August 15, 2009

Does Hamas Want a Second Holocaust?

I received the following email last Friday:

In your blog post "Hamas Wants to Talk Peace", you said that the terms seemed reasonable to you.

My question is, do you understand that the "right of return" means that Israel would cease to exist? That the Palestinians, who voted in Hamas, whose charter calls for the worldwide extermination of the Jews would be a majority in Israel and could simply (once again) vote in a government with a platform of "exterminate the Jews"?

The Hamas terms are like being offered a deal to end a fight between you and someone else "if you'll just sit down and have a beer with me", when the other person knows you are fatally alergic to beer. To those ignorant of the facts, the term "have a beer" seems reasonable, to the person being offered an icy cold bottle of death, it is not only unreasonable, it is insulting.

So basically, are you someone who wants to see a second Holocaust, or did you just not understand what Hamas was "offering"?

For the remainder of the weekend, I exchanged a few emails with this individual, and though neither of us changed the other’s mind, I think our debate was profitable, if nothing else enabling me to better understand where “his side” is coming from. Far from simply having a callous disregard for the Palestinian people, I now see that many conservative Zionists favor maintaining the status quo because they genuinely fear that Hamas has its heart set on bringing about the Final Solution.

But even though these fears may be sincere, I think they’re entirely unwarranted. For instance, as far as I can tell, there is only one passage in Hamas’ 1988 charter that could even conceivably be interpreted as sanctioning genocide:

...Hamas has been looking forward to implement Allah’s promise whatever time it might take. The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim) [I.7].

Now, taken by itself, this passage certainly makes it sound like Hamas wants to wipe out the Jewish people. But before jumping to this conclusion we should make sure we read the entire charter. For we don’t have the right to say that we understand this passage, or any passage in any piece of literature for that matter, without understanding its context. And if we keep reading the charter, we find these words:

Hamas is a humane movement, which cares for human rights and is committed to the tolerance inherent in Islam as regards attitudes towards other religions. It is only hostile to those who are hostile towards it, or stand in its way in order to disturb its moves or to frustrate its efforts. Under the shadow of Islam it is possible for the members of the three religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism to coexist in safety and security. Safety and security can only prevail under the shadow of Islam, and recent and ancient history is the best witness to that effect. The members of other religions must desist from struggling against Islam over sovereignty in this region. For if they were to gain the upper hand, fighting, torture and uprooting would follow; they would be fed up with each other, to say nothing of members of other religions. The past and the present are full of evidence to that effect [IV, 31].

So how do we make sense of these two seemingly contradictory passages, one which foresees fighting (and killing) “the Jews” and the other which outlines the possibility of peaceful coexistence? On the one hand, we could argue that both passages mean what they seem to mean and that the charter is simply incoherent, wildly incoherent, essentially the work of someone with multiple personality disorder. But this view seems incredibly improbable. The charter, though morally reprehensible at times, is certainly not illogical.

So instead we must try to reconcile the two passages. The most logical way to do this is to understand that when the first passage speaks of “the Jews” it can’t mean all Jews but rather those Zionists who, in Hamas’ view, refuse to return Palestine to the Palestinian people. As stated in the charter, this is the ultimate goal of Hamas, to return Palestine to the Palestinian people. After World War II, let’s recall, there were twice as many Arabs as Jews in Palestine. But then in 1947 the UN voted to give 55% of the land to the Zionists; the following year, 750,000 Arabs fled their homes as a result of war and were subsequently prevented from returning by the newly-formed Israeli government. So the stated goal of Hamas is simply to right this wrong, not to kill the Jews, but to force Israel to give the Palestinians their land back.

The second passage makes it clear that Hamas doesn’t mind Jews living in Palestine; again, it simply wants to right the wrongs of 1947 and 1948. But realizing that Israel will not right these wrongs on its own accord, Hamas feels it has no choice but to fight “the Jews,” or at least those Zionists who refuse to grant justice to the Palestinians. Once these Zionists are defeated, once Palestine is “liberated,” then there can be peace and those Jews who want to stay and live under this new Muslim government will be free to do so.

Now I’m certainly not defending the charter. I wholly reject its promotion of violence, as well as its anti-Semitism (which finds its clearest articulation in III.22). I’m just pointing out that it obviously doesn’t call for the “worldwide extermination of the Jews.”

I should also point out that Hamas has since evolved, a point which is often ignored in the Western media. For obvious reasons, most Israelis found its 1988 charter unacceptable. But over the past few years the organization has radically moderated many of its positions—for instance, gradually resigning itself to a two-state settlement. The International Crisis Group began chronicling this transformation in its 2004 report Dealing With Hamas and followed up on it with its 2006 report Enter Hamas: The Challenges of Political Integration.

And since then the situation has only improved. After its 2006 parliamentary victory, for instance, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh indicated that Hamas would be willing to recognize Israel, and last month Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told the Wall Street Journal that Hamas would accept a peace agreement with Israel provided it merely agreed to a prisoner swap and complied with international law. (It’s also significant, I think, that Hamas Health Minister Bassem Naeem has publicly condemned the Holocaust.)

Now this all seems very promising to me. It’s just a shame that the Israeli government doesn’t seem willing to sit down and negotiate with the Palestinians. And it’s a shame that so much of this debate is being fueled by faleshood and irrational fear.

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