Last week, in Jerusalem, a journalist heard about a wise old Jewish man who had been going to the Wailing Wall to pray, twice a day, everyday, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out. She went to the Wailing Wall and there he was! She watched him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turned to leave, she approached him for an interview.
“I’m Rebecca Smith from DNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?”
“For about 60 years.”
“60 years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”
“I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for all our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”
“Amazing. Sir, how do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”
“Like I’m talking to a frickin’ wall.”
Hamas Won, Fair And Square
On a more serious note, welcome to the third Palestinian intifada. The first was with stones, the second a mix between non-violent and more violent means, and this one via a ballot box.
With Hamas’ landslide victory in the Palestinian elections breaking years of political stagnation, we are witnessing, right before our eyes, a chapter of history being made. All of us directly touched by this conflict are not only witnesses, but rather, actors who will define the path that this chapter will take. A key centerpiece in the coming global debate of when, if, and how the world will acknowledge the results of the Palestinian’s internationally-observed, free and democratic elections is still at its climax. Every involved person’s, organization’s and country’s moves are being calculated very carefully based on this new reality.
In an attempt to make sense of the rapidly moving situation following the elections, I pose the following for consideration.
The first irony of the situation is that the Palestinians practiced a form of democracy under occupation - possibly the first in world history. George Orwell would have had a ball with this. In a nutshell, Palestinians simply voted for their reality: a reality of a failed peace process, a road map that led into a Separation Wall, and a corrupt government that remained propped up by those same funds that are now being threatened to be cut off. Palestinians were fully aware that real democracy cannot be implemented under their difficult condition, but that did not stop them from holding elections for the third of their people that live under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians are also fully aware that elections are only part of the trappings of democracy and without the other elements — freedom of organizing, speech, assembly, press, etc — the elections will have been a wasted effort. Furthermore, after over a decade of live political interactions, or lack thereof, with Israelis, Palestinians have no illusions that better governing themselves will necessarily lead to the dismantling of the colonial occupation that suffocates their existence.
Secondly, Fatah, Yaser Arafat’s party, led itself, under Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a self-made defeat. President Abbas, steamrolled Palestinians through a process that brought about his own party’s downfall. This is definitely a first in this part of the world. Despite one’s political biases, it is apparent that President Abbas is attempting, through elections and other actions, to construct a state-building institution that has the potential to serve Palestinians long after his own rule. Whether this was an intended outcome or a by-product of a plan to bring Hamas into the political framework and break the historic monopoly Fatah has come to enjoy is yet to be learned, but regardless, the process is a healthy one. It may be true that President Abbas has done too little, too late, but we cannot forget the colossal mess that he inherited (and contributed to for so many years), both internally and with the unrelenting Israeli aggression breathing down his back.
The third irony of the times is that Israel’s strategy of ‘Unilateral Disengagement’ from Gaza failed and thus contributed to bringing Hamas to power. Even U.S. President Bush’s declaring Sharon “a man of peace” was not enough to cover the thin veneer on the disengagement’s death grip on Gaza. Such historic mistakes by Israel are not new. For example, when Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon after an occupation of more than 20 years it left under its control, until today, the Lebanese Shabba Farms, which remain a flashpoint. Likewise, the Gaza Disengagement still left Israel in violation of international law. To disengage settlements from Gaza and leave the occupation fully engaged was a strategy that even Hamas would have had a hard time designing as part of their election’s campaign. Israel is well known for making partial gestures, ones that serve a public relation agenda more than a peace agenda. This Israeli blunder is only outdone by the infamous “generous offer” scam that Israel made following the failed Camp David II talks, in essence, making “generous offers” among themselves and portraying to the world that the Palestinian side refused a feasible solution.
Three Potential Failures
The first potential failure would be to underestimate Hamas’ pragmatism and ability to change. The group’s past history of suicide bombings came initially as impetuous responses to the Hebron attack in February 1994 by Baruch Goldstein. Goldstein was a Jewish American-Israeli physician who killed 29 Muslims and injured 125 in cold blood in a shooting attack in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron as they were praying. Hamas pulled back from this deplorable activity, with occasional revenge attacks in response to particular attacks by the Israelis. The group was basically responsive to Arafat’s efforts to keep them from such acts until, in early 1996, a Hamas military leader, Yahya Ayyash, who had actually been responsible for a long-term cease-fire on the part of Hamas, was murdered by the Israeli Shin Bet (clearly with the approval of Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres), for rather cheap motives (simply to show the Israeli intelligence organization, Shin Bet, as capable of some kind of action after they had failed to protect Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from assassination by a Jewish extremist). Hamas then set off a series of suicide bombs that were a principle reason that Shimon Peres lost the election that year to Netanyahu. That’s the pattern: Hamas attacking, often in outrageous ways, but basically in response to Israeli attacks that are at least just as outrageous.
The second potential failure would be to overestimate Fatah’s ability to superglue itself back together after this elections defeat. Just as Hamas today, is not the Hamas of last week, the same applies to Fatah, but only in clearer terms. Fatah has failed terribly — politically, diplomatically, organizationally, financially, and socially. Fatah not being able to implement succession of government after sobering up to a succession of colossal failures is a huge potential for short-term catastrophe.
Thirdly, it would be a failure to ignore that the 39 year old Israeli military occupation and 58 year old dispossession of Palestinians remain the sources of this conflict. Palestinians do not undertake intifadas for a hobby. It is now absolutely imperative to remove the source of contention, and then hold Palestinians to international standards of governance, until then, we will only be writing a chapter of history instead of the last chapter of a conflict.
The first challenge is that of time. Hamas must be given time to change - create a government, assume power, and state its current positions. Even if you want them to fail, one must let them redefine themselves to justify attacking them now that they have been elected, unless that is, your goal is the total collapse of what is left of Palestinian society.
The second challenge is that of Israeli unilateralism. It is time for Israel to see that unilateralism, the Israeli definition of such, is part of why Hamas won. By taking actions outside of any negotiated process, Israel undermined the most moderate Palestinian leadership ever. Israel must realize that negotiations with an enemy are the only negotiations that end conflicts. Insincere negotiations and negotiating with an ally, as Israel has done with the U.S. on Palestinian issues, will only sustain the conflict.
The third challenge of our time is the creation of alternative political paths within the Palestinian (and Israeli) society. As Palestinians we should not take Hamas’ coming to power lightly. Secular Palestinians need to get up and get to work. Resisting occupation and state-building are not spectator sports. The initiative and devotion to our just cause, which the Oslo process and 10 years of a corrupt government took away, must be returned, and quickly. I would also add that the time may be ripe that the political movements of both sides of this conflict stop being looked at in a polar fashion. The future of Palestinians and Israelis are too intertwined to accept separation, be it by way of a physical wall or political actions.
The U.S. Position
Given the unique wedlock between the U.S. and Israel, it is paramount to keep a close eye on how the U.S. deals with our new reality. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted in the Washington Post on Sunday, 29/1/2006, giving the initial U.S. reaction. Secretary Rice acknowledged that U.S. officials were surprised by the extent of the Hamas victory. She said,
“I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming, and I hope that we will take a hard look, because it does say something about perhaps not having had a good enough pulse on the Palestinian population.”
She added, “I think what was probably underestimated was the depth of resentment of the last … decade of the corruption and the old guard and the like.”
So easy. So simple. Just a poor pulse reading!
No mention that the body under review, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has had its arteries blocked for 5 years stopping the free movement of 3.5 million Palestinians.
No mention that the heart of this body, Jerusalem, has been amputated, not with the outbreak of the second intifada, but for nearly 20 years now, prohibiting Palestinian access to religious sites, and our political, cultural and economic center.
No mention that for 10 years the blood of this body — donor funds — was contaminated by the same coffers that are now threatening to siphon the body dry.
No, none of this, just a poor pulse reading!
If the world’s superpower is so blind as to not see the potential for real change following this new development, regardless if it was unable to be predicted, then we must all make our voices heard to bring the U.S. to its senses. The “you are either for us or against us” mindset that drives U.S. executive thinking will fail in Palestine where the average citizen is politically astute and has been on the receiving end of a decades old Israeli-made tsunami which has been fully supported by Washington.
Let that wise old Jewish man know that the wall has cracked - not the Wall he prays to, but the illegal and unholy Wall that separates our two peoples.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian city of El-Bireh. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). This article is based on a talk he gave to the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) in Palestine on February 1, 2006.