End the Occupation, Then We'll Speak Out Against Hamas

Peter Beinart's use of the word 'abduct' to describe the relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian national movement is denying Palestinians agency and demeaning their choices.

Maher Mughrabi
Maher Mughrabi
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Palestinian supporters of the Islamic Hamas movement shout and wave flags during a ceremony marking the Nakba's 66th anniversary. Nablus, May 15, 2014.
Palestinian supporters of the Islamic Hamas movement shout and wave flags during a ceremony marking the Nakba's 66th anniversary. Nablus, May 15, 2014. Credit: AP
Maher Mughrabi
Maher Mughrabi

When two Palestinians are asked to talk about Israel and Palestine on a stage with five non-Palestinians as part of a public event that lasts just 90 minutes, there will inevitably be ideas that are not expressed, or not expressed well enough. Nevertheless I was genuinely astonished to find that a single omission at a single event could be used by Peter Beinart in his recent Haaretz article to attach my friend Samah Sabawi and me to a wider “silence” regarding human rights abuses by Hamas (“Palestinians in the West should speak out against Hamas’ human rights abuses”).

I say “silence” because I have never shied away from scrutiny of Hamas. Samah Sabawi certainly hasn’t either. Anyone who has followed our modest careers in the public sphere knows this. But I would still like to thank Peter, because his accusation gives me a chance to tell a story about Hamas, a story that I wished aloud I had told as soon as I left the Melbourne Town Hall’s stage two Tuesdays ago.

The story takes us back to 2007, when – as now – the Palestinian Authority had just sworn in a unity government. The education minister in that government was a Hamas MP called Nasser al-Din Shaer. His ministry decided that a book of Palestinian folk stories which is a staple throughout the diaspora – Speak Bird, Speak Again – offended what we in the West might call “family values” with some of its saltier tales. Copies of the book were removed from shelves and, by some accounts, destroyed.

When I heard of this ban, I drafted a letter to the minister in which I called this decision “cultural vandalism” and said that “no one elected Hamas officials to wage war on books.” I hoped to circulate it to my fellow Palestinians as a petition.

Before I could begin this personal campaign, however, Dr. Shaer was arrested by the forces of the Israeli occupation. The message of free speech will always be a valid and important one, but addressing it to a man as he sits in a foreign jail under charges neither he nor his lawyer are permitted to know, without trial, would it seems to me indicate that we have rather skewed our priorities.

It was good to see that Peter grasps the inadequacy of most accounts of Palestinian political life in the Western media, and that he understands the events that led to the collapse of the 2007 unity government. But this made it all the more disappointing that – in the current emotionally charged atmosphere – he chose to use a word like “abduct” to describe the relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian national movement.

Peter says that just as Jewish liberals must challenge Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Palestinian liberals must publicly challenge Hamas. There is a crucial distinction here that appears to escape him. In the West Bank, Israel is a foreign power controlling a disenfranchised people. Both Samah and I might criticise Hamas and even stand opposed to them, but Hamas are not foreigners - they are part of the Palestinian community and they ran for election by that community. To call this abduction is to deny Palestinians agency and demean their choices. (I wouldn’t say that Shas or Habayit Hayehudi have “abducted” Zionism, for much the same reasons.)

It’s certainly true that a democratic vote can produce a result people find repugnant. I recall the swearing-in of an Austrian government in 2000 that was immediately the target of sanctions from many European countries because it included the far-right Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider. Yet even if we were to accept such a comparison in the case of Hamas, the sanctions Austria experienced then did not deny the Austrian people freedom of movement or basic foodstuffs, nor did they prevent the Austrian parliament from meeting.

At the Melbourne Town Hall, I told the audience that peace was about being able to build a house or a life without worrying about when a foreign power would undo one's decision. I could just as easily have said “to cast a ballot.” There will always be divisions in Palestinian life, as there have been in Israeli life. Some of those differences will prove so difficult to resolve that they must be deferred, as David Ben-Gurion found with the question of religion, and some may demand immediate and even violent resolution, as Ben-Gurion found when he sank the ship called the Altalena. All over the world, we see that independence is not the end of a nation’s troubles but the beginning. We also see that the debates national communities have to have require an inviolable public space. As the poet Mahmoud Darwish, himself no great fan of Hamas, wrote at the height of the second intifada:

و مختلفون على واجبات النساء

:مختلفون على كل شيء. لنا هدف واحد

… ان نكون

و من بعده يجد الفرد متسعاً لاختيار الهدف

“And we’ll disagree over women’s duties . . .

“We’ll disagree over everything. And we have one goal:

“To be . . .

“After that one finds room to choose other goals”

In the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime in South Africa offered Nelson Mandela his freedom if he would repudiate armed struggle. He turned down the offer, telling his jailers that “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate.”

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a contract. Normalisation – if that is still what Zionists want – is a contract. Yet Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not free. It is the repeated failure to address that fact that should be of primary concern to Peter Beinart – and all of us.

Maher Mughrabi is foreign news editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers in Australia. The views expressed are his own.

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