Hamas waits for Russian hug

Israel has said that Russia’s plans to meet leaders of the new militant Palestinian government, Hamas, may legitimise its political status in the eyes of the international community, but not diminish its terrorist nature.

Hamas was elected in January to rule the Palestinian Authority. It is considered by many foreign governments to be a terrorist organisation for carrying out suicide bomb attacks against Israelis and for not recognising Israel’s existence or the formal peace process.
Israel last weekend officially cut ties with Hamas.

Russia’s actions may contravene the views of the Middle East Quartet, of which it is a member along with the United Nations, the United States and the European Union. Following Hamas’s election, the Quartet of peacemakers urged the party to abolish its radical stance or face foreign aid cuts.

“We hold that in order to achieve a settlement in the Middle East, it is necessary to see a full picture,” Russia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, said following Quartet talks in January.

“Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, reflects the real situation in settlement with all its minuses, long histories and so on,” Lavrov said.

Russia is also trying to influence Iran to stem its generation of nuclear power, which many outsiders anticipate will be harnessed to develop nuclear weapons targeted at Israel.

Russia, unlike the United States and the EU, never considered Hamas a terrorist organisation, although it believes Hamas must disarm and follow in the footsteps of its more conciliatory predecessor, Fatah.

Turkey, which has good relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is willing to act as a mediator, while France also seems to be leaning towards an open dialogue with Hamas.

The Ariel Centre for Policy Research, however, believes Russia’s moves contradict the roadmap to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and embark on a path dangerous to Israel and the West.

“By encouraging Hamas you discourage peace,” Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, board member of the Tel Aviv-based think tank, told IPS.

The worst-case scenario resulting from this crack in the Quartet’s resolve may be similar to the 1939 Munich Agreement in which the West unwittingly allowed Germany to take parts of the former Czechoslovakia that it said was originally German land, and precipitated the Second World War, said Tsiddon-Chatto.

In capitulating to Hamas now, he argued, it would be as though the world declared: “Let’s sacrifice Israel for the sake of coming to terms with Islam.”

Although Russia may aim to forge an honest role as peace broker between the two sides, Israeli analysts describe its gesture to Hamas as an attempt to end American political dominance in the region and to promote exports.

“They want that old influence. This kind of a synchronised unit—Russia plus the Middle East—can dictate ... conditions [for oil exports] that are not less damaging than a war,” Tsiddon-Chatto said. He raised the issue of the 1973 Arab oil boycott against the West and Israel, which sent world oil prices skyrocketing and hit industrialised economies hard.

Already, he said, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed arms deals with Syria and sold new technology to Iran. Putin is also reportedly willing to sell military hardware to the Palestinian Authority if Israel agrees.

Tsiddon-Chatto said Russian success in persuading France to hold discussions with Hamas would translate to a troubling shift in the political position of half the Quartet. He said it was unlikely that the rest of the coalition would follow suit.

The view could not be more different in Gaza, where Ghazi Hamed edits Hamas’s Al-Risala newspaper. “We want to talk to all people, even the US,” Hamed told IPS. “They should deal with Hamas. Hamas was elected through democratic elections and is now a government.”

Hamed said Hamas wants to clarify to the world its image and goals. He said he hopes Russia, which he described as previously “ignored during the peace process” and wishing to boost its reputation in the Middle East, will hold sway with countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Saleh Abdeljawad, professor of political science at Birzeit University in Ramallah, believes isolating Hamas is a risky venture in the long term because it may breed greater militancy. “The faster Hamas enters the international order, they will be more eager to give more and more concessions,” he said.

Abdeljawad compares Hamas with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of two decades ago. Led by the late Yasser Arafat, the PLO was prone to “raising the flag of militaristic struggle”. It eventually toned down its violent rhetoric about Israel and was accepted as the voice of Palestinians by the international community.

Abdeljawad said Russia is merely trying to convince Hamas to adopt a moderate position towards Israel and that he cannot understand the criticism of Russia. “It’s a little strange, weird and suspicious.”—IPS

Women vow to change face of party

Ask Huda Naeem how she intends to use her influence as a newly elected MP for Hamas and she ticks off a list of wrongs done to women in the name of religion, writes Chris McGreal.

Forced marriage, honour killings, low pay and girls being kept out of school are her priorities for change in the Palestinian Parliament. That is when she is not preparing her 13-year-old son to die in the fight against Israel.

“Women in Gaza and the West Bank should be given complete rights. Some women and girls are made to marry someone they don’t want to marry. This is not in our religion, it’s our tradition. In our religion, a woman has a right to choose.

“As a woman and an MP, there are areas I want to concentrate on but that does not mean we have forgotten our struggle for our homeland, and preparing our children to die when the homeland calls for it.’‘

Naeem, a 37-year-old social worker at the Islamic University in Gaza City and a mother of four, is one of six women elected to Parliament on the Hamas ticket in the Islamist party’s landslide victory last month.

Women played a crucial role in getting out the vote for Hamas, knocking on doors and often getting a sympathetic hearing. Hamas’s strategy to build political support through its social programmes sealed the loyalty of many Palestinian women.

“Women are closer to the problems of the society,’’ said Naeem. “They are the ones who feel the unemployment. They are the ones who have to look after the children when their husbands are in prison. They feel well treated by Hamas institutions. Now these women are looking to us, the women in Parliament, to change other things.’‘

Shortly before the election, Hamas launched a women’s armed wing and its campaign posters pictured its members brandishing guns and rocket-propelled grenades. But the women MPs say their priority is reform, not armed struggle.

Jamila Shanti, a philosophy professor at the Islamic University who headed the list of Hamas’s women candidates, says the female activists agree on the need to tackle discrimination. “Our first job is to correct this because this is not Islam. We are going to show that women are not secondary, they are equal to men. Discrimination is not from Islam, it is from tradition. It may not be easy. Men may not agree.’‘

Attempts in the last Parliament to change laws that impose stiff punishments on women who commit adultery, while going easy on men, and provide relatively light sentences for “honour killings’’ of women who are deemed to have disgraced the family, ran into the sand amid resistance from older secular MPs.

Islah Jad, a lecturer in women’s studies at Birzeit University, says the party is at odds with itself over women’s rights. “In 1999, they admitted for the first time that women are oppressed and they have a cause. The second step is to attempt to formulate a kind of vision, but it’s very unstable. When family law was discussed they approved some reforms: that the age of marriage was 18 and that a woman can put any condition she wants in the marriage contract.

“But when it came to the penal code and the punishment for adultery, [the late Hamas spiritual leader] Sheikh Yassin said it was based on sharia law and shouldn’t be touched.’‘

Many of the male leaders of Hamas favour the extension of sharia to cover civil as well as criminal codes. Some have said they want to segregate schools, others favour a ban on the sale of alcohol. They also want to see women dress in accordance with Islam.

Naeem says changes should come only after Hamas has taken time to explain the benefits of religious law. “Our sharia is great if it’s practised according to its values. It’s not like they say about only cutting off hands,’’ she said.

“It’s not going to be forceful but anybody who believes in the religion has to be educated in it. At the end, what matters is fighting corruption, not what people wear.’‘

Then there is an issue unlike any other. The most controversial of the newly elected Hamas women is Miriam Farhat, known as the “Mother of Martyrs’’ after losing three sons fighting Israel. Her campaign video included a scene of her bidding a son goodbye before he died killing five people in a Jewish settlement. Farhat said later that she wished she had 100 sons to sacrifice as “shaheeds’’ (Muslims who die in a holy war).

Naeem says that there is nothing illegitimate about suicide bombers. “[The Israelis] bomb our neighbourhoods with high explosive. What kind of weapons do we have against F16s?’’ she asked. But would she encourage her own son to die killing Israelis? “Yes, as soon as his homeland calls for it. I am preparing him to be a shaheed,’’ she said.—Â

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