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From support to indiscriminate bombing

Andy Gregg examines the evolution of Israel's approach to the Palestinians elected government in Gaza

In all the discussions about Gaza and the 'dangers' for the Israelis of talking to the democratically elected Hamas, few people realize that Hamas was originally set up and supported as a deliberate creation by the Israeli secret services under the previous Likud regimes in the 70s and 80s. The aim was to provide a direct counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This sounds like an extravagant and conspiratorial claim but this is also what the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert believes. The Jerusalem Post (February 13th 2007) reports Olmert as accusing Netanyahu of directly contributing to strengthening the Hamas movement by releasing the movement's founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, during his term as prime minister. 'Netanyahu established Hamas, gave it life, freed Sheikh Yassin and gave him the opportunity to blossom,' he said, adding that the current political situation in the Palestinian Authority came about 'because of the nonsense that was done while Netanyahu was prime minister.'

Blowback was the name given by the US intelligence industry to the Taliban who they had originally supported and funded through Pakistani intermediaries in the form of the notorious ISI - the Pakistani secret service. Richard Sale, a UPI correspondent writing about the origins of Hamas pointed out that, 'According to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials, beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years.' Israel 'aided Hamas directly, the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO,' said Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies.

According to documents United Press International obtained from the Israel-based Institute for Counter Terrorism, Hamas evolved from cells of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928. Islamic movements in Israel and Palestine were 'weak and dormant' until after the 1967 Six Day War. During this period the Israelis provided substantial undercover support for the new movement. Hamas took on a much more militant stance during and after the first intifada which began in 1987. Hamas is a complex organization that has always had a number of tendencies and internal disagreements. There are relatively moderate elements (Ismail Haniyeh being a representative of these elements) and much more hardline factions (often represented by those outside the Palestinian Territories such as Khaled Mashal based in Damascus). Some Hamas leaders are keen for the movement to become more authentic and independent of Iranian and other outside influences, whilst others are content to trumpet the Iranian line. There is of course a latent contradiction between the almost exclusively Sunni Hamas and their Shia backers in Iran. Some elements of Hamas clearly espouse potentially totalitarian, theocratic and anti-semitic views, whereas others are surprisingly moderate and realistic about the reality of the Israeli presence in their midst. These tensions between moderates and hardliners have on occasion been used by the Israelis as well as other regional power brokers such as the Syrians and the Iranians. It remains the case that military attacks on broad movements such as Hamas almost always empower the more extreme elements against the more moderate. We have seen this recently in Gaza but it echoes earlier experience with the emerging Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia.

Hamas's Charter does call for replacing the State of Israel with a Palestinian Islamic state in the area that is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Of course this is one of the most quoted articles by the Israeli media. However, Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, stated in 2008 that the group was willing to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and offered Israel a long-term truce. However, the Hamas Charter and public statements by several prominent members of Hamas do reflect the influence of antisemitic conspiracy theories. On the other hand, the head of the political bureau of Hamas stated that their conflict with Israel 'is not religious but political', and that the Jews have a covenant from God 'that is to be respected and protected.' Haniyeh in an interview with the Washington Post had the following to say about his own view of Hamas's position: To dispel some of the lies circulating in the media concerning Hamas not wanting peace and only seeking the destruction of Israel, Ismail Haniyeh said he "wanted to see an end to the vicious cycle of violence' and vehemently denied the claim that 'Hamas is committed to destroying Israel'. He said, 'We do not have any feelings of animosity toward Jews. We do not wish to throw them into the sea. All we seek is to be given our land back, not to harm anybody....We are not war seekers nor are we war initiators. We are not lovers of blood. We are oppressed people with rights.'

The Washington Post then asked him 'Would Hamas recognize Israel if it were to withdraw to the '67 borders?' Haniyeh replied: 'If Israel withdraws to the '67 borders, then we will establish peace in stages... We will establish a situation of stability and calm which will bring safety for our people".

W Post then asked: 'Do you recognize Israel's right to exist?' Haniyeh: 'The answer is to let Israel say it will recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, release the prisoners and recognize the rights of the refugees to return to Israel. Hamas will have a position if this occurs.'

W Post: 'Will you recognize Israel?

Haniyeh: 'If Israel declares that it will give the Palestinian people a state and give them back all their rights, then we are ready to recognize them.'

Compared to the secular PLO, Hamas is seen by many Palestinians as relatively uncorrupted. It distributes significant amounts of aid (from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other sources) throughout Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Israeli commentators agree that Hamas spends approximately 80% of its resources on social welfare, cultural, and educational activities. In the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas has established hospitals, schools, libraries, and provided other social services. It has programmes to support widows and orphans and to distribute food. Like all other Palestinian military factions (incuding Fatah with its Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade) it has been involved at various times in suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Southern Israel.

The graft and corruption that has tarred the various secular factions in the PLO (Fatah in particular) has not yet been evident in Hamas to anything like the same degree. This of course is largely why it was able to win the Palestinian elections in January 2006 so conclusively. Increasing accusations of nepotism and cronyism are now starting to surface, but the fact that Hamas did not surrender or cave in to the massive recent Israeli attack may well have strengthened their support (at the same time as it has undoubtedly weakened Fatah still further). There are worrying signs that the more radical elements may be back in the ascendency and a recent campaign of punishment murders and beatings in Gaza has been reported towards those held to have collaborated with the Israelis. None of this makes Hamas a particularly nice organization but it is worth thinking about what would happen if the Israelis were successful in removing it (as Netanyahu has said he intends to do). The winners from this scenario would not be the PLO (and thus the Israelis). The space would be taken by far more dangerous and absolutist groups such as Islamic Jihad or even explicitly Al Qaida oriented groups who are lurking in the wings many of whom are suspicious of Hamas support from Shia Iran.

If Hamas, which is in great part the Israelis' own creation, has turned into a Frankenstein's monster they only have themselves to blame. The argument that they cannot talk to Hamas now when they colluded so much with it in the past is cynical spin. Whether Israel will ever again be able to talk sensibly to its remaining enemies in Hamas, it is vital that the US and Europeans start to open up channels of communication with Hamas as it looks like they will with the Iranians themselves. Both courses of action will be deeply unpopular with the Israeli Government (of whatever persuasion manages to cobble together a coalition in the next few weeks). It will also be very difficult to do given the fact that the pro Zionist lobby in the US has virtually run US foreign policy since the 1980s. However in the long run it would actually be in Israel's interests. The alternative is likely to be the breakdown of any two state solution which may be the only way of avoiding further decades of escalating violence throughout an increasingly nuclear armed region.

Continuing occupation and threats of war have started to erode any sense of Israeli democracy from inside as we can see by such substantial support for a racist and fascist party like that lead by Avigdor Lieberman. The massive Israeli support for an invasion that seems to have involved numerous war crimes shows how far the Zionist state has deviated from what it said were its founding principles. The notion that Israel's army is more pure and humane in its approach to conflict has disappeared for ever behind a fog of burning phosphorous. Clouds of smoke from bombed hospitals and schools (and the ever more bizarre sight of their desperate excuses for such outrages) have devalued for ever the notion that Israel is somehow an exceptionally moral nation as a result of its own experiences of terror and genocide.

The Israeli claim to exceptionalism is based largely on the Holocaust and their history of thousands of years of pogroms and persecution. This card is finally running out of currency with over use as is their constant accusation of anti-semitism towards anyone who criticizes their conduct or questions this exceptionalism Indeed the conclusion to the recent Israeli attack on Gaza as well as the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of the West Bank is surely that of W.H.Auden:

"What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return"