Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

February 11, 2010

Martyr Iconography

Filed under: Arab attitudes,Gaza,Hamas,Iran,Lebanon,Palestinian politics,West Bank — Kimberly Doyle @ 12:52 pm

“Faces on the walls – martyrs freshly emerging from life and the printing presses, a death which is a remake of itself. One martyr replacing the face of another, taking his place on the wall, until displaced by yet another or by rain.” Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, accurately captured the culture of martyrdom and the phenomenon of martyr iconography in his book Memory for Forgetfulness. He understood how these images can create a vicious cycle of violence.

Martyrs exist throughout the world, but their images are increasingly used in places of crisis, and especially in the Middle East, to reflect social changes, shape society, and prolong violence. In the West Bank, Gaza, and the refugee camps in Lebanon the walls and streets are plastered with the faces of martyrs killed in the struggle against Israel. Posters, billboards, signs, and hand-painted murals with the images or names of martyrs are constant visual reminders of the struggle. On television, videos of martyrs pronouncing their last words fill the airspace. And in houses, pictures of heroic martyrs line the walls and children collect cards with the stats of martyrs, like baseball cards. Martyr iconography in these areas symbolizes the resistance struggle and the opposition to the current situation.

In Iran martyrs are national icons, symbolizing the struggles of the Islamic Revolution. On a wall near Tehran University there is a painting of a twelve-year-old boy, Hussein Fahmideh, who blew himself up in front of an Iraqi tank during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. And this image, according to a former professor of mine, was plastered on billboards and inscribed into history books throughout the nation. Fahmideh became a symbol of the new Islamic Republic and was immortalized as a hero. His struggle was emblematic of the greater struggle of the new Iranian government and his death was a sacrifice for this cause. In Iran martyrs are not symbolic of resistance or opposition, but of the hardships faced by the Islamic Republic. (more…)


January 19, 2010

The inter-Palestinian divide & U.S. foreign policy

Filed under: Discourse in America,Hamas,Washington's diplomacy — Kimberly Doyle @ 5:07 pm

Dr. Nathan Brown, author of the recent study Palestine: The Schism Deepens, recently headlined a discussion of the inter-Palestinian divide and US foreign policy toward it at the Washington, DC-based Palestine Center.

Brown, who’s a professor of US foreign policy in the Middle East at George Washington University, started by discussing the divide between the West Bank and Gaza.  He emphasized the need to accept the realities on the ground, arguing that it is important to recognize the political legitimacy of Hamas and the impossibility of elections in the near future.  He then addressed US foreign policy towards the Fateh-Hamas split, arguing the Obama’s policies are no more than a continuation of Bush’s policy of ‘West Bank first’.  Obama has continued to squeeze Gaza and strengthen the PA in the West Bank, hoping that Gaza’s people will follow the West Bank ‘example’ and move away from Hamas.

Brown looked at some possible future scenarios regarding the Fateh-Hamas split.  He said that two different “happy endings” have been talked of; but he considers both unlikely. The first is that elections will fix the problem. The second is that diplomatic negotiations with the PA will reopen the peace process and make Hamas less relevant. But elections, according to Brown, are impossible until the split is resolved.  As for re-energized peace negotiations, he considers them both unlikely to happen, and unlikely to be accepted by all parties. Instead, he argues that the current policy is likely to lead to a political stalemate, or another war in Gaza.

Brown concluded with a discussion of alternatives to the current policy. He suggested using incentives, like lifting the siege on Gaza and a Shalit deal, to encourage negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Then interim agreements, involving Hamas, could be used to create a more sustainable situation, moving slowly towards reconciliation, and  eventually elections.

Brown’s rather grim forecast on the possibilities of reconciliation and any kind of peace deal left me, and most of the audience, frustrated and discouraged. Basically, he does not foresee any change in US policy in the near future. And without any change or any incentives, it is highly unlikely that any reconciliation between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will occur… And without such a reconciliation, there is little chance of successful peace negotiations and little chance that the lives of ordinary Palestinians will improve.

January 2, 2010

Gaza war, plus one

The anniversary of Israel’s  assault against Gaza last year has been a somber one, so far. I started out following the war from my home in Charlottesville, Virginia, and later on followed it from Damascus, Syria while I was there in mid-January.

In the hotel we were staying in in Damascus, the large t.v. screen in the breakfast room was tuned permanently to Al-Jazeera, and broad images of the ongoing death and destruction played over our heads during every breakfast.  Back in the U.S., of course, the coverage by the national media was considerably more muted and less prominent.

(I wonder if the Israeli government deliberately chose to launch the war at a time when the US public and political system were very busy preparing for the arrival of our new president?  Certainly, it had chosen November 4, 2008, to undertake its first very large-scale violation of the June 2008 ceasefire, knowing full well that most Americans were busy with other matters on that historic voting day.)

Previous to last January, my last visit to Gaza had been in early March 2006, shortly after the historic election that had been held there in January of that year.  That was the election that Hamas participated in– and won. And already, when I was in Israel and Gaza in those weeks,  it was evident that Israel and the US were determined to do what they could to steal that democratic victory from Hamas.

During last year’s assault, the IDF bombed the Palestinian parliament building in downtown Gaza, repeatedly, I suppose as a gesture of continuing hatred for anything resembling Palestinian democracy. (Their claim– in bombing the parliament, as in bombing police stations and all other institutions related to the Hamas-led government– was that anything related to Hamas is ipso facto “terrorist”, which makes it a valid target…  But the Hamas-related “Change and Reform Party”, which was the name of the party that actually ran in the elections, had received the agreement of both the US and Israel to participate in the election– a decision that Hamas had made in connection with a ceasefire that it and Fateh observed during the preceding six months. So why, after Hamas won the election, did Israel and the US suddenly decide that that was a quite unacceptable outcome? What kind of a democratic theory is that??)

In 2006, I interviewed the Hamas prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh, right there in the parliament building. I also interviewed the foreign minister-designate Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar. Both of them stressed that their main aim was to “put the Palestinian house in order” after the deep corruption that had marked Fateh’s ten years of domination of the Palestinian parliament.


December 27, 2009

Israel’s assault on Gaza– one year later

Filed under: Activism,Gaza,Hamas,International politics — Helena Cobban @ 10:45 pm

Rami Khouri has an excellent short assessment of the Gaza War, here.

He starts thus:

A year after the Israeli attack on Gaza, a scorecard of “winners and losers” suggests that nobody won anything, but Israel has probably suffered political losses that it could not have envisioned when it decided to invade Gaza. I count seven main aims that Israel had in mind when it launched its war a year ago and tightened its siege of Gaza; one of them was achievable without a war, and the six others have not been achieved, or have turned things to Hamas’ and the Palestinians’ favor.

Here are the seven war aims he identifies:

1) Israel’s first aim was to stop the small projectiles fire that was directed at southern Israel from Gaza. Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups had twice stopped firing projectiles at Israel from Gaza in the two years before the war, according to the terms of truce accords that had been negotiated. The idea that a war was needed to stop the attacks is Zionist lying and deception at their worst, given that the attacks had been stopped through nonviolent agreements that saw Israel also cease its much more vicious and destructive attacks against Gaza.


December 22, 2009

New short films: Gaza and Jerusalem

Filed under: Gaza,Hamas,Jerusalem,Multimedia resources — Helena Cobban @ 9:52 am

Dominic Musacchio, the videographer who came on CNIF’s November study tour to the Middle East, has now cut two new short films from his many miles of footage.  These ones give tightly edited highlights from (a) our trip to Gaza, and (b) a morning he spent following Jerusalem resident Aminah Abusway as she made her now lengthy and humiliating trek from home to her university classes at Al-Quds University.

Dominic has also recut the material he presented earlier, from our group’s November 4 meeting with Hamas head Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus.  Now it contains quite a bit more from Meshaal and a little bit less from our delegation’s co-leader, former ambassador Jack Matlock.

We hope these films will prove interesting and useful to our readers.

Dominic has 20 or 30 hours more of great material from the trip, that needs good, informed editing… Please tell us if you have suggestions for how this material could be used most effectively.

November 25, 2009

Matlock and Meshaal: the video

Filed under: Hamas,Multimedia resources — Helena Cobban @ 8:23 pm

Finally, as long promised, we’re getting some of our multimedia from the trip ready to share.

Here is the 5-minute film our videographer, Dominic Musacchio, made about the meeting we had with Hamas head Khaled Meshaal in Damascus on November 4. It culminates with the joke Meshaal made during his exchange with our delegation’s co-leader, Amb. Jack Matlock, who ad been Pres. Reagan’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union… But I think it gives a good flavor what Matlock was saying to Meshaal, too.

It was later in the same meeting that Meshaal made the statement about being open– in the context of the Palestinians have secured their rights in a state within the pre-1967 borders– to the prospect of having open diplomatic relations with Israel.

November 22, 2009

Matlock and Meshaal

Filed under: American attitudes,Hamas,Helena's travels,Palestinian politics — Helena Cobban @ 11:55 pm

One of the pleasures of co-leading CNI’s recently completed, 17-day study tour of the Arab-Israeli region was the fact that the other co-leader was Amb. Jack Matlock, who’d been Pres. Reagan’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union.  Matlock’s wife, Rebecca, was also a pleasure to have in the group. In addition to taking photos for us, she was just a constant font of kindness and good humor.

When we had our Nov. 4 meeting in Damascus with the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, there was a fascinating exchange between Jack Matlock and Khaled Meshaal in which Meshaal revealed (yet again) both his sense of humor– and the sense of relaxed self-confidence that comes with being able to express that in a large group– and his awareness of the need, as a political and potential national leader, not to have that sense of humor misunderstood.

Matlock initiated the exchange in question, at some point soon after the opening pleasantries had been exchanged.  He gave a fairly lengthy and very thoughtful presentation in which he reviewed some of the experiences he had had in the late 1980s, as Reagan’s ambassador to Moscow, at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev was starting to introduce some really serious reforms within the Soviet Union, and meantime the citizens of the three Baltic nations, which had been subsumed within the Soviet Union for many years, were starting to become eager to exercise their independence.


November 5, 2009

Hamas Leader Open to Future Relations with Israel

Filed under: Hamas,Palestinian politics — Carlton Cobb @ 7:49 pm

By Carlton Cobb, Team Coordinator for CNI’s Fall 2009 ‘political pilgrimage’

During a two-hour meeting with the CNI delegation in Damascus yesterday, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, told us:

It is not just to ask Palestinians to amend their charters without real change on the ground. Let us get our rights. Then we could discuss many issues, such as changing the Hamas and PLO charters or relations with Israel.

This came in response to a question posed by CNI Executive Director Helena Cobban, who asked him whether, in the context of Hamas winning the kind of peace agreement it seeks, the organization might consider amending its 1988 founding charter.

In the same round of questioning, Cobban had also asked whether Hamas would consider that the agreement it seeks, which is one based on Israel’s return to within its borders of June 4, 1967, would be understood by Hamas as one that ends the Palestinians’ decades-long conflict with Israel.

In other words, what is written in the Hamas charter seems under some circumstances to be negotiable. Meshaal’s answer was significant because it reflects a possible shift in Hamas strategy. The Hamas charter calls for a Palestinian state that replaces Israel and includes all of British Mandate-era Palestine.

Most Israelis equate this position with the destruction by force of Israel and, by extension, Jews. They argue that the Hamas position amounts to a call for a second Jewish Holocaust.

Meshaal’s statement demonstrated a willingness to accept Israel in the context of a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas, and the Palestine Liberation Organization before it, had previously emphasized the goal of replacing Israel by refusing to use the word “Israel” and instead using the term “Zionist entity,” implying that the state is illegitimate and temporary. Throughout our meeting, however, Meshaal chose to use the word “Israel” and almost never used the word “Zionism” or “Zionist.”

The last part of the statement quoted above demonstrates an implicit recognition of Israel, one of the three conditions that Israel and the Quartet have imposed on Hamas before agreeing to recognize it.

It is important to note that the PLO also held the same position of non-recognition of Israel for many years and only agreed to amend its charter under significant American and Israeli pressure. Meshaal noted that despite revising its position in 1996, the PLO still has not achieved a Palestinian state and, in fact, lost  popularity among Palestinians because of it.

A recurring theme of Meshaal’s answers was the difference between words and action. He downplayed the significance of the Hamas charter by pointing out that it was written in the “early days” of Hamas. Over time, Hamas has developed its political agenda, by agreeing to join the 2006 Palestinian Legsilative Council elections and accepting a solution to the conflict based on the 1967 borders. Hamas actions, he argued, should be more important than what is written in its charter.

He likewise argued that U.S. President Barack Obama should be judged by his actions and not his words. He expressed support for Obama’s speech in Cairo and said that Hamas was “ready to cooperate with Obama,” but that Obama’s Cairo speech was a “mirage” that had yet to become real. In his assessment, Meshaal felt that pressure from Israel and the “Israeli lobby” in the United States had caused Obama to back down far faster than Hamas had expected.

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