It has gotten to the point that many or most of the people who could or should be allies for the Palestinians in their 70-decade quest for basic human rights simply fall silent when the Hasbara Hordes bring forth the “But, Khamas!” argument. (Which of course, is no real argument at all.)

This is, of course, very reminiscent of the way that, back in the era of Apartheid in South Africa, the South African leaders and their allies in the West would close down any discussion of the project to assure basic human rights for all South Africans by simply denouncing the ANC, or ANC leaders like Nelson Mandela, as “terrorists”. Case closed.

Hamas, yes, also has the “terrorist” label firmly hung around its neck. But it has been more than 20 years now since the organization carried out campaigns of targeting civilians for political purposes that could accurately be described as “terrorist.” And in the interim– in a series of developments that few Americans seem to remember these days– Hamas was actually courted by the US and Israeli governments in 2005, as they sought to organize elections of a new  “legislative council” for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, which would enjoy a significant popular mandate. Thus, in late 2005, working mainly through government/intelligence forces in Egypt as intermediaries, Israel and Washington negotiated with Hamas the terms of its participation in the legislative elections scheduled for January 2006.

And here’s the thing: Hamas participated in those elections peaceably and in good faith. It did so, through a “front” organization called the “Justice and Reform Party”, which everybody involved knew was really just Hamas. Hamas’s participation in the elections was recognized by international observers from the EU, the Carter Center and elsewhere as having been conducted in good order and according the rules. Those same monitors deemed the elections as a whole to have been conducted freely and fairly.

Then, Hamas won.

And then, the wrath of the Israelis, the Americans, and the US-funded Palestinian ruling party, Fateh, was brought down upon Hamas like a fire from hell.

The first action of the aggrieved threesome was a largely successful campaign to prevent the Justice & Reform (Hamas) bloc in the new parliament from forming a government. One tactic they used was to threaten to kill any independent legislators who would join a Hamas-led government. (I know. I was the conduit for one such threat.)

So what they achieved on this front was to bring about the establishment of two separate Palestinian governments– one in the West Bank headed by Fateh and its cronies and the other in Gaza, headed by Hamas. All the external funding that was earmarked for the PA went to the Ramallah-based Fateh “government”, of course. The Israeli military helped to strengthen the base of that government in the West Bank by arresting legislators from Hamas and other anti-Fateh factions– many of them are still in jail.

The next campaign of the anti-Hamas threesome was a plan to topple the Gaza-based Hamas leadership/government by force. US General Keith Dayton, who was “advising” the Fateh leaders on security matters, worked speedily– with the help of Fateh security boss Mohammad Dahlan– to build up a Palestinian, anti-Hamas “intervention force”. But then in June 2007, when this force was just about ready to launch its coup in Gaza, the Hamas leaders pre-empted them, cracking down on all the Dayton/Dahlan conspirators in the Strip and dismantling all their structures there. (Israel conveyed the dismayed survivors of the crackdown across Israeli territory so they could re-group in the West Bank.)

… So that is an essential part of the political backstory for all the woes that have been visited on Gaza since 2007.

It’s important to understand this part of the Hamas story for a number of reasons. Firstly, Hamas’s well-ordered participation in the legislative elections of 2006 gives the lie to the ugly libel that the organization still relies on terror to win its goals.

(Yes, there are perhaps valid questions to be raised about the targeting of the missiles that Hamas uses during military exchanges– often Israeli-initiated– with Israel. But perhaps if Hamas had access to precision-guidance systems of the kinds that Israel has, its missiles would be more “discriminating” than they have been so far… And anyway, the “balance” of casualties on both side during the massive Israeli assault of summer 2014 showed that Israel suffered ways more military losses than civilian ones, while the Gaza Palestinians suffered a much, much higher proportion of civilian losses than Israel did. And the picture has been even more skewed in the direction of high civilian losses on the Gaza-Palestinian side in the events of this year.)

Secondly, and more broadly, if a political resolution is to be found to the Palestine-Israel conflict at any point in the coming decade (as I deeply hope), then Hamas along with the other significant Palestinian movements will clearly have to be a part of it. So people in the “West” who want to see such such a resolution need to understand where this movement is coming from, and what its goals are, just as they do with all the other Palestinian movements. Just holding up “Khamas” as an unspeakable bogey-man is not sufficient. And indeed, Hamas has undergone significant political evolution over the 31 years of its existence. Though a large proportion of Palestinians, inside the homeland and outside it, have now lost any hope that a viable two-state “solution” can be found to the Palestine Question, the Hamas leadership clearly still seems prepared to entertain the thought that the two-state option might be a viable way forward, provided it is accompanied by a wide-reaching “truce” with Israel.

Is Israel interested in such a truce? I very much doubt it– and just as strongly, I doubt that this administration in Washington will do anything to urge them to support such a step.

However, over recent months and years significant new political forces inside the United States have now started to question the value of the rock-solid support of Israel that Washington has hewed to ever since 1993. So there is a new open-ness to looking at questions not just of protecting Palestinians in the short-term but also of working to assure their rights in a lasting way in new ways. This search for new policies to assure the rights of all persons in Palestine must, if it is to succeed, deal rationally and fairly with the role of Hamas.

“But, Khamas!” can no longer be allowed to cut off this discussion.