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Analysis Last Updated: Aug 23rd, 2007 - 01:18:44

By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 23, 2007, 01:16

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Italian Premier Romano Prodi�s proposal in mid-August for dialogue with Hamas prompted the spokesman of the Palestinian Islamic Movement, Fauzi Ibrahim, to speculate that Italy has abandoned the American �umbrella.�

The intimation is that Italy is edging toward a position shared by Russia, Norway and Canada of negotiations with Hamas in Palestine. Predictably the Italian Right immediately launched vicious attacks in Parliament on the center-left premier, while Israel repeated the ritual, �Hamas has not changed.�

One recalls that the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections last year struck like a political earthquake in the Middle East. Hamas has been on America�s black list of terrorist organizations since 1997 and on the European Union list since 2003, along with al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and various jihads. Yet, today Hamas green flags wave throughout Palestinian territories. With Israeli leadership in disarray, hardliners in power in Tehran, the war still raging in Iraq and Lebanon in turmoil, Hamas in power in Palestine has seemed like the last straw for Israel, the United States and part of Europe.

HAMAS. The very word rings ominous. For many it means terrorism, kamikaze death squads and terrifying black-hooded militia armed with Kalashnikovs marching across TV screens of the world.

However in the eyes of Palestinians, Hamas means resistance to a foreign invader. In Palestinian eyes, its hard line resistance to Israel has won out politically over the corrupt al-Fatah Party.

Hamas in power in Palestine turns the Middle East upside down. Some more hysterical commentators even compared the Hamas electoral victory to that of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis' rise to power in Germany. For all concerned, its electoral victory was a turning point in the Middle Eastern drama.

What is to be done?

The United States and Europe are now obligated to deal with the reality of the Hamas win, achieved in the democratic process for which America allegedly went to war in Iraq. With fundamentalists and/or anti-Western governments now in power in Iran and Syria, and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the Pax Americana in the Middle East is shakier than ever. Reality dictates that President Bush eat his words that he would never negotiate with "terrorists."

Hamas is so deeply entrenched in Palestinian society that military action is excluded. Yet, the Hamas tough position vis-�-vis Israel is unacceptable to the USA and most of Europe. Both Washington and European nations have warned Hamas that it must lay down its arms and recognize Israel before normal relations can be established with it. No problem, cynics and realists reply! Terrorists of yesterday can become friends today.

What is Hamas?

It is a simplification and unjust to label Hamas just another terrorist organization. That has been the erroneous Western position toward Hezbollah, which has become a major political party in Lebanon.

Hamas is double-headed. It is both a nationalistic political party and a resistance organization. Its success as a political party came about because of its success as a resistance movement.

Here is a historical note available online: In 1973, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin founded the Gaza al-Mujamah, a social organization linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Israel itself encouraged the Yassin movement in order to counter Yasir Arafat�s Al-Fatah. This forerunner of Hamas established schools and clinics among poor Palestinians, founded newspapers and created a lively social life. The Islamic University of Gaza became its ideological base, gradually dominated by radicals, dedicated to resistance against foreign invaders.

The Hamas tie with the Muslim Brotherhood is fundamental. Born in Egypt in 1928 as a semi-political fraternal society with Wahabbist fundamentalist leanings, the Brotherhood has spawned extremist organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood has a way of creating resistance organizations, then backing away from them, an effective policy of opposition. The Brotherhood�s most illustrious member years ago was Osama bin Laden. The CIA supported both the Brotherhood and bin Laden in Afghanistan during the Cold War for their anti-Soviet position. The Muslim Brotherhood is the major opposition group in Egypt, with over 60 seats in Parliament.

On the foundations of welfare-oriented Gaza al-Mujamah, the Muslim Brotherhood created HAMAS, the Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, to combat Israeli occupation. A distinction emerged between Hamas the nationalistic political party and Hamas the resistance organization.

Arafat�s al-Fatah, the Palestinian party-state of some 40 years, and Hamas took different paths. In the years before Arafat�s death two years ago, al-Fatah, while more and more corrupt, displayed some traditional nationalistic aspirations, with a close eye on the international scene. Hamas instead was broadening its power base among the poor, especially in the refugee camps.

In 1991, Hamas created a military wing that organized kamikaze attacks on Israel. At the same time, a separation of objectives between the political and the military wings of Hamas took place. Hamas�s social welfare program on one hand and its armed resistance to Israel on the other combined to enhance its image among the Palestinian people. In Palestinian eyes it was the resistance of the weak against the strong, of the poor against the rich. Witness after witness testify that the masses of Palestinians today credit Hamas with chasing Israelis out of Gaza. The feeling is widespread that armed resistance pays.

Israel and the United States have never recognized the distinction between social Hamas and �terroristic� Hamas. In a raid in 2004, Israel killed Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin and announced it would continue its program of pinpointed killing of Hamas leaders. But until Hamas got on the infamous black list of terrorist organizations, Europe did distinguish between its two major factions, one welfare, and the other military.

Negotiations with Hamas do not mean acceptance of terrorism. Not to talk would be to ignore the reality of its position in Palestinian society. What is terrorism or what is resistance has always been a point of view. The democratic country of Israel itself came about on the back of its terrorism/resistance against British occupiers of the Holy Land.

Electoral victory

Hamas has rightly boasted that what happened in Palestine has never happened in any other Arab country: free elections pointed toward democratic alternation in power between two parties. This development, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, 30 minutes from Jerusalem, seemed to point toward the foundation of peace in the area.

Not even Hamas expected such a crushing electoral victory last year that awarded it 76 seats in the Palestinian Parliament, and only 43 to al-Fatah. Why, one wondered immediately, why did the Palestinian majority swing their vote to Hamas?

An Italian journalist who has spent much time in Palestine describes why one educated secular middle class Palestinian switched his vote to Hamas. Though this voter considered the use of force against powerful Israel madness, he lost faith in al-Fatah leaders to stop Israel�s colonization of the occupied territories. Negotiations could not gain Israeli recognition of the Palestinian state nor block the growing wall around his lands. Negotiations could not eliminate the roadblocks, the humiliations and crude treatment of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, the uprooting and felling of their olive trees.

This voter shows how foreign invasion of Iraq, torture in Abu Ghraib, and arrests and trampling of citizens� rights from Morocco to Indonesia have created new support for Islamic radical fundamentalism.

The new situation

Israeli writer David Grossman noted the paradox that just at the moment a majority of Israelis were ready to negotiate a peace, Palestinians chose the radical path. The Hamas victory, Grossman charged, was a nightmare also for moderate Palestinians. He did not believe Hamas would change its real nature but he did think its leaders in power would become more pragmatic. A survey in Israel showed that 48 percent of Israelis also favored dialogue with Hamas.

Today Hamas has the support of many Arab states, some of which urge it to recognize Israel. Since Hamas never supported Saddam Hussein as did Arafat, the rich Emirates, enemies of Saddam, have rewarded it with funds that previously went to Arafat�s al-Fatah party, much of which apparently went to bank accounts abroad. Egyptians interviewed on the streets of Cairo by Italian TV favor Hamas. The European Union has been ready to continue its annual aid of 500,000,000 euros to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas would observe the ceasefire.

Though the West is legally bound by the election results, the diplomatic question concerning peace between Palestinians and Israel remains: is there a meeting ground between the West and Hamas? As Italian Premier Prodi showed in recent days, some European observers believe there must be. Since peace in Palestine has in recent years at least seemed achievable, many agreed with Grossman that Hamas in power would be more careful. As an uncontrollable party-movement-organization, its hands were free; as the political majority representative of the Palestinian people, Hamas can be more pragmatic, without abandonment of its raison-etre. With the Palestinian majority behind it, Hamas is in a position to make peace with Israel, as al-Fatah could not.

It should be kept in mind that Palestine is not a state. It is two territories, Gaza, relatively free of Israeli troops, and the West Bank still subject to Israeli occupation. The goal of both al-Fatah and Hamas is the creation of a Palestinian state. Since President Bush claims to share that objective, both the al-Fatah Palestinian President Abu Mazen and Hamas strive for normal relations with Washington. Until today, the problem has been the inclusion in the peace plan of an armed Islamic party, Hamas.

If Palestine is not yet a state, it is a laboratory in which optimists hope to recycle former �terrorists.� Some Hamas leaders appear to be ready for recycling as happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Israel�s withdrawal from Gaza convinced Hamas and Arabs elsewhere that they can gain immediate advantages with armed resistance. However, its successes can also convince its leadership to rally around a �truce-with-Israel� position in order to emerge from the nightmarish economic situation in Palestine.

The European Union classifies 40 percent of Palestinians as poor, living on less than $2 a day. Unemployment in the Gaza Strip runs up to 70 percent, on the West Bank 45 percent. Aid from abroad is essential. Apparently the present aid from Arab states does not suffice.

Hamas itself is perfectly aware of the utility of its two faces, the more pragmatic political wing on one hand and the hard line radicals on the other. Recognition of this difference by the West is urgent. Prime Minister Prodi apparently recognizes the difference as he stated in mid-August: �Hamas exists. It is a complex reality that we must help to evolve so that it works for peace. This must be done openly, in all transparency.�

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in various European countries, he writes fiction full-time. His books of fiction, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

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