Palestinian statehoodn, why or why not?
- From: Earl Evleth <evleth@xxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Mon, 26 Sep 2011 09:21:45 +0200
Palestinian statehood, why or why not?
In my view it should have happened a long time ago. It would
have leveled the playing field a bit and possibly halted the
land theft by the Israeli occupiers. In fact the ultras in
Israel want the whole rest of the pie, this is the Eretz Israel
movement which influences much of Netanyahu's policies.
The formation of a Palestinian state would undercut Hamas,
Israel originally promoted Hamas to undercut the Palestinian
authority although that got out of hand.
Here is a Wall Street Journal article on that subject
How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas
By ANDREW HIGGINS
Moshav Tekuma, Israel
Surveying the wreckage of a neighbor's bungalow hit by a Palestinian rocket,
retired Israeli official Avner Cohen traces the missile's trajectory back to
an "enormous, stupid mistake" made 30 years ago.
"Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel's creation," says Mr. Cohen, a
Tunisian-born Jew who worked in Gaza for more than two decades. Responsible
for religious affairs in the region until 1994, Mr. Cohen watched the
Islamist movement take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals and
then morph into what is today Hamas, a militant group that is sworn to
Instead of trying to curb Gaza's Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen,
Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a
counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation
Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat's Fatah. Israel
cooperated with a crippled, half-blind cleric named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin,
even as he was laying the foundations for what would become Hamas. Sheikh
Yassin continues to inspire militants today; during the recent war in Gaza,
Hamas fighters confronted Israeli troops with "Yassins," primitive
rocket-propelled grenades named in honor of the cleric.
Last Saturday, after 22 days of war, Israel announced a halt to the
offensive. The assault was aimed at stopping Hamas rockets from falling on
Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hailed a "determined and successful
military operation." More than 1,200 Palestinians had died. Thirteen
Israelis were also killed.
Hamas responded the next day by lobbing five rockets towards the Israeli
town of Sderot, a few miles down the road from Moshav Tekuma, the farming
village where Mr. Cohen lives. Hamas then announced its own cease-fire.
Since then, Hamas leaders have emerged from hiding and reasserted their
control over Gaza. Egyptian-mediated talks aimed at a more durable truce are
expected to start this weekend. President Barack Obama said this week that
lasting calm "requires more than a long cease-fire" and depends on Israel
and a future Palestinian state "living side by side in peace and security."
A look at Israel's decades-long dealings with Palestinian radicals --
including some little-known attempts to cooperate with the Islamists --
reveals a catalog of unintended and often perilous consequences. Time and
again, Israel's efforts to find a pliant Palestinian partner that is both
credible with Palestinians and willing to eschew violence, have backfired.
Would-be partners have turned into foes or lost the support of their people.
Israel's experience echoes that of the U.S., which, during the Cold War,
looked to Islamists as a useful ally against communism. Anti-Soviet forces
backed by America after Moscow's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan later mutated
into al Qaeda.
At stake is the future of what used to be the British Mandate of Palestine,
the biblical lands now comprising Israel and the Palestinian territories of
the West Bank and Gaza. Since 1948, when the state of Israel was
established, Israelis and Palestinians have each asserted claims over the
The Palestinian cause was for decades led by the PLO, which Israel regarded
as a terrorist outfit and sought to crush until the 1990s, when the PLO
dropped its vow to destroy the Jewish state. The PLO's Palestinian rival,
Hamas, led by Islamist militants, refused to recognize Israel and vowed to
continue "resistance." Hamas now controls Gaza, a crowded, impoverished
sliver of land on the Mediterranean from which Israel pulled out troops and
settlers in 2005.
When Israel first encountered Islamists in Gaza in the 1970s and '80s, they
seemed focused on studying the Quran, not on confrontation with Israel. The
Israeli government officially recognized a precursor to Hamas called Mujama
Al-Islamiya, registering the group as a charity. It allowed Mujama members
to set up an Islamic university and build mosques, clubs and schools.
Crucially, Israel often stood aside when the Islamists and their secular
left-wing Palestinian rivals battled, sometimes violently, for influence in
both Gaza and the West Bank.
"When I look back at the chain of events I think we made a mistake," says
David Hacham, who worked in Gaza in the late 1980s and early '90s as an
Arab-affairs expert in the Israeli military. "But at the time nobody thought
about the possible results."
Israeli officials who served in Gaza disagree on how much their own actions
may have contributed to the rise of Hamas. They blame the group's recent
ascent on outsiders, primarily Iran. This view is shared by the Israeli
government. "Hamas in Gaza was built by Iran as a foundation for power, and
is backed through funding, through training and through the provision of
advanced weapons," Mr. Olmert said last Saturday. Hamas has denied receiving
military assistance from Iran.
Arieh Spitzen, the former head of the Israeli military's Department of
Palestinian Affairs, says that even if Israel had tried to stop the
Islamists sooner, he doubts it could have done much to curb political Islam,
a movement that was spreading across the Muslim world. He says attempts to
stop it are akin to trying to change the internal rhythms of nature: "It is
like saying: 'I will kill all the mosquitoes.' But then you get even worse
insects that will kill you...You break the balance. You kill Hamas you might
get al Qaeda."
When it became clear in the early 1990s that Gaza's Islamists had mutated
from a religious group into a fighting force aimed at Israel -- particularly
after they turned to suicide bombings in 1994 -- Israel cracked down with
ferocious force. But each military assault only increased Hamas's appeal to
ordinary Palestinians. The group ultimately trounced secular rivals, notably
Fatah, in a 2006 election supported by Israel's main ally, the U.S.
Now, one big fear in Israel and elsewhere is that while Hamas has been
hammered hard, the war might have boosted the group's popular appeal. Ismail
Haniyeh, head of the Hamas administration in Gaza, came out of hiding last
Sunday to declare that "God has granted us a great victory."
Most damaged from the war, say many Palestinians, is Fatah, now Israel's
principal negotiating partner. "Everyone is praising the resistance and
thinks that Fatah is not part of it," says Baker Abu-Baker, a longtime Fatah
supporter and author of a book on Hamas.
A Lack of Devotion
Hamas traces its roots back to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group set up in
Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood believed that the woes of the Arab world
spring from a lack of Islamic devotion. Its slogan: "Islam is the solution.
The Quran is our constitution." Its philosophy today underpins modern, and
often militantly intolerant, political Islam from Algeria to Indonesia.
After the 1948 establishment of Israel, the Brotherhood recruited a few
followers in Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza and elsewhere, but secular
activists came to dominate the Palestinian nationalist movement.
At the time, Gaza was ruled by Egypt. The country's then-president, Gamal
Abdel Nasser, was a secular nationalist who brutally repressed the
Brotherhood. In 1967, Nasser suffered a crushing defeat when Israel
triumphed in the six-day war. Israel took control of Gaza and also the West
"We were all stunned," says Palestinian writer and Hamas supporter Azzam
Tamimi. He was at school at the time in Kuwait and says he became close to a
classmate named Khaled Mashaal, now Hamas's Damascus-based political chief.
"The Arab defeat provided the Brotherhood with a big opportunity," says Mr.
In Gaza, Israel hunted down members of Fatah and other secular PLO factions,
but it dropped harsh restrictions imposed on Islamic activists by the
territory's previous Egyptian rulers. Fatah, set up in 1964, was the
backbone of the PLO, which was responsible for hijackings, bombings and
other violence against Israel. Arab states in 1974 declared the PLO the
"sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people world-wide.
The Muslim Brotherhood, led in Gaza by Sheikh Yassin, was free to spread its
message openly. In addition to launching various charity projects, Sheikh
Yassin collected money to reprint the writings of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian
member of the Brotherhood who, before his execution by President Nasser,
advocated global jihad. He is now seen as one of the founding ideologues of
militant political Islam.
Mr. Cohen, who worked at the time for the Israeli government's religious
affairs department in Gaza, says he began to hear disturbing reports in the
mid-1970s about Sheikh Yassin from traditional Islamic clerics. He says they
warned that the sheikh had no formal Islamic training and was ultimately
more interested in politics than faith. "They said, 'Keep away from Yassin.
He is a big danger,'" recalls Mr. Cohen.
Instead, Israel's military-led administration in Gaza looked favorably on
the paraplegic cleric, who set up a wide network of schools, clinics, a
library and kindergartens. Sheikh Yassin formed the Islamist group Mujama
al-Islamiya, which was officially recognized by Israel as a charity and
then, in 1979, as an association. Israel also endorsed the establishment of
the Islamic University of Gaza, which it now regards as a hotbed of
militancy. The university was one of the first targets hit by Israeli
warplanes in the recent war.
Brig. General Yosef Kastel, Gaza's Israeli governor at the time, is too ill
to comment, says his wife. But Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, who took over as
governor in Gaza in late 1979, says he had no illusions about Sheikh
Yassin's long-term intentions or the perils of political Islam. As Israel's
former military attache in Iran, he'd watched Islamic fervor topple the
Shah. However, in Gaza, says Mr. Segev, "our main enemy was Fatah," and the
cleric "was still 100% peaceful" towards Israel. Former officials say Israel
was also at the time wary of being viewed as an enemy of Islam.
Mr. Segev says he had regular contact with Sheikh Yassin, in part to keep an
eye on him. He visited his mosque and met the cleric around a dozen times.
It was illegal at the time for Israelis to meet anyone from the PLO. Mr.
Segev later arranged for the cleric to be taken to Israel for hospital
treatment. "We had no problems with him," he says.
In fact, the cleric and Israel had a shared enemy: secular Palestinian
activists. After a failed attempt in Gaza to oust secularists from
leadership of the Palestinian Red Crescent, the Muslim version of the Red
Cross, Mujama staged a violent demonstration, storming the Red Crescent
building. Islamists also attacked shops selling liquor and cinemas. The
Israeli military mostly stood on the sidelines.
Mr. Segev says the army didn't want to get involved in Palestinian quarrels
but did send soldiers to prevent Islamists from burning down the house of
the Red Crescent's secular chief, a socialist who supported the PLO.
'An Alternative to the PLO'
Clashes between Islamists and secular nationalists spread to the West Bank
and escalated during the early 1980s, convulsing college campuses,
particularly Birzeit University, a center of political activism.
As the fighting between rival student factions at Birzeit grew more violent,
Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari, then a military intelligence officer in Gaza, says
he received a call from Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint on the road
out of Gaza. They had stopped a bus carrying Islamic activists who wanted to
join the battle against Fatah at Birzeit. "I said: 'If they want to burn
each other let them go,'" recalls Mr. Harari.
A leader of Birzeit's Islamist faction at the time was Mahmoud Musleh, now a
pro-Hamas member of a Palestinian legislature elected in 2006. He recalls
how usually aggressive Israeli security forces stood back and let
conflagration develop. He denies any collusion between his own camp and the
Israelis, but says "they hoped we would become an alternative to the PLO."
A year later, in 1984, the Israeli military received a tip-off from Fatah
supporters that Sheikh Yassin's Gaza Islamists were collecting arms,
according to Israeli officials in Gaza at the time. Israeli troops raided a
mosque and found a cache of weapons. Sheikh Yassin was jailed. He told
Israeli interrogators the weapons were for use against rival Palestinians,
not Israel, according to Mr. Hacham, the military affairs expert who says he
spoke frequently with jailed Islamists. The cleric was released after a year
and continued to expand Mujama's reach across Gaza.
Around the time of Sheikh Yassin's arrest, Mr. Cohen, the religious affairs
official, sent a report to senior Israeli military and civilian officials in
Gaza. Describing the cleric as a "diabolical" figure, he warned that
Israel's policy towards the Islamists was allowing Mujama to develop into a
"I believe that by continuing to turn away our eyes, our lenient approach to
Mujama will in the future harm us. I therefore suggest focusing our efforts
on finding ways to break up this monster before this reality jumps in our
face," Mr. Cohen wrote.
Mr. Harari, the military intelligence officer, says this and other warnings
were ignored. But, he says, the reason for this was neglect, not a desire to
fortify the Islamists: "Israel never financed Hamas. Israel never armed
Roni Shaked, a former officer of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security
service, and author of a book on Hamas, says Sheikh Yassin and his followers
had a long-term perspective whose dangers were not understood at the time.
"They worked slowly, slowly, step by step according to the Muslim
In 1987, several Palestinians were killed in a traffic accident involving an
Israeli driver, triggering a wave of protests that became known as the first
Intifada, Mr. Yassin and six other Mujama Islamists launched Hamas, or the
Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas's charter, released a year later, is
studded with anti-Semitism and declares "jihad its path and death for the
cause of Allah its most sublime belief."
Israeli officials, still focused on Fatah and initially unaware of the Hamas
charter, continued to maintain contacts with the Gaza Islamists. Mr. Hacham,
the military Arab affairs expert, remembers taking one of Hamas's founders,
Mahmoud Zahar, to meet Israel's then defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, as
part of regular consultations between Israeli officials and Palestinians not
linked to the PLO. Mr. Zahar, the only Hamas founder known to be alive
today, is now the group's senior political leader in Gaza.
In 1989, Hamas carried out its first attack on Israel, abducting and killing
two soldiers. Israel arrested Sheikh Yassin and sentenced him to life. It
later rounded up more than 400 suspected Hamas activists, including Mr.
Zahar, and deported them to southern Lebanon. There, they hooked up with
Hezbollah, the Iran-backed A-Team of anti-Israeli militancy.
Many of the deportees later returned to Gaza. Hamas built up its arsenal and
escalated its attacks, while all along maintaining the social network that
underpinned its support in Gaza.
Meanwhile, its enemy, the PLO, dropped its commitment to Israel's
destruction and started negotiating a two-state settlement. Hamas accused it
of treachery. This accusation found increasing resonance as Israel kept
developing settlements on occupied Palestinian land, particularly the West
Bank. Though the West Bank had passed to the nominal control of a new
Palestinian Authority, it was still dotted with Israeli military checkpoints
and a growing number of Israeli settlers.
Unable to uproot a now entrenched Islamist network that had suddenly
replaced the PLO as its main foe, Israel tried to decapitate it. It started
targeting Hamas leaders. This, too, made no dent in Hamas's support, and
sometimes even helped the group. In 1997, for example, Israel's Mossad spy
agency tried to poison Hamas's exiled political leader Mr. Mashaal, who was
then living in Jordan.
The agents got caught and, to get them out of a Jordanian jail, Israel
agreed to release Sheikh Yassin. The cleric set off on a tour of the Islamic
world to raise support and money. He returned to Gaza to a hero's welcome.
Efraim Halevy, a veteran Mossad officer who negotiated the deal that
released Sheikh Yassin, says the cleric's freedom was hard to swallow, but
Israel had no choice. After the fiasco in Jordan, Mr. Halevy was named
director of Mossad, a position he held until 2002. Two years later, Sheikh
Yassin was killed by an Israeli air strike.
Mr. Halevy has in recent years urged Israel to negotiate with Hamas. He says
that "Hamas can be crushed," but he believes that "the price of crushing
Hamas is a price that Israel would prefer not to pay." When Israel's
authoritarian secular neighbor, Syria, launched a campaign to wipe out
Muslim Brotherhood militants in the early 1980s it killed more than 20,000
people, many of them civilians.
In its recent war in Gaza, Israel didn't set the destruction of Hamas as its
goal. It limited its stated objectives to halting the Islamists' rocket fire
and battering their overall military capacity. At the start of the Israeli
operation in December, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told parliament that the
goal was "to deal Hamas a severe blow, a blow that will cause it to stop its
hostile actions from Gaza at Israeli citizens and soldiers."
Walking back to his house from the rubble of his neighbor's home, Mr. Cohen,
the former religious affairs official in Gaza, curses Hamas and also what he
sees as missteps that allowed Islamists to put down deep roots in Gaza.
He recalls a 1970s meeting with a traditional Islamic cleric who wanted
Israel to stop cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood followers of Sheikh
Yassin: "He told me: 'You are going to have big regrets in 20 or 30 years.'
He was right."