Transcript of Helena Cobban presentation at Westmoreland Church, April 21, 2024

What follows is the transcript of the audio report that Helena released about the presentation she gave under the title “Hamas: A Primer”, at Westmoreland Church in Bethesda, MD, on April 21, 2024. The audio report contains a 4-minute introduction and the remainder of it is the audio recorded during the event itself. This transcript, which still needs some further editing, covers only Helena’s main presentation, though the Q&A session that followed it was also extremely rich and continued another 40 minutes.

You can see the slides she used during the event here.

Here, anyway, is the transcript:

Helena Cobban (00:00:00):

Hi, everybody. I’m Helena Cobban. I’m the president of Just World Educational, a small educational nonprofit headquartered here in Washington, DC. And I also have a publishing company that I run called Just World Books, which has published many excellent titles by Palestinian and Zionism-questioning Jewish authors.

I grew up in England, and over the course of a long career of writing about Palestine and other global issues, I have conducted numerous reporting tours in Gaza, other parts of Palestine, and all the other parts of West Asia, the area also known as the Middle East, where large concentrations of Palestinians exiled from their homeland have long been forced to live. And I’ve had the opportunity over the course of many years to interview numerous leaders of and activists within Hamas and all the other Palestinian political movements. In March 2024, the Middle East Committee of Westmoreland Church, which is a very active UCC congregation, located on the borderline between Maryland and Washington, DC, invited me to go and speak to their members on the topic, Hamas A Primer.

Helena Cobban (00:01:21):

I was pleased to take up this invitation as it is my strong belief, based on the copious available evidence,  that this Palestinian organization has been subjected for decades now to systematic demonization and smearing by the Israeli authorities and by many political leaders here in the United States. And it’s also my strong belief that the terrible now-genocidal level of strife within Gaza and the rest of Palestine cannot be ended unless all the longstanding attempts to destroy Hamas and to exclude it from any peace efforts are also ended. In short, if the peoples of Palestine and Israel are to win the kind of hopeful sustainable peace that they yearn for, and so sorely deserve, then a way must be found to integrate this movement, Hamas, within the peacemaking diplomacy, rather than continuing to exclude and to try to destroy it. And for this to happen, it would be very helpful if citizens and leaders around the world, including here in the United States, could gain a much fuller and more accurate understanding than is generally available of the root development and dynamic of this sizable movement within the Palestinian Body Politic.

Helena Cobban (00:02:44):

The event at Westmoreland Church took place on April 21st, 2024, and took the form of an, of a conversation conducted for the first 35 minutes by longtime Middle East Committee member Robert Mertz. In the second half of the program, several attendees at the gathering asked questions, both in person from the church parlor and online via the event’s well-populated Zoom feed. All those questions were thoughtful and seemed to represent a sincere desire among these attendees to learn more and understand more about Hamas. The recording that follows missed out the lovely welcome and centering prayer that Middle East Committee head, Maryn Goodson, delivered, and also the portion where Robert Mertz introduced me along with the first question that he posed to me. Also, later in the recording, you’ll hear me and Maryn Goodson referring to a list of resources that appear on the screen. That list of resources can be found in the program notes accompanying this episode. So now, here is the audio of the conversation in Westmoreland Church. Robert Mertz’s, first question to me was, “What is Hamas?” And here is how the conversation then went.

Helena Cobban (00:04:06):

So what is Hamas? My friend Rami Khouri, who’s a Palestinian journalist and intellectual and analyst of many years standing, says when people ask him this question, his response is it’s just like the Republican Party. And that is a bit of a jaw dropper, but he goes on to explain that there are very good people in both organizations who volunteer at homeless kitchens, homeless encampments, soup kitchens, organize church suppers, do all kinds of good deeds– and there are a few really crazy people, and there’s a bunch of people in between who have strongly held views, and are generally socially conservative. So I think that’s a really helpful frame for Hamas to say that it’s like the Republican Party.

Helena Cobban (00:05:20):

I would also say that when we hear about Hamas in our Western corporate media, it’s always about atrocities and violence and intransigence. And what is very little understood is the extensive civilian organization that Hamas has, and from which it was born back in 1987. It has extensive social service wings. It has political, educational and military wings, but people in the West tend to hear only about what’s happening in the military wing, what that’s doing. The political leadership is currently based in Qatar, which in case you don’t know is actually an ally of the United States and hosts a major US military base.  So that’s kind of interesting to me. They may be about to be get thrown out of Qatar, I don’t know, in which case they’re most likely to move to Turkey, which is also a US ally and a full member of NATO. So there are a lot of things that we need to unpack and understand about this organization. It also has extensive diplomatic links with governments around the world: governments in the Middle East, or as I call it, West Asia, and governments like South Africa. A lot of governments– in Latin America, Moscow, China, Pakistan, a lot of major governments around the world — have a permanent or semi-permanent Hamas liaison relationship. So it’s not just what you see on the news.

Robert Mertz (00:07:08):

Well, that’s a very good open opening. And I can remember apropos of what you just said, that Pamela and I had lunch with an American woman in Gaza back in 2005 who said that Hamas would probably win the elections because they fixed the potholes in the roads, and they had schools and clinics and things like that. And it wasn’t just about their militancy or their political agenda.

What can you tell us about the charter and what Hamas’ objectives were and are?

Helena Cobban (00:07:41):

Okay, so let’s go to the key points slide. So, Hamas was founded, and I’ve got the dates right here, late 1987 at the time of the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. So prior to that, there had been extensive Muslim social service networks in the occupied territories that had been actually somewhat encouraged by the Israelis because they were an alternative or counter to the secular nationalist networks in those occupied territories. So then when the Intifada broke out, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was that parent organization, said, “we have to jump into the political game as well”, since prior to that they had been mainly focused on piety and religious observance, and you know, that is a very long-term thing just to build a pious society. So then, in August 1988, Hamas issued its first charter, and it had a deeply religious focus, and it stated that “the usurpation by the Jews of the Land of Palestine” was directly descended from the Crusader kingdoms of the 11th to 13th century.

Helena Cobban (00:09:05):

So an eight-century-long grievance is evoked, where non-Muslim powers were coming in and usurping Muslim Palestinian land.

And then in 1993, I was actually on the White House lawn when Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin and President Clinton signed the Oslo Accords, which was an agreement between Israel and Arafat’s organization, the PLO. And they agreed to finish negotiations by mid-1999 for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the occupied Palestinian Territories, which would be like an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel with mutual recognition and presumably some form of mutual non-intervention between these two independent states. And they would complete that negotiation by the end of 1999. Hamas at that point, strongly opposed the division of the, the land of Palestine. So they strongly opposed the Oslo Accords. Under Oslo, as you may recall, Arafat and the PLO returned to the West Bank and Gaza, but not to East Jerusalem, sadly, which is part of the occupied West Bank.

Helena Cobban (00:10:43):

And Arafat and his headquarters set up in Ramallah, a Christian Palestinian town a little bit north of Jerusalem. Hamas was strongly opposed to that whole process. And then shortly thereafter, in February 1994, a US-born Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, went on an armed rampage in the ancient Hebron mosque and killed 29 worshipers. It was just horrendous, obviously, for everybody who was there praying. And actually many of the worshipers got together and were able to subdue him and I think they managed to strangle him before he killed any anybody else. But after the Goldstein massacre, Hamas started sending suicide bombers against civilian targets in Israel. And it was a terrible time for Israelis, and it was a terrible time for Palestinians as well, because obviously the Israelis had the military in the West Bank in Gaza, and they cracked down very hard.

Helena Cobban (00:11:47):

And Arafat’s PLO and Fateh helped Israel to crack down on Hamas. So remember the promise was that the negotiations for an independent Palestinian state would be completed by 1999. Parenthetically, at the United Nations Security Council, just this past week, our government, the United States government vetoed a resolution that called for recognition of an independent Palestinian state. So these issues are still very alive today. So by 2000, it had become clear to the Palestinians there was not going to be an independent Palestinian state. So you had the outbreak of the second Intifada in which Hamas and some of the Fateh grassroots actually collaborated. And once again, the Israelis cracked down very harshly.

Helena Cobban (00:13:06):

Then in 2005, Prime Minister Sharon pulled Israeli settlers and troops out of the interior of Gaza, because it was too difficult for them to control what was going on in Gaza. They kept tight Israeli control of all of Gaza’s borders, which is why under international law, everybody says that even after 2005, Israel remained the occupying power in Gaza because it retained effective security control over everything that went in or out. And that means that it continues, and has continued since 1967, to be bound by the Geneva conventions regarding what an occupying power can do. And parenthetically, there, you know, a military occupation is supposed to be a short-term thing like the US military occupation in Germany, after 1945 lasted seven to nine years, Japan, seven to nine years, the US military occupation of Iraq lasted nine years. This occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has gone on for 57 years. You know, it’s become deeply entrenched and, and hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers have been implanted in the occupied territories, which is completely outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.

Anyway, 2005. So Sharon, the United States and Fateh agreed as part of this rearrangement of the Israeli occupation to hold new elections for the PA Parliament to be held in January 2006. This is what Robert had been talking about, and really intriguingly Hamas agreed to join those elections. There had previously been parliamentary elections in 1996, and because they were under the auspices of Oslo, Hamas did not participate in 1996. In 2006, two things happened. One was that Hamas agreed to take part in these elections, which were still under the auspices of Oslo and the two-state framework, but also the US and Israel agreed to let them do so. And there must have been, I’m sure there were, some negotiations over how that was done. Actually, Hamas didn’t use its own name. It called itself the Change and Reform Party.

Helena Cobban (00:15:29):

And they participated in good order in elections that were certified by the Carter Center and other organizations to have been free and fair elections in January 2006. And guess who won the elections? Hamas won the elections, so that was a complete blow to the US and Israel, who had been obviously rooting for, and hoping, and supporting Fateh in those elections. So they immediately started planning a coup to overthrow the PA’s newly elected PM and the following year, 2007, they were just about to launch the coup. Hamas actually preempted it so that’s when you had the separation of Hamas exercising civilian control in Gaza and Fateh exercising civilian control over little points of land, little, tiny blobs of land, within the West Bank, but not the whole of the West Bank with all the settlers there.

Helena Cobban (00:16:43):

In 2007, Israel started its tough siege of Gaza with US backing, and it punctuated that with periodic punishment campaigns that were very deadly.  Sometimes 1500 people would be killed, sometimes 200, sometimes 500, and they call those “mowing the lawn”, which I think is an obscene expression. But in Israel and Palestine, everybody knows what it means. So under this circumstance of siege with periodic assaults in May 2017, the Hamas leaders, and remember what I said at the beginning, these are not just the Hamas leaders in Gaza. Wherever there are Palestinians, there is Hamas, inside Israel, amongst the Palestinian refugee communities, in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, in the Gulf. So in 2017, the leaders all got together and adopted a new revised charter. And it’s very important that people understand the changes that they made in this charter.

Helena Cobban (00:17:58):

It removed all the antisemitic language that had been in the earlier charter. It was much more focused on Palestinian political issues and less on the piety stuff — I shouldn’t call it that. Anyway, you know what I mean. And it opened the door a little bit more toward accepting a two-state solution. Something that, as I noted, had been presaged in 2005, 2006, when they agreed to take part in these elections. And they stressed that Hamas was now quite separate from the Muslim Brotherhood, which they had to do, really, because the Muslim Brotherhood is very harshly oppressed in Egypt in particular, and has been since 2013. So, since Egypt is the only country that has a tiny land border with Gaza, it’s important for them to have a continuing relationship with the government in Egypt. Sorry it took so long, but there’s a quick history.

Robert Mertz (00:18:58):

I think it’s very important to understand, particularly the point that you make about the fact that their sort of geographic scope is now focused on the West Bank and Gaza. It’s not focused on what is called Israel today. So let’s jump forward then to October 7th, and what was actually the purpose of that?

Helena Cobban (00:19:24):

So, October 7th really came as a huge shock to everybody in Israel. It wasn’t just the number of people who were killed, which was roughly 1,160. It wasn’t just the number of people who were kidnapped. It was the fact that the entire security concept that Israel had followed since 1948 was punctured overnight, like within hours, like all their extensive military that is capable of flying hither and yon and bombing people here, there, and everywhere, that has been capable, with the help of Google and other US high tech industries, of controlling all these people in the occupied territories. Suddenly, they were incapable of stopping this breakout from the concentration camp that Gaza had been since 2007. So, the Hamas people who did it were smart, sophisticated. They had been planning for a very long time.

Helena Cobban (00:20:40):

They had looked at all the surveillance towers that Israel maintained around Gaza, and they figured out how to use drones to disable this entire concentration-camp surveillance system, which, you know the Israelis had been relying on to keep the concentration camp enclosed. As a result, not just the Hamas operatives — Hamas had a plan they were going to follow, and which they followed — they were going to disable the surveillance system. Then they were going to break out through maybe five or six locations and go to pre-planned Israeli military units, including the Gaza Command headquarters, which was in this place called Re’im, where there was also the music festival. But they took over all these command posts and took the commanders with them and killed many military people in these command posts.

Helena Cobban (00:21:56):

As you know, if you read the accounts of who was killed on October 7th that are in Ha’aretz and other Israeli newspapers, something like 40% of the people who were killed were either military or they were the guards for these little kibbutzes and Israeli communities. There were, of course, a lot of civilian casualties. There were civilians taken hostage. So I think taking the hostages was a big part of the goal, but the main part of the goal was to puncture the Israeli sense of self-satisfaction and that they had a working strategic concept that relied on all this high-tech stuff, and they didn’t have to put their soldiers on the front line. And they [Hamas] completely punctured that. It took the Israeli military between three and five days to be able to regain control of all that area because their military was in chaos.

Helena Cobban (00:23:06):

It had been blinded. The Gaza envelope, which was designed to envelop Gaza, had completely failed. They did send in Apache helicopters and tanks to try to regain this land. And in the course of those battles, many civilians were killed. It’s not clear by whom. It is clear that some were killed by the Israeli military, some were killed by the Gaza people. And the other point about this is that once Hamas had done the breakout from the Gaza concentration camp, other people in the concentration camp were like “I’m going out of here. I’m going to go and loot. I’m going to go and see my grandfather’s farm that he had been forced to leave in 1948.” People were like, wow, we can get out of the concentration camp.

Helena Cobban (00:24:10):

So there was a lot of just completely uncontrolled activity — some people call them the riffraff of Gaza, but just regular people. So you had a lot of things going on there. Of course, the way it’s portrayed by the Israeli media machine is that Hamas was focused on killing and raping Israelis and kidnapping civilians. That is the story that they have unbelievably successfully been able to peddle, including to President Biden, who came out within a few days and said something like, “I’ve seen pictures of the 40 beheaded babies.” There were no 40 beheaded babies. You look at the accounts in Ha’aretz or other Israeli media, and there was, I think, one toddler aged two who was killed. There were a handful of children up to the age of 18.

I forget exactly how many, there is no record anywhere of any of these, whether children, babies, or adults, being beheaded. But they had so successfully gotten into Joe Biden’s brain that he said this thing, “I’ve seen pictures of the 40 beheaded babies.” And the whole story about the mass rapes came out very much later because that was another deliberate campaign. Now, of course, there were some terrible killings. There were some abductions of civilians as we know, but this was not what Hamas had been intending. I have to say that when I started writing about this, I would call what happened on October 7th, from Hamas’ point of view, a catastrophic success. They did beyond a doubt puncture Israeli sense that they have a strategic concept that works, and the Israelis are still — in the government and the military and the think tanks –trying to figure out how you repair that strategic concept.

Helena Cobban (00:26:47):

And it was always based on deterrence. So deterrence has to be reestablished through even more violent acts. That’s how deterrence works, whether you’re talking about US deterrence or Soviet deterrence back in the day, or Israeli deterrence now. So that’s kind of the best that we can do. I do have some resources that I’m going to share at the end here on the slide, because I’ve pulled together a sort of a first reading list. There was an excellent in-depth investigation carried out by Al Jazeera into the military actions that happened on October 7th, which is definitely worth looking at. So you, you’ll find references to this in the reading list that I’m going to share later.

Robert Mertz (00:27:37):

In addition to the bilateral considerations you just illuminated, were there any things happening in the broader Arab world or the West, that were perhaps changing the political dynamics that Hamas was reacting to?

Helena Cobban (00:27:58):

Absolutely. And it’s not just that they were reacting, they were also acting. I wrote an article that came out a couple of months ago about the big changes in the global balance of power that happened in 2023 prior to October, that actually enabled and provided the context in which Hamas could act. And the biggest one of these was that in March 2023, the Chinese government was able to unveil a diplomatic initiative that nobody in the West knew they were undertaking, which was a reconciliation between the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia. So why is this important? This is important because for many, many years Saudi Arabia has been like the linchpin of US planning, how do we contain or roll back Iranian power and suddenly the government of Saudi Arabia is having a reconciliation with Iran. That’s bad enough, but who gets to broker the reconciliation? China!

Helena Cobban (00:29:21):

Well, how did that happen? Like nobody in this country had an idea that it was underway, which also is, is a blow to the conceit of the people in the American military that they can surveil everybody’s diplomatic communications worldwide. They didn’t have a clue what was happening. So, what happened in terms of Hamas is that this thing between Saudi Arabia and Iran for a long time was stoked by the West on the basis of its Shiites against Sunnis. So the Sunnis are most of the Arab countries with some exceptions, and the Shiites are Iran. So suddenly they’re making friends again. Now that’s important for Hamas because until 2011, Hamas, which is a Sunni Muslim organization, had had a very close military and operational relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is a Shiite organization. And then, when the Syrian civil war happened, which had a lot of sectarian — Shiite versus Sunni — aspects to it, Hezbollah was fighting with the Syrian government, and Hamas was fighting against them–not openly, but supporting the people who were fighting against the Syrian government. That operational relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah was broken by the Syrian civil war from roughly 2012 until this reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia that happened last year. So, you know, you may not have noticed…

Helena Cobban (00:31:26):

Since roughly late spring of last year, Hamas and Hezbollah have been back in touch with each other. And Hamas has big organizations in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. They are back in good touch with Hezbollah in Lebanon. So that’s real, and has been really important. And now, for example, you see the biggest support, overt support, for Hamas and for a ceasefire in Gaza that you see anywhere in the Arab world comes from this organization in Yemen called the Houthis. Their real name is Ansar Allah. They are essentially a Shiite organization, but they are very, very active in support of a ceasefire to the embarrassment of the US Navy. So I think that reconciliation was a big thing. And there were other big geopolitical shifts in 2023 that that preceded October 7th.

Robert Mertz (00:32:44):

 What about where do we go from here? How does Hamas, which has now changed its charter to focus on the West Bank and Gaza, which would be similar to Fateh, I would assume, does this mean that there’s a possibility for a coordinated Palestinian policy, or does the lingering conflict between the PA and Hamas preclude that.

Helena Cobban (00:33:24):

Great question, one that I’ve been working on quite a lot. So I think there are two dimensions to this. The first is relations between Fateh and Hamas, which, you know, have been very fraught for a long time. But they have also periodically throughout all this past period had attempts to reconcile their differences. So most recently, I think it was in February of this year, high-level leaders from both Fateh and Hamas did engage in talks about reconciliation, and where did they take place? In Moscow, so it’s really fascinating to see the geopolitics of this as well as the local politics. Now, there are Arab countries like Algeria that are also pushing very hard for a reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas. So it may well happen. So that’s the internal Palestinian dimension.

Helena Cobban (00:34:39):

Of course, the US government is deeply opposed to this reconciliation, as of now. Let’s hope that changes. So as to whether Hamas is edging toward recognition of Israel and accepting a two-state solution, I think it’s early to say that. I think they’ve put out some useful messages of their readiness. To me, this is most reminiscent of what happened with the PLO back in the 1970s and 1980s, because the PLO had originally had as its goal the creation of a secular democratic state in the whole of historic Palestine, that is, there would be no separate Israeli state.

Helena Cobban (00:35:39):

And then in the 1970s, they started moving, and I was working as a journalist in Beirut at this time. They started moving toward the idea of accepting what they called a mini state in just the territories occupied in 1967. And when I wrote my book on the PLO, which came out in 1984, they were still working towards this. And actually in the late eighties, my spouse, Bill Quandt, and I were involved in helping to open a diplomatic channel between the PLO and the Reagan administration. It was George Shultz. And we helped to establish that so that they could test each other. And that, for better or for worse, it is part of what preceded the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Helena Cobban (00:36:42):

So that was hard for Fateh and the PLO to jettison its claim for the whole of Palestine being a secular democratic state. And to say, we will put up with just a mini state. So Hamas is going through something very, very similar right now. And there are so many parallels. Like when when Fateh did it originally, they said that the mini state would be a step on the road to the secular democratic state in the whole of Palestine. That’s similar to what you hear from Hamas. Now, the leaders who are saying perhaps we could have an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, parenthetically, that would be alongside Israel. So what stands in the way of this happening right now is a lot of things. One is our government, as I alluded to earlier, which is refusing to recognize the Palestinians’ right to an independent state.

Helena Cobban (00:37:46):

Although the Israelis’ right to an independent Jewish state in Palestine, at the level of international law, stems only from the UN’s partition resolution of 1947, which said there will be a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine. So, if one of them gets the the birth certificate and the other has the birth certificate annulled, well, first of all, it’s not for the United States to be able to do that, except that we have the veto. So we have to figure out how to overcome– it will take a global effort to overcome these really damaging US vetoes. And we need here in the United States to be part of that global effort to overcome the US veto on a ceasefire, and to overcome the US veto on an independent Palestinian state.

Do we think that Hamas and the vast majority of Palestinians would be satisfied with an independent Palestinian state just in the lands occupied in 1967?  I don’t know. I’m not Palestinian. That’s for them to decide it. Would the Israelis be satisfied with an independent Israeli state that is just in the areas that it occupied prior to 1967? I don’t know. I would say that they are going to be far more of an obstacle because they have gotten used to ruling over the whole of Jerusalem. And that annexation has been recognized by our government. They’ve gotten used to ruling over Golan, and that annexation has been supported by our government, and they’ve gotten used to putting their settlers, who of course are heavily armed and often extremely lethal to their Palestinian neighbors, they’ve gotten used to having those throughout the whole of the West Bank. So, the obstacles in the way of a two -state solution or a two-state situation, to a two-state formula, let’s call it, the obstacles are not currently mainly on the Palestinian side. They are mainly on the US-Israeli side. But what is, what is supportive of the independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the two-state formula, is that the vast majority of the governments of the world say that this is what needs to happen. So, that’s where you have diplomatic momentum still, and I can’t predict.

Robert Mertz (00:40:49):

No, I think you’ve covered an awful lot of territory, and I think maybe we should open it up to, to questions at this point, because I’m sure there are a lot.