Behind the evil

My following review of Paul McGeough’s book, Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit…and the rise of Hamas, appears in the March edition of the Australian Literary Review:

At a pro-Israel rally in London in January, one Jewish participant compared fighting Hamas terrorism with treating cancer: “When you treat cancer you kill some of the innocent blood cells. We regret any loss of human life [but] you don’t stop before you finish the course of treatment, otherwise it will come back stronger.”

This view, widely supported in the West, is tested in Paul McGeough’s sober history of the Palestinian nationalist and liberation movement. In his telling, Hamas has pursued politically pragmatic policies, often alongside unconscionable violence, to achieve its aims, with varying degrees of success.

Kill Khalid was written before the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza but McGeough deals directly with issues related to it. A foreign correspondent for the Fairfax group who has spent much time in the Middle East, he has ambivalent views towards Hamas. He details its appalling use of terrorism against its opponents and against Israel. But overall he attempts to find some sort of middle ground, a sparsely populated terrain in the Middle East debate.

At the end of the Gaza war, former US president Jimmy Carter told The Daily Beast website that the Islamist group had to be engaged if peace in the Middle East was to be achieved. “I met Hamas last month [December 2008] and Hamas has committed to me, and publicly on Al-Jazeera, that it would accept any agreement negotiated between Palestine and Israel provided it is submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum or if there’s an elected unity government,” Carter said. He stressed: “That means they [Hamas] accept Israel’s right to exist, to live in peace.”

About the same time The Jerusalem Post editorialised that Hamas was a “movement that amalgamates fascism with religious extremism and a genocidal platform” and the Jewish state had no choice but to respond defensively to “Palestinian bombardment”.

The final ramifications of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas have yet to be written – and a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, negotiated with Egyptian assistance, has to hold – but initial signs are that the movement has gained politically among Palestinians. A survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre last month found a surge of support for Hamas, decline for the corrupt US and Israeli-backed Fatah, and a swing towards resistance rather than negotiation. A veteran Fatah leader in the West Bank city of Nablus observed that the “Hamas era started when Israel attacked Gaza on December 27”.

McGeough’s book opens almost a dozen years earlier, with the botched 1997 Israeli assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in Amman, Jordan. The Jewish state, he writes, felt Mishal “was too credible as the new leader of Hamas, persuasive even. He had to be taken out.” With that, we are launched into a world of Israeli blunders over successive decades that have had the opposite to the intended effect. Israel never accepted the legitimacy of a viable Palestinian entity, McGeough argues, yet never understood that its emergence was unavoidable as long as Palestinian land remained occupied.

“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” retired Israeli official Avner Cohen told The Wall Street Journal in late January. McGeough outlines how the Jewish state tolerated and even encouraged the group since its birth in the 1980s, seeing it as a counterweight to Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. By the time Israel realised its mistake, it was too late, as Hamas provided welfare, education and health services to countless Palestinians. The organisation, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, had immersed itself into society and could not simply be eradicated by military means.

McGeough painstakingly details the reasons for Hamas’s resistance. When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, Mishal’s family was removed from its land. Confrontation with the Jewish state was inevitable. By the time he was a student at Kuwait University Mishal was developing his vision of a strong Palestinian resistance movement. “There was no such thing as a neutral Palestinian,” McGeough writes. “Their history was too new, too raw and, of late, too humiliating.”

Mishal believed even then, decades before the rise of Hamas, that Arafat’s Fatah was too secular, too weak and too arrogant. Achieving his aims, however, would require brutality. McGeough told the Columbia Journalism Review last month the only term for such behaviour was terrorism and that Hamas was “a group that uses terror as a weapon”.

The US government started to investigate Hamas and its ties to terrorism in the ’90s. McGeough details the purchasing of weapons for “holy war” and the “chilling litany of violent upheaval in more than 200 civilian lives”. He devotes many pages to Mishal’s personal history and some may think that by doing so he airbrushes a man who uses violence to further his political aims.

Mishal, we are told, is a former teacher well-versed in Arabic translations of the Western classics, including Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and also reads contemporary texts such as Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Yet he remains sympathetic to the message of the Muslim Brotherhood, the “Islamist current”, and has employed whatever methods are at his disposal, including suicide bombings, to achieve his perceived goals.

The spiritual leader of Hamas, the wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Yassin – assassinated by the Israelis in 2004 – argued to his followers, including Mishal, that the Jews could be kicked out of Palestine only after the brotherhood established an Islamic state in Egypt, Syria or Jordan. Hamas’s 2006 election win in Palestine, shunned by the international community because the “wrong” side prevailed, caused some in the movement to seek a more moderate position. It has since offered a long-term truce and a willingness to accept a Palestinian state along 1967 borders. In other words, the two-state solution long said to be the goal of the UN, US, Israel, the European Union, Arab League and Australia.

From Hamas’s perspective, that Israel continued to build illegal settlements in the West Bank and imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza was a clear indication – after Fatah negotiated with Israel for years and achieved nothing – that resistance was the only path towards self-determination.

McGeough neither glorifies Mishal, now based in Damascus, nor ignores the brutality and terrorism wrought on those who stood in the way of establishing “a multimillion-dollar global apparatus [that] delivered in arms and blood, dollars and diplomacy”. A recent example was the murder of Fatah rivals in the wake of the Gaza war.

As far back as the mid-’80s, Mishal recognised the importance of incorporating violent resistance and political development. He realised the duplicity of Arafat long before the vast majority of Palestinians did. Hamas, an Arabic word meaning zeal or enthusiasm, thrived on the rivalry between itself and Fatah. After more than two decades of squabbling and revenge attacks, the uneasy relationship exploded in 2007 when Hamas pre-empted a Fatah coup in the occupied territories and assumed control of the Gaza Strip. Israel and Washington backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan but the civil war that followed left Hamas stronger.

McGeough, who interviewed many of the key players in the drama, including Mishal, constantly aims to challenge the reader’s point of view. The Hamas leader comes acrossas intriguing, determined, pedantic – and ferocious:

Mishal was a complex individual with a personal charm that belied the caricature and his cutthroat reputation. He had a broader interest in world affairs than his remorseless public rhetoric would suggest. The man who presided over a killing machine had the fastidious personal habits of a hospitable Arab chieftain. He would polish grapes one at a time with a tissue, or he would produce a knife to slice pieces from a ripened peach, before distributing the fruit to a visitor. If the visitor’s eye wandered, he would interrupt his delivery, which was principally in Arabic, and switch into English to command eye contact with the words, “Excuse me!”

That passage is eerily reminiscent of Robert Fisk’s encounter with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1993, and some readers may condemn McGeough for supping with the enemy. Each journalist tries to deconstruct figures who are, in Fisk’s words, “monstrous beast-men” in the Western imagination. McGeough and Fisk attempt to explain the reasons behind terrorism but never defend its use.

During the Gaza war Mishal used an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper in Britain to issue a warning to his Western critics. Israel, he wrote, should expect violence against its people until the Palestinians were treated with respect. “The logic of those who demand that we stop our resistance is absurd,” he argued. “They absolve the aggressor and occupier of responsibility while blaming the victim, prisoner and occupied.”

This defiance has defined the Palestinian struggle for more than a half century. McGeough’s interpretation of the Hamas movement is rooted in realism.

Whether realism can provide a solution is another question. Realism almost certainly means engaging with Hamas, as even Tony Blair acknowledged to The Times in late January: “In a situation like this you need to talk to everybody.”

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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