About four years ago, at the height of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in January 2009, I travelled to meet with Hamas’ leadership in Damascus.
In an hour-long interview with the soft-spoken Mousa Abu Marzouk, the deputy chief of Hamas’ political bureau, it became clear that the organisation, democratically elected in 2006, was much more pragmatic in calculating the politically changing landscape than the caricature of violence given to the group.
Hamas isn’t oblivious to the suffering of 1.7 million Palestinians living in one of the most densely populated strips of land in the world, an open-air prison with a decrepit infrastructure that covers 141 square miles (about the size of Philadelphia or Washington DC) which provides little hope of a brighter future for a desperate people. Nor does Hamas seek a military confrontation with Israel at any cost.
In our meeting, Abu Marzouk said Hamas’ goal is “an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip free of settlements and settlers with Jerusalem as its capital”. To any outsider with no attachment to the conflict, this is not a semantic play on words, but an implicit recognition of Israel.
Hamas’ raison d’etre is the Israeli military occupation that continues to choke the life out of Palestinians desperate to live in freedom, dignity, with security, and a long overdue right to statehood. These elements are not exclusive to Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians want to get on with their lives.
A simplistic, often inaccurate Israeli narrative that describes Hamas as intransigently bent on the destruction of Israel distorts the realities on the ground and ignores the fundamental issue of a 64-year old conflict, Israel’s brutal occupation.
Today, four years on, Israelis invoked the right of self-defence again as they launched another offensive military operation like numerous others in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. They speak of Arabs wanting to “drive the Jews into the sea,” and completely negate the consequences of their actions when they carry out extrajudicial killings, such as the assassination of political leaders of Hamas, acting with impunity in violation of international law.
And yet, while Israelis pursue this policy of belligerence, they conveniently ignore the underlying causes and consequences of their actions that keep leading the world’s attention to where we are today, namely the continued siege of Gaza, draconian military checkpoints that restrict the movement of Palestinians, the persistent expropriation of Palestinian land, the unabated violent attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian farmers and civilians and an illegal 430-mile Israeli wall that perpetuates the existing state of colonisation.
Just as Arabs took to the streets over these past two years seeking justice from brutal and oppressive regimes, Palestinians also want justice.
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And so this brings us to the recently formed ceasefire. The agreement reached with the help of Egypt after a week of bloodshed will only bring temporary respite. So long as the status quo of desperation lingers and the more dire the lives of Palestinians continue to be, the more likely people are going to look to violence as a form of resistance and a means of expression against the misery Israel inflicts on them.
In an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post amid Israel’s recent military offensive, Gilad Sharon, the son of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon — a man responsible for killing scores of innocent Palestinian civilians — said, “We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima — the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.”
Four years ago, like many Americans, Arabs including myself, looked to president Barack Obama with much anticipation and hope that he would become the first American leader to usher in a new era since the collapse of the peace talks. Over the past four years, however, Obama was unable to stop Israel expropriating more Palestinian land and constructing additional illegal settlements.
The inertia of peace talks in the last four years, largely a result of the obstinate right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cannot continue unchecked. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians — be they Hamas supporters or not — unequivocally want peace. But they want a peace that is equitable and, as in any negotiation, one that will culminate in an accord that provides Israelis and Palestinians with a win-win solution — albeit a solution that will see that Palestinians will only get 22 percent of what was historical Palestine.
Israel today is at a turning point that will either determine the fate of a two-state solution, or pave the way for its alternative — apartheid and ethnic cleansing. The cycle of violence, Israeli intransigence, and the prevailing status quo are untenable.
If Israel wants a lasting solution and really wants to live in peace, there is no more opportune time than now. Hamas today no longer receives any funds from Iran, according to a well-informed source. Whatever ammunition or arsenal it has predates the Arab Spring. It has closed its offices in Damascus and severed ties with the regime of Bashar Al Assad. In Myanmar, on his first trip abroad since being re-elected, President Obama spoke about America’s belief in human dignity and held that only fear stood between humans and their dreams.
“Freedom is not an abstract idea; freedom is the very thing that makes human progress possible,’’ Obama said.
Surely, Palestinians too, deserve that right to dignity and freedom. America and the world cannot afford to derail this journey to freedom. One hopes when this magazine hits newsstands on 2 December they would have voted at the United Nations on 29 November to grant “non-member observer state status” to Palestine.
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