When the Israeli Government Loved Hamas

If you write anything critical of Israel’s actions in the West Bank, you’re immediately inundated with letters complaining about Hamas. “Hamas is a death cult,” these letters run. “They’re religious fanatics. They use children as human shields. How can you defend Hamas?” Along these lines, in  a widely noted New York Times op-ed Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the US and Israel should try to strengthen the secular Palestinian party Fatah and work to weaken Hamas.


Yet it’s worth reminding ourselves in the not too distant past, the exact opposite strategy was followed. In the 1970s both the United States and Israel thought that secular left-wing Arab nationalism was a bigger threat than religious fundamentalism. For that reason, Israel worked strongly to empower Hamas and undermine Fatah.


In his 2006 book The Iron Cage, historian Rashid Khalidi describes “the transformation of the Palestinian branch of Muslim Brotherhood and its offsprings, Hamas, from the protégés of the Israeli occupation into Israel’s fierce enemy.” As Khalidi notes, “For well over two decades after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel …[used] the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas in Gaza as a counterweight to the nationalist Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This reached the point where the Israeli military occupation encouraged Brotherhood thugs to intimidate PLO supporters.”

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Gaza: An Essential Backgrounder

One of the frustrating aspects of the media coverage of the current war in Gaza is the complete lack of context of most reporting, as if what’s happning now has no relations to the long occupation of Gaza and subsequent blockade. Thankfully, the New York Times has provided a helpful backgrounder by Rashid Khalidi.

Here is the key part of Khalidi’s op-ed:

THE OCCUPATION The Gazans have lived under Israeli occupation since the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel is still widely considered to be an occupying power, even though it removed its troops and settlers from the strip in 2005. Israel still controls access to the area, imports and exports, and the movement of people in and out. Israel has control over Gaza’s air space and sea coast, and its forces enter the area at will. As the occupying power, Israel has the responsibility under the Fourth Geneva Convention to see to the welfare of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.

THE BLOCKADE Israel’s blockade of the strip, with the support of the United States and the European Union, has grown increasingly stringent since Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006. Fuel, electricity, imports, exports and the movement of people in and out of the Strip have been slowly choked off, leading to life-threatening problems of sanitation, health, water supply and transportation.

The blockade has subjected many to unemployment, penury and malnutrition. This amounts to the collective punishment — with the tacit support of the United States — of a civilian population for exercising its democratic rights.

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Prof. Rashid Khalidi in 2003 (photo credit: AP)

For further must-read responses to the slandering of Rashid Khalidi, read Barnett Rubin here and here, and Scott Horton here. Writes Horton:

Rashid Khalidi is an American academic of extraordinary ability and sharp insights. He is also deeply committed to stemming violence in the Middle East, promoting a culture that embraces human rights as a fundamental notion, and building democratic societies. In a sense, Khalidi’s formula for solving the Middle East crisis has not been radically different from George W. Bush’s: both believe in American values and approaches. However, whereas Bush believes these values can be introduced in the wake of bombs and at the barrel of a gun, Khalidi disagrees. He sees education and civic activism as the path to success, and he argues that pervasive military interventionism has historically undermined the Middle East and will continue to do so.

Barnett Rubin, who knows Khalidi, is also one of the most intelligent expert commentators on Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, and his site Informed Comment is well worth adding to your daily rounds. Horton’s pretty damn smart too, but reading his blog always makes me feel under-educated, so go there only if you have a less sensitive ego than mine.

Out of Evil, Good Shall Come

How best to respond to the McCain camps sleazy smearing of Rashid Khalidi as an anti-Semite and the equivalent of a “neo-Nazi”? Politically, the Obama campaign is doing the right thing, stating that this issue is distraction from real politics. True enough. But outside electorial politics, it’s important to loudly proclaim that Khalidi is an important scholar who should be part of the foreign policy conversation in both the United States and the Middle East. So I wholeheartedly support Ezra Klein’s idea that we should buy copies of Khalidi’s The Iron Cage: The Palestinian Struggle for Statehood.

Here’s what Klein has to say:


Presumably, this experience has not been a pleasant one for Khalidi. But it would be nice if some good emerged from it in the form of broader familiarity with his important works. So next time you hear Hannity explain how Rashid Khalidi urinates on a Haggadah during full moons, head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Its an important book on its own terms, and its purchase is a worthy counter-statement to this type of anti-Arab fearmongering.

McCain’s New Low

You can say this about the McCain campaign, whenever you think they’ve hit rock bottom they still manage to surprise you by going even lower. Last week there was the email warning that a President Obama could lead to a second Holocaust. Now there is the curious attack on Obama’s friendship with the respected Arab-American historian Rashid Khalidi, likened by John McCain to a “neo-Nazi.”

We should be clear about this: since the death of Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi has been the pre-eminent Arab-American intellectual. He is a small-d democrat. If the United States is serious in its goal of spreading democracy and peace in the Middle East (a big if), then it needs to work with respected figures like Khalidi. And indeed in an earlier life, John McCain was well aware of this fact, since he steered money to a research institute founded by Khalidi.

By smearing Khalidi as a “neo-Nazi” McCain is basically saying, “if you are an Arab, no matter how accomplished or decent you may be, you can never be a good American.”


Spencer Ackerman makes exactly the right point on this issue: to libel a scholar like Khalidi as a big scary terrorist Arab monster is nothing less than racism.