Every day on social media, someone calls me an ally of Hamas. I find the accusation odd since I’ve not only repeatedly denounced the organization, but chided other progressives for not doing so more forcefully.
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But upon reflection, maybe the critics have a point. Sad as it is to admit, Hamas does have unwitting allies among our people. There are Jews who through words and deeds strengthen a group that oppresses Palestinians and tries to kill Israelis.
Worse, such people work at the highest echelons of the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment. Who are they? They’re the Israeli and American Jewish leaders who convince Palestinians that nonviolence and mutual recognition are futile. They bolster Hamas’ greatest asset, which is not rockets and tunnels. Hamas’ greatest asset is the Palestinian belief that Israel only understands the language of force.
The first way these Jews help Hamas is by supporting – either actively or passively – the imprisonment of people like Abdallah Abu Rahma. Rahma is a leader of the Bilin Popular Committee, which, since 2005, has led unarmed protests against the separation barrier that cuts the West Bank village off from 50 percent of its land.
“In Bilin,” Rahma wrote in a 2010 letter, “we have chosen another way. We have chosen to protest nonviolently together with Israeli and international supporters. We have chosen to carry a message of hope and real partnership between Palestinians and Israelis in the face of oppression and injustice.”
Rahma’s wife smuggled the letter out of the jail where he was serving a year-long sentence for “incitement” and organizing “illegal demonstrations.” Under Military Order 101, which Israel issued when it took over the West Bank in 1967, an “illegal demonstration” is any gathering of 10 or more Palestinians that involves “a political matter or one liable to be interpreted as political.”
“Incitement” is defined as “attempting, whether verbally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the area in a way that may disturb the public peace or public order.” In cases like Rahma’s, according to Human Rights Watch, “The Israeli authorities are effectively banning peaceful expression of political speech.”
Rahma’s case is not unusual. In 2011, Bassem Tamimi was convicted under Military Order 101 for leading illegal protests in the village of Nabi Saleh, which has seen much of its land handed over to the neighboring settlement of Halamish. (He was also convicted of urging children to throw stones on the basis of what Human Rights Watch called “a child’s coercively obtained statement [that] raises serious concerns about the fairness of his trial.”) It was Bassem’s 11th arrest. He had previously been held for three years without trial. Yet at his trial, Bassem called the Israelis who protested with him his “brothers and sisters,” and pledged that “we will still raise our children to love; love the land and the people without discrimination of race, religion or ethnicity.”
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard American-Jewish leaders cite the Hamas charter. But I’ve never heard a single one express concern about the prosecutions of Rahma or Tamimi. Indeed, I’ve never heard major American-Jewish leaders criticize Israeli restrictions on peaceful protest in the West Bank at all.
In 2010, when an interviewer asked the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman about the Rahma case, he replied, “I’m not an expert on the [Israeli] judicial system and I don’t intend to be.”
If undermining peaceful Palestinian protest helps Hamas, so does undermining Palestinian support for the two-state solution. In November 2012, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in the Israeli city of Safed, told Israeli TV, “I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not live there.” Given the depth of the Palestinian commitment to refugee return, Abbas’ statement was politically perilous. Hamas quickly denounced it.
The only way for Abbas to have survived such a risky overture would have been to receive something important in return. Had Benjamin Netanyahu responded with a high-profile gesture of his own – for instance, signaling his openness to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem – some Palestinians might have been more forgiving of Abbas’ concession.
Instead, Netanyahu dismissed Abbas’ statement as insignificant because it bore “no connection” to his “actual actions.” Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticized his successor’s response, but establishment American-Jewish leaders did not. And with that, any hope that Abbas’ gambit would not seriously undermine him among Palestinians was lost. The episode proved a boon for Hamas.
That same month, Israeli finance minister Yuval Steinitz boasted that, since 2009, Netanyahu’s government had doubled the portion of Israel’s budget going to settlements. Yet again, the news was met with silence in the American-Jewish establishment. One
person who did not remain silent, however, was then-Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian leader most popular among Jewish groups because of his deeply un-Hamas like embrace of nonviolence, institution building and mutual coexistence.
A few months later, in announcing his retirement, Fayyad cited settlement growth as one of the factors that destroyed him and bolstered Hamas. “In deeds,” he told Roger Cohen of The New York Times. “Israel never got behind me; in fact it was quite hostile. The occupation regime is more entrenched, with no sign it is beginning to relinquish its grip on our life. There are more settlements, more settler violence, more intrusiveness into all aspects of Palestinian life.” As a result, declared Fayyad, “Our people question whether the PA can deliver.” And “Hamas … is strengthened.”
Finally, last April, the Arab League for a third time offered to recognize Israel if it returned to the 1967 lines and found a “just” and “agreed-upon” solution for the Palestinian refugees.
This time, Israel’s Arab neighbors went further, declaring that Israel could keep some West Bank settlements so long as it swapped them for territory inside the Green Line. The Arab League proposal gave Abbas cover for territorial concessions of his own. Hamas rejected the offer but might have been isolated in the Arab world had not Netanyahu essentially rejected it too.
In a speech soon after the proposal, Netanyahu insisted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not “territorial” at all and that “no matter what the borders,” Palestinians must not merely recognize Israel, but recognize it as a Jewish state (something the Arab League offer had not done). Chalk up another win for Hamas.
Sometime in the coming days, Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian negotiators may well agree to some modest easing of the blockade that has virtually destroyed Gaza’s economic life. The people of Gaza will win this relief not because Salam Fayyad painstakingly built up Palestinian institutions, not because Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly recognized Israel’s right to exist and not because Bassem Tamimi protested nonviolently in partnership with Israelis. Tragically, under this Israeli government, those efforts have brought Palestinians virtually no concessions at all.
The people of Gaza will win some relief from the blockade – as they did when the last Gaza war ended – because Hamas launched rockets designed to kill.
“Why does Israel support Hamas?” a Palestinian acquaintance once asked me. Back then I thought he was crazy. Now I think that perhaps we are.