Freedom Fighters, Terrorists or Schlemiels?

Condi Rice: “What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

Jon Stewart: “Birth pangs? Yes, I believe today’s contraction took out a city block.”

On January 21, President Obama telephoned the King of Jordan, the Prime Minister of Israel, the President of Egypt and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, before dispatching former Senator George Mitchell to spearhead peace negotiations. He excluded Hamas leaders from his phone tree, although they had won the 2006 election to represent the people of Gaza. Obviously, Hamas has also won the label “terrorist” and, as Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni proudly if not smugly assured members of the National Press Club in Washington DC, Israel would not talk with Hamas. “We do not negotiate with terrorists,” she asserted, moral indignation dripping from her words. (January 16)

Her father, Eitan Livni, proudly served as chief operations officer of the Irgun, a right wing Zionist gang that in the post 1945 period sent letter bombs to the British occupying authorities and in 1946 blew up the King David hotel in Jerusalem. Some Jews died in that terrorist act along with others who had no relationship to the issue of an Israeli state. Some British intelligence officials also got blown away.

Livni’s ops dressed up as Arabs. Who would suspect benign Arabs? “People who looked like they might be violent Zionists would have attracted suspicion,” wrote Juan Cole. “Later generations of rightwing Zionists have attempted to convince the rest of the world that the Arab kaffiyah is an icon of terrorism; but their parents were perfectly willing to display it as a sign of innocence (and perhaps with the intention that the Arabs should take the fall).” (

In 2006, Likudnik and former Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu commemorated that bombing, also honored by surviving Irgun members. In 1948, Irgun members also participated in what Arabs call a massacre of Palestinian civilians at Deir Yassin. Israeli historians differ as to whether the more than 100 dead, including many old people, were shot or died as a result of the battle. Tzipi has not repudiated her father’s actions, but feels no apparent sense of shame or even contradiction when she labels her current foes as terrorists with whom she will never negotiate. Well, maybe she never negotiated with her father! Oh, he wasn’t a terrorist; he was an Israeli patriot!

As a supposedly anti-terrorist action, Israel dropped thousands of tons of bombs on Gaza in December and January. It had tried a similar “anti-terrorist” tactic against southern Lebanon in 2006. Unlike the relatively primitive explosives used by the old terrorists, like Eitan Livni, Israel today employs white phosphorous and cluster bombs — anti-personnel weapons originally designed for use against large numbers of troops on a battlefield, but not to be deployed against civilians. Israel dropped these people killers on Lebanese farms just before its army withdrew. Deterrent or child killer? Let’s not quibble over definitions!

President Shimon Peres called both cluster bomb dropping and the Lebanon war itself “mistakes.” Those mistakes have become history which, in the United States, remains “bunk” (Henry Ford). Since the past seems relevant only in five, 10, 25 and 50 year commemorations, the media didn’t see the need to provide a more immediate context for its readers and viewers; so Livni’s father’s activities did not get reported widely.

Nor did the media offer necessary context about the origins of Hamas and Israel’s role in its creation. A rare exception came from UPI reporter Richard Sale in 2002. Using as sources “several current and former U.S. intelligence officials,” Sale confirmed that “beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years.” (6/18/02)

In the early 1970s, Sale reported, Israeli leaders, anxious to dilute the appeal of the newly arisen and secular PLO, tried to induce a rival to challenge PLO authority. They even contributed money to religious elements in the occupied Palestinian territories. By supporting madrasas (religious schools) mainly in Gaza, the religious elements would educate young men in Islam rather than in the quickly spreading ideology of Palestinian nationalism. “The Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization),” said Anthony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies.

Israel also allowed Islamic associations to receive money from abroad. The Gulf oil-producing states contributed as well. With these funds, the religious based groups established clinics, orphanages and schools. Skilled artisans taught women crafts and social workers administered help to the poorest.

Behind these superficially benign Islamic associations, however, stood organizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, dating back to 1928 in Egypt. After the 1967 Six Day War, these organizers went into refugee camps and began to provide the only services available. “Social influence grew into political influence, first in the Gaza Strip, then on the West Bank,” said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In 1978, Hamas legally registered in Israel with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin leading the group as spiritual leader. He emerged later as the leader of the strategic arm of Hamas as well. In 2004, the Israelis assassinated this blind quadriplegic.

Sale quoted an unnamed U.S. official: “The thinking on the part of some of the right-wing Israeli establishment was that Hamas and the others, if they gained control, would refuse to have any part of the peace process and would torpedo any agreements put in place.” He concluded that “Israel would still be the only democracy in the region for the United States to deal with.”

Former State Department counter-terrorism official Larry Johnson told Dale: “The Israelis are their own worst enemies when it comes to fighting terrorism. The Israelis are like a guy who sets fire to his hair and then tries to put it out by hitting it with a hammer. They do more to incite and sustain terrorism than curb it.” (UPI, June 18, 2002)

After the month long 2008-9 war, and the 1,400 Palestinian fatalities, Hamas still outdraws Fatah in Gaza, and Middle East reporters claim Hamas has won over Fatah adherents in the West Bank and that Fatah forces repressed Hamas rallies. (NY Times, Jan. 5)

When the PLO signed the 1993 Oslo accord that gave Palestinians limited self-rule in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, Hamas denounced the agreement and sporadically attacked Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Western and Israeli leaders appealed to PLO leader Yassir Arafat to suppress Hamas’ attacks. Arafat tried but failed to suppress all of them.

After Oslo, Palestinian unemployment grew as did Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. By 2000, Hamas’ popularity increased because it provided services while Fatah officials provided extortion. When the second Intifada exploded against Israel in September of that year, they had clearly become a force to be reckoned with.

Hamas’ terrorism also killed innocent Israelis, helped weaken the peace movement inside Israel, and unified Israelis on a hard line. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, his successor, pledged to fight “Palestinian terror.”

With or without anticipation, Israeli policies helped shape the kinds of enemies that pledge to sacrifice their lives to fight the Jewish state in the name of Islam. Fatah’s militant nationalism paled in comparison to the passion of Hamas organizers and their kindred spirits throughout the Arab and Muslim world — all determined to defeat Israel in the name of Allah.

The word “terrorist” in the mouth of Israeli officials rings hollow. Indeed, the word makes little sense in a Middle East convulsed in war. “Hundreds of millions of Arabs around us,” wrote Uri Avnery, “will see the Hamas fighters as the heroes of the Arab nation, but they will also see their own regimes in their nakedness: cringing, ignominious, corrupt and treacherous.” (In Gabriel Kolko,, 1/21/09)

If President Obama’s inner sensitivities correspond to what the world witnessed on January 20 as his external sensibilities, he too will recoil from “terrorist” rhetoric and also reject the angelic façade that fits Israel like a fine leather glove on the hoof of a pig. “Change is coming in the Middle East as it is in the United States,” Obama might tell Israeli leaders, “and Washington will play a role over there. So make the necessary concessions to facilitate a viable Palestinian state. And include Hamas — or else!”

SAUL LANDAU received the Bernardo O’Higgins award from the Republic of Chile for his work on human rights. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World (AK/CounterPunch Press).


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.