It’s past time to end the demonization of Hamas

The above image shows leaders of Hamas and Fateh sitting together in Moscow in late February to await a meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov

Over the decades, the Palestinian Hamas movement has often been demonized in Western public discourse, but never so thoroughly and virulently as has happened since October 7. This demonization, as exemplified in repeated demands that everyone “condemn Hamas” or in depictions of the movement as constituting “pure evil”, has had real and very damaging consequences. For example, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations three times cast a veto at the Security Council to block resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, attributing that veto mainly to the failure of the resolution in question to include an explicit condemnation of Hamas.

Those vetoes all considerably prolonged the suffering of Gaza’s 2.3 million people.

Israel’s leaders have led the chorus of voices demanding that everyone condemn Hamas. From October 7 on, those leaders widely touted accounts of the rights violations that, they claimed, Hamas and allied groups had committed inside Israel that day, and used those accounts to argue that Hamas is “just like ISIS.” (It is not.) Then, after media outlets in Israel itself had debunked some of the more lurid and disturbing descriptions of the violations of October 7, PM Netanyahu and his ministers still continued to anathematize the movement and to argue that that they needed to continue their devastating military offensive in Gaza until they completely “destroy” it.

But even while Israeli and U.S. leaders continued in every public forum to push their hard-hitting campaign to excoriate and exclude Hamas, at the same time behind closed doors in Cairo, Doha, or Paris they have often been working hard to pursue the indirect negotiations with the Hamas leaders that they know are needed if the Israeli hostages are ever to be released. What hypocrites. And during the seven-day pause in fighting that Israel and the United States negotiated with Hamas last November, Hamas delivered on its promises. (There are contending accounts of which side was responsible for the ending of that pause. But its first 6.5 days passed according to the negotiated plan and saw the release of 105 Israeli hostages.)

Also, lest we forget, after the UN Security Council finally on March 25 adopted a ceasefire resolution that demanded an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, Hamas speedily expressed it support for the resolution, while the government of Israel rejected it.

The tough campaign that Israel’s leaders and their backers worldwide have pursued to demonize and exclude Hamas as much as possible is nothing new. When I grew up in England in the 1950s and 1960s, British and other Western leaders leaders kept up a chorus of condemnation of the “primitive violence” of anti-colonial movements like that of the Mau Mau in Kenya or the FLN in Algeria. A little later, American leaders were using the same kinds of demonizing tropes to belittle and anathematize the forces that resisted the large-scale colonial-style violence that Washington deployed in Vietnam.

But in all those cases– and in numerous other instances of “White” colonial powers desperately trying to hold on to their crumbling empires– the leaders of the “White” countries ended up having to negotiate the drawdown or exit of their armed forces with those self-same anti-colonial resisters. And in all those cases, those negotiations occurred only after the “White” colonial powers had inflicted deep and widespread harms on the citizens of the colonized countries.

That colonizer/anti-colonial framing of what is happening in Gaza today does a lot to explain why sympathy for the Palestinians and outrage at Israel’s violence runs so deep in nearly all the world’s previously colonized countries (including Ireland.) And the situation faced by Palestinians today resonates globally in another way, too: in the whole narrative– and its strong underpinning in international law– that people living under military occupation have a right to resist “by all means necessary”, including violence. That principle is also, like the principle of supporting decolonization, deeply embedded in post-1945 international law; and it helps explain why people and leaders in many countries once occupied by the Nazis have notable sympathy with the Palestinians.

I have some direct experience of my own of having seen how a movement once routinely derided and anathematized (in the West) as “terrorists” became, over a very short period of time, seen as a valuable– indeed a necessary– negotiating partner… And how then, when the success of those negotiations was unveiled in public, the leaders of the organization were speedily lionized on the White House lawn and in many other Western capitals.

That was what happened with another Palestinian movement, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO. Until 1988, the Israelis and Americans all publicly slammed the PLO as just a gang of terrorists. For many years Israel’s Mossad hunted down and tried to kill its leaders and operatives all around the world; and in 1982 Defense Minister Ariel Sharon mounted a broad and punishing invasion of Lebanon in an attempt to snuff the PLO out completely. But a decade later, Israel’s PM Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres used Scandinavian intermediaries to work towards an interim disengagement agreement with the PLO.

In September 1993, those negotiations were complete. Pres. Bill Clinton then invited Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and veteran PLO leader Yasser Arafat to come and sign their “Oslo Accords” on the White House lawn.

I had spent the previous decade in the United States, first of all writing a book on the history of the PLO and then working to argue wherever possible that it would be better to include the PLO in any negotiations over the future of the West Bank and Gaza, rather than continuing to exclude them. In the late 1980s I was involved along with my spouse Bill Quandt in a push to open up a public channel of communication between Arafat and the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. That push succeeded in late 1988, though the success was short-lived. Bill and I were both largely taken by surprise when the Oslo Accords were unveiled. Then, I was among the guests invited to the White House to witness the signing of the Oslo Accords themselves. It was a deeply unreal experience to see members of Congress who just days before had been vocally condemning Arafat and everything he stood for, now suddenly lining up to get their photos taken as they shook his hand…

I don’t expect to see Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh invited to the White House any time soon. But the world has changed a lot since 1993. The United States no longer has the hegemonic power it had back then to single-handedly adjudicate all aspects of Arab-Israeli diplomacy. So it is no longer as important today as it was in 1993 whether any given leader from the Global South gets invited to Washington or not. Meantime, though, Haniyeh and his colleagues in the leadership of Hamas– which, by the way, has a much more collegial ethos of leadership than the PLO ever had– have plenty of other West Asian and world capitals where they are welcome. Earlier this month Haniyeh met in Doha with Chinese diplomat Wang Kejian, and last month a high-ranking Hamas delegation met in Moscow with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov– and also with leading members of the Fateh/PLO movement and other Palestinian trends.

That latter set of meetings had special significance because it was part of ongoing attempts by diplomats from around the world to help the leaders of all the different Palestinian factions revive the PLO, by bringing Hamas and its allies into it for the first time. The PLO was the body that concluded the Oslo Accords with Israel back in 1993, and is still regarded by most governments around the world as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people. After Oslo was signed, the PLO birthed the “Palestinian Authority” (PA) that, under the Accords, runs civil affairs in some parts of the occupied West Bank under Israel’s continuing over-all control, but the PLO retains considerable standing in Palestinian and world politics.

Washington continues to vehemently oppose any move to bring Hamas and its allies into the PLO and has been pushing for a strictly Hamas-excluding PA to take over the administration of Gaza when the current war ends. (For his part, PM Netanyahu strongly opposes Washington on that, since he and his ultra-right allies are opposed to giving the PA and its current head, the ageing, Ramallah-based autocrat Mahmoud Abbas, any legitimacy. Go figure.)

As someone who has closely tracked Palestinian politics for more than 50 years, I can say with high confidence that all of Washington’s plans to destroy Hamas in the field of intra-Palestinian politics are as doomed to failure as– or even more so than– the plans of the Israeli government to defeat it on the actual battlefield of Gaza. I have followed the development of Hamas almost since its inception in late 1987, and over the years I’ve been able to interview more than half a dozen of the movement’s top leaders, some of them a number of times. Over these years, I have seen the movement show deep resilience and continue to grow ever deeper roots. It has survived numerous Israeli attempts to assassinate its leaders, many of which succeeded. It has also matured considerably as a movement, and its leaders have faced many of the same tough issues of whether, when, and to what extent to show diplomatic flexibility that the PLO’s leaders faced in earlier decades.

In January 2006, the PA (which as noted above, was the child of the Oslo Accords) held parliamentary elections involving just the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. During the earlier round of PA legislative elections, in 1996, Hamas had refused to participate. It claimed that participating in the vote under the shadow of Oslo would come too close to endorsing the recognition of Israel, and acceptance of a “two-state” outcome, on which Oslo had been based. In 2006, by contrast, Hamas did participate. Election monitors from Western countries described those elections as free and fair– and Hamas turned out to be the victor!

The step the Hamas leaders took in 2006 toward political/diplomatic moderation met with a furious, punishing response from Israel and Washington. Haniyeh, as the leader of the PA legislature’s largest faction, worked to assemble a broad, “technocratic” government. But Washington and Israel colluded with Mahmoud Abbas to mount a vicious internal coup against him. Haniyeh and his allies turned back the coup attempt almost before it started. So Israel and Washington then slapped a tough blockade against Hamas’s home turf in the Gaza Strip, locking the Strip’s two-plus million people into a massive open-air prison for the next 16 years. And Israel also launched a harsh crackdown on Hamas’s many elected parliamentarians and other leaders in the West Bank.

Since October 7, Hamas’s popularity in the West Bank and other areas that host large numbers of Palestinians has soared. Recent weeks have seen massive gatherings in close U.S. ally Jordan, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and expressing support for Hamas. Two other crucial data points: All the attempts U.S. envoys have made to rally Palestinian support for Mr. Abbas have failed; and back in late October even the man whom Abbas relied on, back in 2006, to lead the coup against Hamas in Gaza, Mohammad Dahlan, was telling Western reporters that Hamas would have to be included in the future government of the Strip.

Hence, whether Western leaders like it or not, Hamas is clearly here to stay as a significant force in Palestinian politics and thus in the future of West Asia. This will be the case whether Israel is allowed to continue its brutal genocidal campaign in Gaza to the extent of killing another 32,000 or even one million people in Gaza, or not. The Palestinian people in Gaza have clearly rejected all the attempts the Israelis have made to persuade them to blame Hamas for their unspeakable suffering. They well know who is genociding them.

Peoples and governments in Western nations have a clear choice. We can continue to arm and support Israel’s genocide in Gaza and to buy all the Israeli-generated propaganda about Hamas being a force of “pure evil” that needs to be destroyed… Or we can go all-out to push for a ceasefire while we also get realistic about the true nature and deep roots of Hamas, and the clear need to include it in all the planning for the post-ceasefire governance of Gaza– and also, down the road, of the West Bank.

But to get realistic about Hamas, we need to stop demonizing the movement. And everyone in public life in the United States and other Western nations needs to start understanding Hamas’s history and internal dynamics a lot better than they do now. I have made a few attempts to do this over the years. (Check some of them out here.) But there is a lot more work for all of us to do.

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3 thoughts on “It’s past time to end the demonization of Hamas”

  1. Thanks vey much for this fine intervention Helen. sorely needed. I learned a lot from this succinct account of the history of Hamas and its relationship to the PLO in recent years and its legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people.
    And thanks for your long-standing support for the Palestinians and the TRUTH about Israel and the complicity of the USA now being exposed like never before.

  2. Such a rare but critically important perspective and understanding. Western people who have lived in privileged comfort all their lives have no clue about the workings of a real revolutionary movement and so are completely flumoxed by the propaganda against Hamas–including claims the people of Palestine oppose them!

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