By Maajid Nawaz, Chairman of the Quilliam Foundation
My very first trip to Palestine was in 2002, shortly after 9/11 and before my five-year incarceration in Egypt for Islamist activity. I went through the West Bank from Jordan, as a then avowed enemy of Israel, and even refused to enter into any non-West Bank territory out of principle.
That was then. I have long since disavowed the Islamist ideological manipulation of Islam and sought to approach issues from a more balanced perspective. In the past two years, from Britain, I have been again to Israel-Palestine twice and – in a more neutral way – I have visited both sides of the conflict courtesy of a Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel Parliamentary delegation.
Therefore, I have not only heard both sides of the debate, but I have met and interacted with a spectrum of individuals from the region whose daily lives are affected by the conflict. I have also followed the media debate and witnessed the passions this conflict is able to stir in Europe and beyond. What I have seen and witnessed is both depressing and disconcerting.
The Israel-Palestine conflict provokes one of those strange recurrent debates where almost everyone, everywhere, becomes totally hysterical, tribal and mutually nasty from the offset.
The voices of those seeking a peaceful resolution to this conflict are not only drowned out (for that would be a luxury), but are actively hounded by all sides as insufficiently aware of “the truth.”
Extremists on both sides – the Israeli hard right and the Islamists – each have much to gain by polarising discussion on this issue. By pointing to Hamas – which is busy proving that it does not believe in peace – members of Israel’s hard-right reassure themselves that a two-state solution would jeopardise Israeli security permanently, and so they show scant regard for it.
By pointing in turn to the Israeli hard-right – who are busy undermining a two-state solution – Hamas terrorists reinforce their own belief that a two-state solution is not desirable, fuelling their own genocidal agenda to wipe out “the Jews”.
Add to this mix the hyperactive, ideologically driven global frenzy that is whipped up around this conflict and the whole topic seems an intractable mess.
In such a poisoned climate, we should strive to maintain a certain moral courage and razor-sharp distinctions for our own sanity, if not for others. Terrorism aims to deliberately target civilians, and benefits specifically from their death or injury as a matter of policy. Hamas has this policy.
On the other hand, recklessly killing civilians in breach of the international laws of proportionality, while issuing warnings and apologies – and while trying to target rocket launch sites that Hamas has based in mosques and hospitals – results in a terrible and disproportionate number of deaths. It is deeply troubling, it must stop. But it is not terrorism.
No civilian death is justified. However, laws rightly differentiate types of killing, from accidental death, manslaughter, murder, to war crimes and terrorism. We must maintain level heads and some nuance if we are to approach this poisonous debate at all.
It is often said that Israel doesn’t respect Palestinian civilian lives. But it must also be said that Hamas doesn’t respect Palestinian civilian lives, as its leaders continue to hide in civilian buildings in a densely populated piece of land.
After the Fatah-Hamas, Palestinian- on-Palestinian civil war, Hamas unilaterally formed a Gaza government in 2006. There have been no democratic elections in Palestine ever since. While the Palestinian Authority accepted Egypt’s earlier ceasefire deal, Hamas rejected it despite being aware that negotiations were taking place.
By rejecting Egypt’s deal, Hamas continues to gamble with the innocent victims of Gaza, with no mandate, for the sake of its own power games with Israel.
The unfashionable truth is that Hamas is a terrorist organisation that plays politics with Gazan blood for ideological reasons, and in doing so, aids the Israeli extreme-right narrative.
No unfashionable truth requires repeating about the Israeli far-right, their own intransigence is generally accepted even within Israel. Those with entrenched, millenarian positions on this conflict will only satiate their blood lust if a Third World War erupts. Looking at the region as a whole, we seem to be inching closer to such a fate in the Middle East today.
In truth, there have been far fewer casualties, fewer by the many thousands, resulting from the Israel-Palestine conflict compared with other ongoing major conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and it is currently far more contained, too. But you’d never know, because the Israel–Palestine conflict has become a poster boy for the far left-Islamist trendy alliance against global capitalism.
One would be forgiven for thinking that a Palestinian in Gaza – only when killed by a Jew, mind you, not when arbitrarily murdered by Hamas – is worth more to this trendy alliance than a Palestinian killed in Syria by Assad’s forces, where the trendy alliance opposed all forms of intervention while some even actively courted the brutal Damascus regime.
I believe in a free Palestine. I am for a two-state solution. I oppose Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and illegal settlement activity, and I reject Israel’s current disproportionate use of force in Gaza.
There must reach a point at which the deaths – no matter how unintended – amount to being worth more than the internal Israeli logic that props up each escalation. But opposition to Israeli policy and sympathy with the Palestinian cause does not translate into being pro-Hamas.
It must be stressed, Hamas is not “the Palestinians”, nor even “the Gazans”. Hamas is a terrorist group and an embarrassment to my cause. The real victims here are Gazan civilians who are being used for political posturing, and Israeli civilians who are being targeted. A life is a life, Gazan or Israeli.
I have done my fair share to represent a free Palestine, by writing on the subject, conducting interviews, making personal representations to David Miliband, the UK Foreign Secretary during Operation Cast Lead, which was the last time this happened, and by visiting the region three times.
A free Palestine will not be possible while Hamas rules. By skirting around the issue of Hamas, people in the Free Palestine camp embarrass themselves.
They exemplify everything that is wrong with the hysterical, tribal and mud-slinging nature of this debate.
* Maajid Nawaz is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn