Religion and violence fill the political vacuum
How the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Israeli right became co-dependants in an abusive relationship
Adam Curtis, BBC blog
30 November 2012
Last week there was yet another cycle of horrific violence in the Gaza strip. This week there are demonstrations in Cairo driven by fears that the revolution is being hi-jacked by the Islamists. Liberals in the west look on baffled and horrified. What they thought was a glorious revolution in the Arab world is morphing into something they don’t understand. While Gaza is like some brutal other planet forever possessed by hi-tech assassinations and bearded aliens dragging corpses around the streets on motor cycles.
All this is comprehensible though – but only if you look at it in a wider context. A context that western liberals really don’t like to think about because it makes them very depressed. It is the great shift of our time – the collapse of the dream that politicians could change the world for the better. A dream that was replaced by a conviction that politicians were untrustworthy and always become corrupted by power.
The collapse of that optimistic vision of what politics could achieve then left the way open for powerful, reactionary forces to take power who don’t want to change the world. Instead they want to manage the world and hold it stable – backed up by the threat of violence. A threat to which they have become increasingly addicted.
This has happened not only in America and in Britain – but all over the world. And I want to tell the story of how it happened in the Middle East. It is the intertwined story of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza strip and the reactionary right-wing nationalist groups in Israel.
All three groups are driven by an angry, pessimistic vision of the world, of human nature – and the inability of politicians to transform things for the better. It’s a fascinating story because it shows how the underlying similarities led those groups to become tightly locked together – helping each other cement their ruthless grip on their people – and freeze out any progressive alternatives.
The story begins nearly a hundred years ago with one of the great examples of how you can never trust politicians.
The British promised the Arabs that they would create a new and better world for them. The only problem is that they promised the Jews the very same thing.
In 1915, at the height of the First World War, Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt made an agreement with the Emir of Mecca. It said that if the Arabs helped the British overthrow the Turks who ruled Palestine – then the British would in return give the Arabs independence. Lawrence of Arabia – TE Lawrence – was one of the British agents sent to help organise the Arab Revolt.
But two years later later the British Foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, promised the Zionist movement that a permanent Jewish homeland would be set up in Palestine. Zionism was in many ways a utopian movement. It had been invented by Theodor Herzl in the 1890s, and he believed that a Jewish state would not just rescue Jews from persecution, but it would also transform them. The state of Israel would be a new kind of environment which would turn its people into stronger and better kinds of human beings.
The British didn’t care about that kind of thing. They were desperate to get America into the war on their side – and one of the reasons for the Balfour declaration was to curry favour with the Zionists and their supporters in America.
Here is part of a massive TV series made in the 1960s called The Great War. It tells the story of how in 1917 the British came to find themselves marching into Gaza (what is today the Gaza Strip) on their way to conquer Jerusalem – and the nightmare that trapped them in that small strip of land.
It also gives a very good sense of the background pressures that led Britain to making the contradictory promises.
9 minute clip of film of Britain in Middle East in 1917: see original bbc post
In the 1920s Britain took over the running of Palestine and came face to face with their hypocrisy and deceit.
On the one hand Jewish immigrants began to arrive in their thousands, buying up the land from the old Palestinian families. While the Arabs were furious at what they saw as British treachery and a revolt began to grow against both the British and the Jews.
One of the main leaders of the Palestinian Arab revolt was Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam. He is forgotten in the west today – but not by Palestinian Arabs and above all by Hamas who see him as the first true Islamist revolutionary. The thousands of Qassam rockets that were fired from the Gaza strip last week are named after him, as is Hamas’ military wing – the Qassam Brigades.
Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam; Hamas’ Qassam Brigades are named after him
Qassam had studied at Al-Azhar university in Cairo and had become one of new wave of reformists who argued that Islam should be cleansed of all the rituals and superstitions that had grown up over 1200 years. It could then become a powerful faith that would deal with all the modern forces at play in society – economic and scientific and political.
And he believed it could help lead a revolt against British power and the Jewish immigrants. Qassam went to the city of Haifa and began attracting followers – promoting the idea of a jihad against the occupying powers. You couldn’t trust the old families who run Palestinian society, he said, because they had sold out, as had the politicians and the traditional religious leaders.
The Palestine Post recorded one of Qassam’s speeches ending angrily: “Jews do not have to take the country by force as the Arabs are selling it to them”
Here is part of a film that gives a powerful sense of the strange world that Qassam was fighting against. It is about one of the surviving members of a grand Palestinian landowning family. She is called Malika Shawa – and when the film was shot in the late 80s she was running the only hotel in the Gaza Strip, playing the piano as all around her the first intifada was erupting.
The film shows how involved the Palestinian elites had become with the British rulers. Malika tells of her time being educated at Cheltenham Ladies College.
Clip of interview with Malika, whose family were one of the great landowners of Gaza. See original
In the 1930s Qassam formed The Black Hand Gang. He and a group of followers took to the hills and for five years they launched armed attacks on Jewish settlements and on the British military and police.
The British called him “The Brigand Sheikh” and he became a terrifying figure – it was said that he would send his followers to kill anyone that said anything bad about him. But in November 1935 the British cornered him in a cave and Qassam was killed in a violent shootout.
It is important to realise that Qassam saw politicians as part of the problem. Like Hassan al Bana who had founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s with the slogan “The Koran is our Constitution”, Qassam saw modernised Islam as a total system that could replace politics. You had to do this because if you left politicians to their own devices they lied and betrayed you, as the British had done, or sold you out, as the Palestinian elites were doing.
In contrast, the Zionists who were moving into Haifa and the rest of Palestine in the 1930s believed deeply in the power of science, technology and politics to change the world for the better. Many of them had read a novel written by Theodor Herzl in 1902 called Altneuland – Old New Land.
The novel is a utopian vision of a future perfect society set up in Palestine with the city of Haifa at it’s heart – Herzl calls it “The City of the Future.” Herzl’s Zionism was part of a socialist vision of utopia that went back to writers like Fourier and Saint Simon, and he described a society where the land was under common ownership and people lived in co-operatives and communes. There was also a model welfare system, no social classes and exploitation – yet individuals could pursue their own ends and profit by them.
It was a glorious vision, but it was also firmly rooted in the European tradition of empire. In the novel the characters listen to a phonograph roll that describes the achievements of The New Society for the Colonisation of Palestine. It describes how the benevolent technocracy that runs this new society has brought the benefits of European progress to a backward and sparsely populated land.
That’s not quite how Sheikh Qassam and his Black Hand Gang saw the Jewish settlers.
But then – in the late 1940s – a new political force emerged to challenge Zionism – Arab nationalism.
It’s charismatic leader was the President of the new independent Egypt – Gamal Abdel Nasser. He became a heroic and inspirational figure for millions of Arabs because he promised a united Arab world that would become strong enough to challenge western imperialism.
And also strong enough to challenge the new state of Israel which had been established in Palestine after the war of 1948 between the Arabs and the Jews.
Here is Nasser talking about the revolution he has begun – and you get a good sense of the progressive optimism at its heart. Nasser was convinced that the Arab people could be transformed by a modern planned socialist society into new, more confident individuals who would no longer meekly accept the iron hand of authoritarian dictators who were backed by the west.
Nasser was ignoring the fact that he himself was an authoritarian dictator.
2.37 minute clip of British news film, Nasser’s Egypt: see original bbc post
And Nasser began to organise the fight against Israel – using the Gaza strip as the base.
After the 1948 war hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had ended up living in refugee camps in Gaza. Beginning in 1955 Nasser got Egyptian intelligence to organise small resistance groups from the Palestinians in the camps. They were called Fedayeen and they started to do hit and run attacks into Israel.
Israel retaliated by attacking the Gaza strip and the border guards. The man who led the commando units that fought back against the Fedayeen was a young Ariel Sharon.
Here are the fragments of film from the archive that report those incidents. What is really interesting is how forcefully both America and Britain in the UN condemn the Israeli actions.
3.23 minute clip news footage flare-up in Gaza strip: see original bbc post
At first the Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood – welcomed Nasser. They liked the fact that he banned all political parties because it seemed to fit with their ideas about the “unity of the faithful”. But they quickly discovered that Nasser’s idea was to turn Egypt into a modern secular society – inspired by socialist ideas and driven by the by the ideology of authoritarian nationalism.
So they tried to assassinate him. In turn Nasser jailed or hanged several of their leaders and sent the rest into exile. Everyone thought the Muslim Brothers were finished – another hangover from colonial times gone forever.
I have found a fascinating film in the archive which shows how dramatically marginalized the religious establishment became under Nasser. It’s about the famous Muslim University at the grand Al Azhar mosque in Cairo. For centuries it had been the powerhouse of Islamic thought throughout the Arab world. It was the place that Sheikh Qassam had gone to study – and where he had become inspired by the new radical ideas of reforming Islam.
But now Al Azhar was under orders from the revolution to modernize in a very different way. The film shows how the revolutionary government has insisted that Al Azhar teach courses that have nothing to do with religion – even a department of Business has been formed.
And the new, modernising head of Al-Azhar says he is trying to prevent a class of “priests” arising who will stop progress.
4.57 minute clip of universities in Egypt – a ‘backward land’. See original
In the 1950s Israel was also driven by a deep sense of progressive optimism. And in an odd way it mirrored the ideas of a planned socialist society that Nasser was trying to build.
Starting in the 1930s, the Israelis set out to try and build in Palestine the new kind of Zionist society that Theodor Herzl had laid out in his novel Altneuland – Old New Land. The new capital was called Tel Aviv – which was the Hebrew title given to Herzl’s novel by it’s translator. It roughly means “a new spring coming from an old mound”.
The new city was constructed as a grand experiment in town planning. It was based on plans drawn up by the Scottish town planner, Patrick Geddes. His ideas about how cities could be planned came from the same utopian traditions as Herzl’s belief in a socialist planned society. What linked them was the technocratic belief that flourished in the 1930s – and again in the 1950s – that you could shape the environment around human beings as a total system that would make them stronger, more confident and morally better human beings.
It was a grand dream. Here is Patrick Geddes.
And here is the utopian city that was built according to his plans – it was called “The White City”. Many of the architects who actually designed it had been trained in the 1930s at the Bauhaus school and were deeply influenced by the ideas of Le Corbusier. One pamphlet described the ideas behind it:
“The city is an experimental laboratory for the implementation of modern principles of planning and architecture, it has influenced the whole country.
The plan was based on the idea of creating a new place for a new society, where the Zionist ideal would come true through the Modern Movement. It is also a synthesis between Oriental and Western cultures.”
And in the 1950s – that utopianism spread through a lot of Israeli society . At it’s heart was the kibbutz movement. Again the idea of the kibbutz had been developed in the 1920s – and was an attempt to create model socialist collectives that were a concrete expression of the Zionist theory.
The kibbutzim were more than just a collective way of managing the land. They were seen as a new kind of environment in which individuals would come together in the evenings, have group dances and then group discussions. In some cases the discussions were like early versions of group therapy – individuals being given permission to express their ideas and feelings. Out of all this would come “new people”.
Unfortunately many of the kibbutzim had been constructed on land on which Palestinian Arabs had lived – and whose families now lived in cramped misery in the refugee camps in the Gaza strip. And increasingly there was a realisation in Israel that the kibbutzim were a powerful weapon in establishing a more permanent Israeli presence in the outlying fringes of the new state.
The kibbutzim in the 1950s and 60s became a weird combination of happy-clappy utopian socialism and an armed fearfulness – with bomb shelters and trenches built around their modernist-inspired communal halls. It was a bit like some JG Ballard story.
Life on the early kibbutzim – like a JG Ballard story
But then a character from the past came back in a dramatic way into the heart of Israeli society. And his presence – and what he said – sent out shockwaves that began to undermine the very underpinnings of the optimistic progressivism at the heart of Israeli society.
In May 1960 a group of Mossad agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. They drugged him and flew him to Israel on an El Al plane disguised as a member of the plane’s crew.The kidnapping was a world-wide sensation because Eichmann had been one of the main organisers of the Final Solution – the mass extermination of the Jews.
A year later the Israelis put Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem. He was encased in a bulletproof glass booth – and it became a powerful image of this terrifying figure who had organised the Holocaust sitting on show in the midst of the new state of Israel.
A number of historians have argued that Eichmann’s trial created an enormous shock to Israeli society because for the fifteen years after the second world war no one in Israel – or in the Jewish communities in America – really talked about the Holocaust. It was if it was forgotten and wiped.
Hundreds of thousand of survivors from the death camps came to Israel, but the mood among them was to look towards the future – turning their faces towards a better future promised by the Zionist dream, and trying to forget the horrors of the past.
Above all they didn’t want to be seen as victims in an optimistic age. The leader of the American Jewish Committee wrote that
“Jewish organizations should avoid representing the Jew as weak, victimized and suffering” Because it reinforced “long ingrained stereotypes – the hunted wanderer, inured to universal hatred and contempt”
Other historians have challenged this argument – and it can quickly lead into the dead end of arguments about how the memory of the Holocaust has been used and abused.
But I have found a really interesting film shot in Israel in 1961 during the Eichmann trial. It asks ordinary Israelis – including some on a kibbutz – what they feel about Eichmann and his effect on their world. Some approve – but the majority feeling is that this should have been forgotten – and is doing real harm to the new country of Israel.
One woman who speaks very powerfully finishes – “I would be happy if he had never entered this country”
5.27 minutes, 1961 clip of Richard Dimbleby introducing film on Eichmann and being reminded of the Holocaust. see original
But that was only the beginning of the terrible corrosive effect Eichmann was going to have not just on Israeli optimism about their society – but on the whole western liberal belief that human beings could be transformed for the better.
In 1963 a political philosopher called Hannah Arendt who had attended the Eichmann trial published a series of articles in the New Yorker. In them she challenged the idea put forward by the Israeli prosecutors that Eichmann was a special kind of evil human being. Arendt argued that he was the very opposite – that he was “terrifyingly normal”. That far from being a demonic monster he was actually a bland, mindless and extremely efficient bureaucrat. He was motivated, she said by personal ambition and that he wasn’t even particularly anti-semitic.
Arendt called it “the banality of evil”.
evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer.
However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic.
Evil can spread over the whole world like a fungus and lay waste precisely because it is not rooted anywhere. It was the most banal motives, not especially wicked ones which made Eichmann such a frightful evil-doer.
Arendt’s reports caused an outrage. The journalist Norman Podhoretz wrote that Arendt’s picture of Eichmann “violates everything we know about the Nature of Man.”
And that went to the heart of it. Because what Arendt was implying was that human beings might not be changeable or perfectible. That anyone could do really evil, horrible things any time depending on the circumstances they found themselves in. And what was worse – that the modern world of intricate bureaucracies and bland management might make it more possible.
It was a pretty pessimistic and conservative view of human beings – and it challenged the idea that you could change the world for the better. And this dark frightening idea, born out of the horrors of twenty years before, began to worm its way into the post war optimism not just in Israel but a whole generation of liberals in Europe and America.
Montage of Hannah Arendt and her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem
Here is part of a documentary about Arendt and the trial of Eichmann. The first interviewee is Arendt’s biographer, the second is one of her students. They are intercut with the extraordinary defence Eichmann gave at the trial. He does sound like a General Manager trying to excuse himself.
6.21 min clip, footage of Eichmann giving testimony, through an interpreter, ‘explaining’ why he bore nor responsibility for the death through forced labour, starvation or gassing of most European Jews: see original bbc post
And four years later the optimistic vision of the future that Nasser had held out to the Arab people also began to collapse – because of Israel.
In June 1967 Nasser was told by the Soviet Union that Israel was planning to attack Egypt – so he began to mass troops. The report was false – but in response the Israelis launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt and Syria.
It was a catastrophe for the Arab states. In six days Egypt’s military was overwhelmingly defeated. It was also a crippling humiliation for Nasser because it exposed as a sham his promise that the Zionist state would be annihilated. Nasser then behaved like a petulant drama queen – resigning in a spectacular public way, then retracting it.
Millions still loved Nasser – but the defeat was the beginning of the end of the dream that a new confident Pan-Arabism could transform the fortunes and the subservient psychology of the Arab people. Left wing students began to protest in Cairo – they demanded Egypt attack Israel again, and they blamed the defeat on corrupt generals who headed the Egyptian Army.
But power in the struggle with Israel was now seized by the revolutionary left in the Palestinian refugee camps. In 1969 Yasser Arafat became the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation which was an umbrella for a range of left-wing, secular groups – including Arafat’s own Fatah organisation.
And again Gaza was the centre of the opposition. After the Six Day war Israel had taken over both Gaza and the Sinai peninsula and the Palestinian refugees now found themselves facing the Israelis as their overlords.
Here are some of the earliest news reports from Gaza about the new young terrorists who are promising to rid Palestine of the state of Israel. It begins in 1969 with the coverage of three Palestinian schoolgirls who have been arrested and put on trial for supporting “a subversive organisation”
It is all a bit ramshackle, and the journalists have no idea really what they are reporting on. Then I have added a report from just three years later – 1972 – about an Al-Fatah training school for children. It shows just how quickly the movement has grown – and how intense the belief in the armed struggle had become.
4.40 min. clip showing young Gazans cheering armed struggle: see original bbc post
Although Nasser’s dream had failed – and he died in 1970 – the PLO and their fighters had inherited his progressive world view. Many of the groups in the PLO were left wing revolutionaries and they believed that they were not only fighting to get rid of Israel, but also to create a new kind of secular, socialist state in Palestine.
But in Egypt that optimistic view of politics and its ability to transform society was collapsing. A vacuum was opening up which would be filled by the group that only fifteen years before everyone thought was dead and buried – the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, along with their much more conservative view of how to run society.
In 1975 a feature film was made called Al-Karnak. It told the story of how after the defeat in 1967 hundreds of Nasser’s opponents had been jailed and tortured. The film showed the torture in detail and it was a powerful exposure of how Nasser’s visionary ideals had become horrifically corrupted.
It seemed to prove dramatically the central message of the Islamist movement – that if you gave power to politicians in a secular society they would inevitably become corrupted and dangerous – however noble their original ideals had been.
Here is part of a documentary made in Cairo as the movie gripped both the elites and ordinary Egyptians. It begins with Mustafa Amin – a famous journalist who had been one of those imprisoned and tortured. Then it goes on to the sensation caused by the movie. It is a good report because it gives a real feeling of the changing mood within the Arab world at that moment in the mid 1970s
6.56 min. clip of BBC documentary on effects on Egyptians of Nasser’s dictatorial methods, see original
And that pessimistic mood began to spread through the Palestinian resistance movement too – carried by the odd logic of terrorist violence. Because the terrorists’ actions would lead them to be haunted by the same old ghost that Eichmann had brought back into the heart of Israel – the Final Solution.
Since the early 1970s various different Palestinian groups had hi-jacked western passenger planes. The motive was to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people and their fight against Israeli occupation. They also had developed close links with a number of western terrorist groups – in particular the groups in West Germany like the Red Army Faction, and The Revolutionary Cells.
In June 1976 a group of terrorists hi-jacked an Air France plane and flew it to Entebbe in Uganda. Some of the terrorists were from the Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, others were from the German Revolutionary Cells. At Entebbe the terrorists began inspecting the passengers’ passports. As they did so they separated the Jewish passengers out from the others, and said they would release the non-Jewish hostages.
It was a powerfully symbolic moment for the revolutionary left – both Palestinian and German. They had turned to violence in the belief that they were fighting to go forwards – to liberate Palestine and create a new revolutionary world. Instead they now found themselves behaving like the Nazis thirty years ago separating the jews out from the others.
One of the Jewish hostages later described how he had shown the terrorists the concentration camp number tatooed on his arm. He described how one of the German terrorists, Wilfried Bose, plaintively responded – “I’m no Nazi – I’m an idealist”
It seemed that idealism might be taking the secular revolutionary movement not forwards into a better future but backwards into the very worst times of the past.
It is also important to remember that one of the Israeli rescuers who was killed at Entebbe was Jonathan Netanyahu. He was the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu – the future Prime Minister of Israel. His brother’s death, it is said, was a powerful shaping force on the younger brother.
Entebbe airport, where Binyamin Netanhayu’s brother was killed in the hosage rescue
By the late 1970s there was a massive political, social and moral vacuum at the heart of Egypt – and much of the Arab World. The collapse of President Nasser’s grand progressive, and secular vision had left the society adrift.
Into the vacuum came a resurgent Islamism. Some of the Islamists turned to extremism and violence – like the Al-Jihad group who assassinated President Sadat in 1981. But the Muslim Brotherhood took another route.
Sadat had freed many of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood from jail, but they were banned as a political party. So the leaders of the Brotherhood turned to building their influence through the complex social and professional organisations in Egyptian society. Brotherhood members stood for election to the syndicates and guilds of many of the leading middle-class professions – and in the 1980s they took control of the doctors, the dentists, the engineers, the pharmacists, and even the Egyptian bar – the lawyers.
At the same time the Brotherhood created a powerful system of social welfare for millions of ordinary Egyptians in villages across the country that was far more efficient and responsive than the cumbersome state welfare.
Many middle-class Egyptians began to fear a silent, creeping political coup. But the Brotherhood argued that what they were doing was openly creating the foundations for their idea of a modern society. Islam would be a total system that could manage and guide all parts of society.
Here is part of a film made about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It was filmed in 1992 and it is really good because it takes you into the heart of their revolution and allows them to express their utopian vision. But it is a deeply conservative sort of utopia – because the system they want to build would act as a restraint on politicians who tried to use their power to change the world. You couldn’t let them do that because it always led to disaster.
I love the TV preacher who argues that society is like a TV set. God, he says, is just like the person who writes the instruction manual for a TV set.
“The rules are written by the person who creates it.
And when it goes wrong you take the product to the manufacturer. He knows how to fix it. But if you take it to someone else he screws it up.”
That puts politicians in their place.
And the prizes given by the Muslim Brotherhood’s newspaper for their religious quiz are great. First prize – a trip to Mecca. Second prize – a vacuum cleaner.
I have followed it with part of another documentary about how the Muslim Brotherhood took over the Lawyers Syndicate. Their opponents forcefully argue that this is a silent, creeping political coup. The two films take you to the heart of the mystery about the Muslim Brotherhood. What are they really up to?
15 minute clip of two documentaries about the Muslim Brotherhood, emphasising their alternative to corrupt Western materialism: see original bbc post
At the same time the Muslim Brothers’ ideas – and their techniques – began to spread into the Gaza strip. And as they did so they became weirdly mixed up with the Israeli forces who were fighting against Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Out of that would come a tacit cooperation to destroy a common enemy but it would also have very dark consequences – it would lead to both sides becoming locked together in a static world.
It happened through the rise of Hamas – who were directly inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood.
To begin with they weren’t called Hamas. Back in 1973 a preacher in the Gaza Strip called Sheikh Ahmed Yassin formed an organisation called al-Mujamma al-Islami (The Islamic Centre). Yassin wanted the organisation to spread the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood through the Palestinian world – and that also meant getting rid of the secular resistance movement and replacing it with one inspired by Islamist ideas.
Sheikh Yassin was an extraordinarily powerful character. Crippled since his childhood by a broken spine he was totally dependent on his followers to look after him, feed him and put him to bed. But he inspired those around him to believe that one day their tiny group could destroy the leftist infidels around the PLO and take control of the Palestinian movement.
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, tended by one of his young followers
The Mujamma did what the Muslim Brotherhood were doing in Egypt. They set up a complex system of welfare in Gaza, including kindergartens, free food and clothing. It also set up clinics offering free healthcare and medicines. They also began to take over many of the professional associations – like the Medical Association, the Engineering Association and the Bar Association.
And the Israeli authorities not only allowed them to do this – but encouraged it. They did this because they saw the conservative ideas of the Islamists as a potent force that could undermine and damage the secular Palestinian revolutionary movement.
There is a really good book about the rise of Hamas by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell. In it they got a number of very senior Israelis to admit the tacit support they gave to Yassin and the Mujamma. One director military intelligence says:
At the beginning some elements within the Israeli government – not the government, some elements within the government – were thinking that by strengthening Mujamma they could put some more pressure on Fatah in the Gaza Strip, back in the mid eighties.
I think it was a mistake, yes.
One of the key factors in Mujamma’s rise was the decision by the Israelis in 1978 to grant the organisation official status. This was something that would never have been granted to secular groups. Milton-Edwards says that this was on the orders of the office of the Prime Minister – Menachem Begin, and that former Israeli officials concede that it was part of a strategy to undermine the PLO, divide secular nationalists – and encourage them to join this more conservative alternative.
The former president of the Islamic University of Gaza says:
They were given permission from the Israeli officials to form. The Israeli authorities kept their eyes closed to the reality of what they were allowing to be created, to the preaching of Islam that was spreading all over the Gaza strip, because at that time the PLO factions had power – and the Israelis wanted an adversary to fight them.
The Israeli military governor of Gaza, Brigadier General Segev even arranged for Sheikh Yassin to be taken to hospital in Tel Aviv to see if the best surgeons in Israel could operate on his spine. They decided they couldn’t because they said the damage was too severe.
Sheikh Yassin, supported by the Israelis who believed boosting the Islamists would draw away support from Fatah
Bit by bit through the 1980s, with the tacit encouragement of the Israelis, Sheikh Yassin built the structure of an alternative Islamist society in Gaza. All this went unrecorded – I have searched the archives and can find nothing, all the TV reports from Palestine and Israel focus on Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Even when Hamas is formed in 1987 during the first Intifada there is nothing. The first news item about Hamas isn’t until December 1992 – when they kidnap an Israeli border guard.
But to give you a sense of the world in which Yassin built Hamas, and of what Yassin is like, I want to show parts of a brilliant film made by the wonderful journalist Sean Langan. He made it in 2001 about the Gaza strip – including going to see Sheikh Yassin at his house. By now Hamas was dominant and its military wing was ordering repeated car bombings of Israeli civilians.
What I love is the way Langan gives you a real sense of the place – both the layout and the mood. It’s something that news reports never do. And when he goes to see Sheikh Yassin, Langan’s reactions to camera are truthful and honest – scared and silly in equal measure. So much better than the pompous self-confidence of most news reporters which increasingly feels both fake and alien.
15.09 min.clip of documentary by Sean Langan, made in 2001 when Hamas had become dominant: see original bbc post
But there was a nasty and dark side to what Sheikh Yassin and his fellow Islamists were up to in Gaza in the 1980s. They got a reputation for violently attacking anything that supported the PLO – rather than the Israelis. Milton-Edwards writes:
After Friday prayers burning torches were held aloft as Mujamma thugs set fire to libraries, newspaper offices, billiard halls and bars. They burned cinemas and cafes, closed liquor stores and ran intimidation campaigns in the community and on the university campus.
Men and women students were severely beaten or had acid thrown at them for speaking out against the Mujamma.
The apparent indifference of the Israeli authorities to such violence was noted by PLO supporters.
An Israeli journalist – Danny Rubinstein – says:
Ever since, many have accused Israel of providing the raison d’etre for the Islamic religious movement – a phenomenon identical to American support for the Mujahedin in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
But Yassin and the other Gaza islamists did have a sense of humour. One of their main slogans was:
AN UNCOVERED WOMAN AND BEATLE-HAIRED MEN WILL NEVER LIBERATE OUR HOLY PLACES.
And what began to rise up in Gaza was a rigid, limited world view. There is a dramatic expression of this in Sean Langan’s film from the Gaza strip. Wandering along the beach he comes upon a group of young Palestinian men – everything goes swimmingly until suddenly they get onto the subject of the Jews and the holocaust.
Suddenly you discover just how much the distorted ghosts from the Nazi era have also risen up to possess the Palestinian mind as well.
2 minute clip from Sean Langan’s film; a young Gazan man insists it could not have been more than 1000 Jews who were killed in the Holocaust; claims of more are a lie to get American money for Israel and to get Palesitnian land: see original bbc post
When the Intifada began, Sheikh Yassin and other leaders of Mujamma formed Hamas – and Hamas members took part in the ongoing confrontation with the Israeli forces. This was a shift away from the Muslim Brotherhood – who claimed to have renounced violence – but Hamas still saw itself as the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.
But Hamas also spent a lot of their time attacking the secular PLO, refusing to have strikes on the same day as the other Palestinian groups, beating up PLO prisoners who were in jail with them – and generally creating divisions within the Palestinian movement. Again the Israelis gave them preferential treatment – not cutting of the flow of funds to Hamas from abroad, and allowing them to keep their schools open. It was all part of a strategy of divide and rule.
At the same time the violence of the Intifada began to create growing divisions within Israeli society. Here are some sections from a fascinating Open Space film made in Israel at the height of the Intifada in 1988. It’s made by community activists – and it is following the liberal group Peace Now who are asking for a dialogue with the Palestinians.
But it shows how there was growing opposition to that liberal view. It’s actuality footage – with very little commentary – records the moment when you see the progressive optimism of the early Zionism beginning to crumble – and being replaced by a much harsher and above all defensive mood with the rise of the Israeli right. It is epitomised in a woman shouting
“Stinking Arabs – send them all to the gas chambers”
5.49 min. clip from 1988 Open Space documentary; liberal optimism gives way to racism, see original
But then Hamas went out of control.
The Israelis were worried about its growing strength – and in 1990 they arrested Sheikh Yassin and put him in jail. Their aim was to weaken the command structure of Hamas – but it didn’t have that effect at all.
Hamas responed by inventing a “military wing” for themselves which they called the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades – after Sheikh Qassam the early Islamist who had fought the British in the 1930s. And in 1992 the Qassam brigades kidnapped an Israeli border guard and threatened to kill him unless Sheikh Yassin was released from jail.
The Israelis refused – so Hamas killed the border guard. There was outrage in Israel – especially from the right who demanded that action be taken against Hamas. The Israeli government went and grabbed 400 of the leading members of Hamas from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and dumped them on top of a freezing snowy mountain in the south of Lebanon.
It was a public relations disaster for Israel. Day after day news reports showed the Hamas men huddled on top of the mountain. Their organization now became a global brand – and what was worse Hamas attacks on the Israeli forces increased.
It was the beginning of the unstoppable rise of Hamas. here are some of the reports as they unfolded.
8.28 mins. clips of new reports about growing clash between Israel, Lebanon and Hamas, see original
At the heart of the Islamist ideas that Hamas was born out of was the belief that secular politicians were dangerous – above all if they used their power to try and change the world.
And in September 1993 Hamas were faced by a secular politician trying to do just that. Yasser Arafat stood on the White House lawn and signed what were called the Oslo Accords – they were agreements that were supposed to lead to peace between the Palestinians and Israel – and a Palestinian state.
Rabin, Arafat and Clinton, after signing the Oslo Accords, 1993
Hamas hated it – as also did many from the secular left. They thought that Arafat was selling out the Palestinian people, that the dream of a real liberation had been reduced, as one Hamas leader said, to the dream that Palestinian policemen will have the power to direct traffic.
But Hamas’ response would lead them yet again into a very strange relationship with forces in Israel – in particular with the Israeli right who also hated and distrusted the peace process.
Hamas’s problem was that many palestinians welcomed the idea of peace – and the promise of safety and calm it promised. But on the 25th February 1994 their chance came to change things. A right-wing Israeli extremist opened fire on Palestinian civilians in a mosque in Hebron. 29 were killed and 125 injured. Hamas promised revenge.
Forty days later – the traditional time of mourning – a Hamas suicide bomber blew up a car bomb in an Israeli town called Afula, killing eight people and wounding many more. Hamas had chosen the town specifically. It had been founded back in 1925 by The American Zion Commonwealth who were an American company set up to try and build model utopian communities that would make the Zionist dream come true.
Afula had been one of these utopian models – built on land bought off an absentee Palestinian landowner. Now it’s heart was torn out by a suicide bomber – and it shocked Israel. Hamas was now exploding suicide bombs in Israel with the deliberate aim of killing Israeli civilians. And they followed it up with more – including one in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Here are the reports of the Afula and Tel Aviv bombs. They show the shock and fear that was now gripping Israeli society. And note the politician who turns up at the end of the Tel Aviv report – Benjamin Netanyahu – he says that Rabin’s concessions in the peace process have led to this.
5.22 mins., clips of news reports on Afula and Tel Aviv bombings: see original bbc post
Hamas insisted that there was a perfect logic behind the civilian killings – Sheikh Yassin gave interviews saying that if they kill our civilians, then we’ll kill theirs. But everyone knew that the real aim was to stop the peace process – to undermine the negotiations between Arafat and Israel.
Then in 1996 there were elections in Israel. The Prime Minister was Shimon Peres who was a veteran of the left-wing Labour Zionist movement. His opponent was the star of the newly rising right in Israel – the leader of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu. He was an opponent of the peace process.
Hamas intensified their suicide bombing campaign. They claimed it was in response for the killing of their best bomb maker – called The Engineer. But in March 1996 Palestinian TV broadcast an interview with a jailed Hamas member who had been organising the bombings.
He was called Abu Warda – and he claimed in the interview that the leaders of Hamas’ military wing had told him that the aim of the bombings was to make sure that Peres was defeated, and Netanyahu was elected.
“They thought that the military operations would work to the benefit of the Likud and against the left. They wanted to destroy the political process, and they thought that, if the right succeeded, the political process would stop.”
Everyone was furious and all sides – Likud, Fatah, and Hamas said that Abu Warda had been forced to lie. And each blamed the other for doing it. But Netanyahu then went on to win the election by a narrow margin – and he started to do everything he could to drag his feet on the peace process.
And since then Hamas and the Israeli right have been locked together in a terrible cycle in which both shift back and forth between politics and violence in order to promote their aims. Last week’s flare up in the Gaza strip was just another example of that cycle.
And at their heart those aims are deeply conservative. Both Hamas and the Israeli right are rooted in defensive ideologies that distrust change and are seeped in a deep pessimism about the ability of politics and politicians to change the world for the better. To try and prevent change both groups have increasingly turned to violence to stop things from running away from them. But it is growing increasingly desperate – because it is impossible to stop the world from changing and the growing addiction to using violence to stop change has corrupted both sides ideals.
But it cannot last. In Egypt, the new President – Mohammed Morsi was elected as a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet this week he started acting in the very way the Islamists fear most. He used his political position to ride roughshod over democracy – grabbing power for himself.
In the 1950s Nasser used his power to try and enforce his vision of a progressive, planned world. Now Morsi is doing the same – to try and enforce his vision of a deeply conservative, rigid world.
Again it will fail because it is impossible to control the world in that way – either for progressive or conservative aims. What is badly needed in the Middle East – and in the West – is a new, sophisticated politics that accepts the dynamic forces of history, yet tries to seize them and use the chaotic events of this incredibly exciting time we are living through to try and change the world for the better.