I don’t know if Hamas bears responsibility for the physical abduction of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar. But I know this: Morally, Hamas has been trying to abduct the Palestinian national movement for many years now.
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In the Gaza Strip, Hamas has required female university students and lawyers in court to wear headscarves. It has tried to ban books deemed "salacious” and cracked down on film it considers un-Islamic. It has prohibited women from running in marathons, barred male hairdressers from cutting women's hair and shut down mixed gender water parks. And it has responded brutally to public protest, especially by women, in what Human Rights Watch has called “a grim pattern of repressing free speech and peaceful assembly.”
So why are so many Palestinian intellectuals in the West reluctant to publicly call Hamas out? This reluctance first struck me last year, when I realized that Electronic Intifada, the website edited by the prominent, Chicago-based, Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah was far more critical of Mahmoud Abbas’ repression in the West Bank than of Hamas’ repression in Gaza.
It was reinforced last week in Melbourne, Australia, where I sat on a panel that included two knowledgeable, forceful and eloquent Palestinian intellectuals, Samah Sabawi and Maher Mughrabi. We had our differences, especially on the movement to Boycott, Divest from and Sanction (BDS) Israel, which Sabawi supports. But when Sabawi and Mughrabi talked about the principles they believed should shape a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their commitment to human rights and human dignity was absolutely clear. Which made it all the more striking that when I suggested that Palestinian liberals publicly challenge Hamas—just as Jewish liberals must publicly challenge Israel’s unjust, undemocratic control of the West Bank—neither responded.
Upon returning to the U.S., I tested my hypothesis with two Palestinian friends. Both agreed that while many Palestinian activists in the West privately loathe Hamas’ theocratic tendencies, they are far more reluctant to say so in public.
One reason is that Palestinians badly want unity. They believe, correctly, that Israel and the United States have tried to keep the Palestinians divided. They remember that after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, the Bush administration encouraged Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan to try to overturn the results by force, thus sparking civil war. They know that Israel’s travel restrictions cut off Palestinians in Gaza from their brethren in the West Bank. And they know that Israel uses Hamas’ misdeeds to justify its opposition to a Palestinian unity government, which many Palestinians consider a prerequisite for free elections and the creation of a more responsive, less corrupt Palestinian leadership. In that context, Palestinian activists fear that if they criticize Hamas, Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies will cite those criticisms to justify policies that keep Palestinians divided.
The second reason Palestinian intellectuals don’t more frequently criticize Hamas is that they don’t see Hamas in a vacuum. They remember, even if many Jewish critics of Hamas don’t, that in the 1980s Israel bolstered the organization as a supposedly moderate counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO.
Palestinian intellectuals see the way Israel’s isolation of Gaza, which has devastated the Strip’s independent business class and made it hard for Gazan students to study abroad, has strengthened Islamist rule. So even if they privately concede Hamas’ repressive character, they fear that discussing it lets Israel off the hook, and confirms the negative image of Palestinians that Netanyahu’s allies promote.
Finally, Palestinian intellectuals don’t want to reinforce the “Abbas, good. Hamas, bad” narrative that dominates Western media. They see Abbas praised for his “security cooperation” with Israel, even though they know such cooperation often involves throwing his political opponents in jail. And that confirms their belief that the pro-Israel hawks who criticize Hamas on human rights grounds aren’t really interested in Palestinian human rights at all.
If these arguments sound familiar, they should. They mirror the arguments for why Diaspora Jews should not criticize Israel. American Jews are constantly told that public criticism undermines Jewish unity, lacks vital context (isn’t what’s happening in Syria worse?) and will be exploited by our enemies. But on both sides, such arguments constitute moral evasion. No matter how much you value communal unity, it does not justify silence in the face of actions you know are wrong. No matter how much worse other countries or groups behave, it does not justify turning a blind eye to the abuses of your own side. And even if people exploit your words, your highest obligation is still to advocate, in both public and private, for the values in which you believe. Just as nothing anti-Semites do justifies holding millions of Palestinians as non-citizens under military law for 47 years, nothing Israel does justifies denying women in Gaza the same rights as men.
There is a difference, of course, between criticizing the behavior of a powerful state and criticizing the behavior of a stateless people. Palestinians may feel internal criticism is a luxury they cannot afford until they, like Jews, have a country of their own. But there is a deep connection between the way a people conducts its struggle for independence and the way it eventually exercises that independence. History is filled with national liberation movements that, upon winning freedom from an external power, soon denied it to their own people.
Like its fellow Muslim Brotherhood parties across the Middle East—and like deeply illiberal Jewish parties like Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu--- Hamas should be allowed to peacefully contest elections. But Palestinians who abhor its ideology should begin publicly saying so now, while Hamas is only trying to abduct a national liberation movement. By the time it tries to abduct a state, it may be too late.