Who's Hating On Hamas?

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At the start of the current invasion of Gaza, technooccult caught Condoleezza Rice out on this claim "Rice sharply criticized Hamas, which she said has held the Gaza Strip hostage since illegally seizing power there in 2007". Actually, it was 2006 and the elections were widely recognised as fair and democratic.

Virginia Trioli made a similar clanger the other day on ABC Radio when she said: "No-one’s been able to properly scrutinise that election result … which was roundly described as corrupt." As Alex Mitchell pointed out in Crikey, Hamas in fact won the 2007 election to lead Palestine in what an EU monitoring mission described as "elections [which]saw impressive voter participation in an open and fairly contested electoral process that was efficiently administered by a professional and independent Palestinian Central Elections Commission."

If Secretaries of State and ABC journalists don’t know what’s going on, we thought we’d try the blogosphere. With a tip of our hat to Rice and Trioli, Blogwatch takes a look at the history of Hamas and the current conflict in Gaza.

So how did a militant Islamist party come to winning a free election? And why does Israel care?

Hamas was founded in Palestine in 1987 as the local political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the transnational Sunni movement which is also the world’s oldest and largest Islamic group. It was established on a platform of Palestinian nationalism and Islamism following the first intifada, Palestine’s uprising against Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza. Led by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas, while moving away from the Muslim Brotherhood’s ethos of non-violence, also played an important civic role in the Palestinian state.

As Stephen Zunes writes on Alternet, "Hamas began to emerge through the establishment of schools, health care clinics, social service organisations and other entities that stressed an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, which up to that point had not been very common among the Palestinian population."

WINston smITh at Lost Continents believes that through its provision of welfare, "Sheik Yassin and the future leaders of Hamas acquired a reputation for ‘clean’ governance and good administrative practices, which would greatly aid them — especially in comparison to the PLO, which was widely perceived as corrupt."

Hamas emerged as a player in the Palestinian political scene when the PLO, led by Yasser Arafat, was the very public face of the Palestinian resistance movement. Israel had embarked on an invasion of Lebanon to try to remove Arafat, but the Palestinian resistance remained for all intents and purposes united under his leadership. The PLO was secularist and leftist and, according to Paleo at the Daily Kos, Israel saw the potential to split the Palestinian movement by supporting Islamic groups like Hamas.

Middle East analyst Tony Cordesman agrees that Israel "aided Hamas directly — the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO".

Zunes elaborates: "While supporters of the secular PLO were denied their own media or right to hold political gatherings, the Israeli occupation authorities allowed radical Islamic groups to hold rallies, publish uncensored newspapers and even have their own radio station. For example, in the occupied Palestinian city of Gaza in 1981, Israeli soldiers — who had shown no hesitation in brutally suppressing peaceful pro-PLO demonstrations — stood by when a group of Islamic extremists attacked and burned a PLO-affiliated health clinic in Gaza for offering family-planning services for women."

Both Hamas and Israel dispute this chain of events. What is known for sure is that in the 1980s militant Islam usurped the leftist leadership of Middle Eastern radical politics. The Islamic Revolution had humiliated National Socialist Saddam Hussein and the United States; in Lebanon, Hezbollah was emerging to become the most active group fighting the Israeli invasion force; and in the mountains of Afghanistan, the mujahideen (including Osama Bin Laden) were turning back the Soviet Union. Militant Islam was succeeding where leftism failed, and Hamas was ready to join the fray.

Whereas initially Hamas had avoided a close relationship with Iran, "by 1990 when the first Intifada began, Hamas began to see Iran as an ally," writes American Thinker.

"Hamas recognised Iran as the emerging power of the region and by 1992 sent an official delegation to Tehran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khameinei. Pledging military and financial support, Iran received Hamas […] Hamas responded in kind, announcing that Hamas and Iran shared an ‘identical view in the strategic outlook toward the Palestinian cause in its Islamic dimension’."

The first Hamas suicide bombing took place in April 1993, five months before Arafat sealed the Oslo accords. He returned to Palestine as uncontested leader with a mandate to prevent the flourishing of Hamas. Indeed, as the Council on Foreign Relations registers, "Part of the conditions Israel imposed on Arafat were that the PLO would be responsible for keeping terrorist elements in Palestine under control — which suited Arafat fine — and he went on to set up special courts to try members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others."

Oslo, however, was a disaster for Arafat, compromising the PLO instead of entrenching it. The heroes of the Palestinian people became lethargic with Israeli and American money, attending too many press conferences and (in the eyes of many Palestinians) giving up too many inches to Israel for too few in return. Hamas seemed more and more credible to Palestinians compared to the PLO officials in ill-fitting foreign suits trailed by preposterous entourages.

The 2001 intifada and Israel’s 2002 assaults contributed to the surge in Hamas’s popularity. Although the attacks on Jenin and the siege of Ramallah would become the defining moments of the conflict in these years, Hamas gained its credibility not simply in the fighting, but afterwards. With the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure destroyed, "prospects for peace and statehood [were]even more remote […] Israeli closures and blockades sank the Palestinian economy into a serious depression" says Zunes. Suddenly the community centres, schools and clinics that Hamas had established became vital. The power of Hamas was demonstrated when the Israeli government decided to assassinate its leader Sheik Yassin in 2004, the same year Arafat died.

In 1993, "Hamas had the support of only 15 per cent of the Palestinian community" according to Zunes; by 2006 they would receive 44 per cent of the vote to defeat Fatah in elections.

And since the election, Israel has blockaded Gaza. Eric Margolis, writing in the HuffPo, doesn’t mince his words:

"Horrified that its stooges in the corrupt, US and Israeli-backed PLO/Fatah led by Mahmoud Abbas were routed, Israel and the US imposed a punishing blockade on Gaza aimed at starving its people into rejecting Hamas and accepting the puppet Fatah."

A six month ceasefire agreement was finally signed between Hamas and Israel on 19 June 2008. The ceasefire fell apart in November.

Now, a couple of months later and in the middle of Israel’s attempt to severely weaken Hamas, reports from within Gaza are emerging on the blogosphere and they have little to say about the politics of the organisation. From both sides, allegations of partial reporting threaten to drown out the commentary entirely.

Antoun Issa at Lebanese Chess published excerpts from the diary of a young woman living in Gaza. This is what she has to say:

"And so after Israel launched its military offensive against Gaza five days ago, claiming that offensive was a retaliation against Hamas firing rockets into Israel following the cessation of the period of calm, to many, the Israeli attacks were justified. Never mind that Israel failed to at least ease the siege that has been slowly killing us over the past year (to be more precise over the last three years.) Never mind that Israel continued its incursions into the strip and its murder of innocent civilians throughout the truce. Never mind that compared to Israeli gunships, war planes, tanks and other weaponry, Hamas rockets seem like toys. Never mind that our children are robbed of anything that resembles a normal life and future. And yet we are continuously accused of being on equal terms with one of the strongest military forces in the world."

Hamas rockets come in for a serve at American/Palestinian KABOBfest, who reckon there’s a reason Israelis emphasise the number of rockets launched (around 4200) rather than the number of civilisans killed (four, since hostilities recommenced): the rockets are crap. Can’t even crack the pavement, apparently.

The misperception of Hamas as a crack military force is dismissed by Adham Khalil at Electronic Intifada:

"It is not true to say this is a war between Hamas and Israel. I am an eyewitness in Gaza and though you may think that Gaza is a country and Hamas is a great and powerful army, these are lies. The Palestinian factions do not own tanks, warplanes, or warships. They have homemade rockets, simple weapons. They cannot do anything against Israel’s great and powerful army."

Again at KABOBfest, Mohammad is keeping a record of phone conversations with his family in Gaza:

"I asked to talk to my uncle but [my aunt]told me he had gone downstairs. The smoke was clearing out, but the explosions were very close by now. She didn’t have to say so; I could hear them. She said she wasn’t panicking anymore. When the bombs and missiles had been falling in the last couple of weeks, their sound and the carnage they wrought had driven her to hysterics. But now that they were so close, she saw that panicking wouldn’t help. We probably will die, she told me. We might as well accept it."

Laila El-Haddad, aka A Mother From Gaza, writing from the US also delivers news from a distance: "The fear is salient; it is suffocating; it is in the air, friends say, and no one knows what’s coming next, and there is no where to turn to except up in the Heavens above."

El-Haddad reports on the tactics being used to subdue Palestinian resistance that might be more familiar to those living in peaceful cities: "We’ve heard about the flyers the Israeli army is littering Gaza with — telling people Hamas is to blame for their woes, not their f-16s and cluster bombs. Now, they have taken to robo-calling the citizens of Gaza ala Hillary Clinton, at all times of the night and day."

It runs both ways, as the Guardian reports that Hamas is sending threatening text messages to Israeli mobile phones, a strategy described in more detail over at Sabbahblog.

For their part, the Israeli Defense Forces are blogging updates which emphasise Hamas as an armed organisation.

As bombs continue to fall on Gaza, the web isn’t only delivering eyewitness accounts, it’s hosting 140-character press conferences. The pick of Gaurav Mishra’s review of Web 2.0 propaganda must be the link to the New York Israeli Consulate’s Twitter activity: direct your questions to @israelconsulate. Asked under what conditions Israel would consider a ceasefire, the answer is snappy: "CF must ensure no more rockets on IL+ no arms smuggling. btw crossings for Human Aid r open and trucks are entering." Although there’s no authorised tweeting from Hamas, you’ll find more at @gazanews and Al Jazeera Gaza (@ajgaza)

And finally, as protestors gather all over the world to register their position on the invasion — out there on Second Life, the avatars are also on the march.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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