Gun Envy

The Hamas movement, on the eve of the January 2006 elections, is doing its utmost to prove that its gun is the biggest.

Suddenly, the two-year-old Talal clutches the knees of his mother in fright, saying that he is afraid because there are Jews. The word "Jew" is synonymous in the eyes of many children with the soldier at a checkpoint or tank or attack helicopter. Talal is too young to understand why his parents laughed when the guest told him: "Except for me, there are no Jews here." But he is old enough for the word "Jew" to be associated with fear for him.

His tangible fear was surprising: These are months of relative quiet, and the Israeli army has not come near his neighborhood in northern Gaza. Perhaps Talal saw something on television - out of the corner of his eye, because his parents do not watch television much. Perhaps he noticed the masked men roaming the neighborhood in the evenings, the alternative army of Hamas. Or perhaps he just happened to be with his mother in the street when five Palestinian military vehicles raced through the streets, each manned by several expressionless policemen, pointing their rifles somewhere between the street and the sky.

In another year or two, he will learn to distinguish between an armed Jew and an armed Palestinian. Instead of fear, maybe he will be filled with pride and excitement. In another three years, he will know how to distinguish between armed men from Hamas and armed men from the Palestinian Authority/Fatah, and will already decide which is his favorite team. Thus, without his parent's wanting it, without realizing it, without his similarly excited friends realizing it - he will be infected with the common malady whose scientific name is "gun envy."

The minor variety of this illness is sympathy (for one organization or another) and emulation (with toy guns). The serious variety is to join an organization. The most common symptom of this illness is reflected in the billboards and posters that constantly crowd one's field of vision: men armed with rifles and mortars, in every pose imaginable, and with each organization competing over whose is bigger. Another symptom is expressed in the public military ceremonies that elicit ecstatic reactions from the crowd.

It is true that many grow up on the religious principle of holy war against non-believers and oppressors and on personal sacrifice in this war, or on a secular version of this: "What was taken with force, will be restored with force." It is true that the Palestinian Authority - like other Arab regimes, both under Yasser Arafat and under Mahmoud Abbas - is trying to build its power base from bloated and scary-looking security organs that add to the ethos of the holiness of weaponry. But it is also true that the great majority of Palestinians were born into a reality of Israeli military occupation: The abstract model for imitation is the army of Mohammed, but the real and immediate model of imitation is the Israel Defense Forces and its soldiers. The Hamas movement, on the eve of the January 2006 elections, is doing its utmost to prove that its [gun is] the biggest.

In a series of books on "Military Operations in the Al-Aqsa Intifada," published in January by The Arab Center for Research and Studies in Gaza (which Palestinian sources say is affiliated with Hamas), the following triumphant statistics are presented: From September 28, 2000, through December 13, 2004, 1,001 "Zionists" were killed. 133 (13.3 percent) were killed in the Gaza Strip; 282 (28.2 percent) were killed in the West Bank, 203 (20.3 percent) in Jerusalem and 383 (38.3 percent) in "the lands of 1948." Prominent among the many diagrams and tables are those which divide the killed "Zionists" according to the organization that carried out the killing: Hamas - 46.5 percent; Fatah - 18.4 percent; Islamic Jihad - 11.8 percent; Popular Front - 2.3 percent, and so on.

Over the years, the choice of weapons has become identified with heroism and personal sacrifice. Now, after the evacuation of the settlements, it is easy to identify it with victory - that is, with a triumphant "strategy" that will also prove itself in "the rest of occupied Palestine." The deeper and more prevalent poverty, misery and ignorance are in the enclosed Gaza Strip - which is cut off from the rest of the world like a giant prison - the greater the susceptibility of catching the illness of gun envy and the easier it is to be swept up by Hamas propaganda.

According to this propaganda, what triumphed here was not the Israeli strategy of cutting off Gaza from the West Bank and winning the world's sympathy, but rather the Palestinians' sacrifice and weapons. How comforting it is to float above the crowded and sweltering concrete home, which lacks all basic amenities, to the eternal realms embodied in the colorful poster and to the promises of returning to the citrus groves and villages of 1948.

In its propaganda, the Hamas movement creates a logical contradiction and gap between its readiness to become part of the Palestinian political parliamentary game, and the ethos it disseminates about the divine weapon and ongoing military struggle. Becoming part of the political game means a promise for improvement of life in this world. The continuing military struggle, with all of its victims, means waiting for improvement but initially in the afterlife. And as long as Israel continues its policy of cutting off the residents of Gaza from the rest of the world, and especially from the Palestinian society in the West Bank, and as long as the leadership of the Palestinian Authority continues its alienating habit of ostentatious luxury and power, the easier it will be for Hamas to use the military ethos to strengthen itself in the political sphere.