Monday, May 01, 2006

Past and Present Terrorists Must Start Talking

The Middle East is a confused and confusing mess of slippery alliances and rhetorical flourish. It is also the region of the world that produced the three great Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In this region, politics and religion are intertwined. In parts of the region, people of different faiths live together as they have for hundreds of years. In other parts, religion is used as an excuse to hate and terrorise and kill.

In the most recent elections of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas narrowly defeated the incumbent Fatah faction formerly led by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Hamas has claimed responsibility for s string of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings on Israeli territory.

Yet Hamas does not have a monopoly on religious extremism or violence. For each Israeli citizen killed in the violence, at least five Palestinians (Muslim and Christian) are killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers.

For many Westerners, Israel is seen as an island of democracy and religious sanity in a sea of instability and intolerance. Years of erstwhile lobbying by groups such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have created an image of Israel that Israelis themselves are quick to deny.

Israel’s cheer-squad of lobbyists across the western world will never mention the multi-faceted reality that Israeli citizens take for granted. While Hamas is demonized, we are never told what most Israeli experts admit – that Hamas was created by Israel as a means of creating an indigenous Palestinian leadership that would rival the constantly-fueding factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The first Palestinian Intifadeh (an Arabic word meaning literally “shaking off”) erupted in December 1987 after an Israeli lorry ran into and killed four Palestinians. This spontaneous protest was an indigenous affair, though supported by the Palestinian leadership then based in Tunis.

Israel saw the PLO as a threat, and its friends in Western countries labeled the PLO as a terrorist organization. Israel supported and funded Hamas, a grassroots organization which grew out of the Palestinian branch of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) movement founded by Egyptian Sufi Hasan al-Banna.

The Brotherhood was initially formed as a movement for education and social reform. Its growing popularity meant it was increasingly viewed as a threat by Egypt’s rulers who were still under British control.

The Brotherhood fought in Palestine during the late 1940’s. Following Israel’s creation, the Brotherhood maintained a branch within the Palestinian community. It operated largely unmolested by Israeli army and intelligence. Its activities were largely limited to the management of institutions such as mosques, clinics, schools and orphanages.

Among the Brotherhood’s early recruits in Egypt during the 1940’s was Yasser Arafat, then a young engineering student. Following Hasan al-Banna’s assassination in 1949, the movement splintered into factions of varying degrees of radicalism.

Israel has its own problems with extremism. For over a decade, Jewish fundamentalists have dominated senior ministries. While first Palestinian Authority government appointed a Christian woman (Dr Hanan Ashrawi) as its Education Minister, the portfolio of education in Israeli administrations is traditionally held by a member of any one of Israel’s numerous fundamentalist parties.

Israel’s Jewish fundamentalist movements have been active supporters of Israeli settlers who refused to abandon their outposts in Gaza following Ariel Sharon’s decision to quite Gaza. The rhetoric of Israeli clerics has been increasingly racist toward both Christian and Muslim Arabs in East Jerusalem.

But it isn’t just Arabs who bear the brunt of racism. Recently I attended a screening of the French-Israeli screen co-production Live and Become. The film is the story of a young Ethiopian Christian boy whose family is driven by famine into a refugee camp in the mid-1980’s. The boy’s mother pushes him forward to join a group of Ethiopian Jews being airlifted to Israel as part of its Operation Moses.

The boy pretends to be a Jew and experiences first-hand the racism faced by black-skinned Jews at the hands of European Israelis who refuse to regard the Ethiopians as their equals. The discrimination faced by Ethiopian Jews continues to this day.

In one scene, the boy joins a group of other Ethiopians who are called for an interview by Israeli immigration authorities. The so-called interview turns out to be a surgical procedure ordered by Israel’s European rabbinical authorities who suspect the Ethiopians are not “ethnically” Jewish.

Both Palestinian and Israeli societies contain ugly, xenophobic and violent elements. Today’s Palestinian government includes terrorists just as successive Israeli governments (including former Prime Ministers such as Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin) include former terrorists.

If peace is to prevail in this region, present and past terrorists have to take the example of the Begins and Arafats and behave like statesmen. Israel, largely responsible for turning Hamas into a Palestinian power, must now learn to deal with it. Hamas must learn that it can achieve more by holding an olive branch than a gun.

(The author is a Sydney lawyer and writer.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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