Monday, December 26, 2005

How democracy moderates even the most hardened terrorists

I realise some will try to paint me as a terror sympathiser for saying this. But I honestly think the Israelis should allow a Palestinian government to be formed. Even if it involves candidates linked to HAMAS.

Presumably most of those accusing me of being a terror sympathiser will come from the usual sectors for whom it is impossible for the Palestinians to ever get in right.

These same unconditionally anti-Palestinian people complained when Palestinians living under areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority democratically elected Nobel Prize winner Yasser Arafat.

When the first democratically elected Palestinian government appointed a Christian woman to the sensitive portfolio of education, these people accused Dr Hanan Ashrawi of being a terrorist sympathiser. Their allegations followed her all the way to Sydney in 2003, when she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize.

Now Palestinian election officials are allowing HAMAS candidates to contest in the election, and already we hear murmurs of threats of sanctions and withdrawal of aid pledges.

Yet the presence of HAMAS candidates will not be the first time terrorists have taken part in an election. Israeli critics of HAMAS should remember the numerous members of notorious terrorist groups responsible for many deaths (including the Stern Gang) who have been elected to the Knesset. At least two Stern Gang members have even been elected Prime Minister.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir never dared to set foot in England as an outstanding warrant was current for his arrest over his involvement in the bombing of the King David Hotel that left scores of civilians dead.

Shamir was also believed to be responsible for the assassination of the Swedish peace negotiator Count Folke Bernadotte, shot at close range in Jerusalem in September 1948 whilst working under the auspices of the United Nations. Bernadotte hoped to secure a compromise peace plan which would create separate Jewish and Palestinian states.

Other former terrorists included Nobel Prize winning Menachem Begin and even current Israeli PM Ariel Sharon.

For this part of the world, involvement by HAMAS will not be the first time a violent terrorist group will have been welcomed into the peaceful democratic process. Yesterdays terrorists have often become today’s and tomorrow’s statesmen.

Including HAMAS in government will give the organisation a much-needed injection of the harsh realities of administration and government. It is hoped that in government, HAMAS will recognise the need to compromise, to aim for the possible rather than the rhetorically popular but unachievable. Carping and sending other people’s children to their deaths is easy. Balancing competing interests and making tough decisions that can even hurt your supporters is very hard.

No one can deny the murderous record of the armed wing of HAMAS and their co-option of suicide bombing from Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (also known as the Tamil Tigers). Hundreds of Israeli civilians have died at the hands of HAMAS suicide bombers, and Israelis have every right to be anxious about sharing a border with a government incorporating a group advocating the destruction of Israel.

The 2005 film Paradise Now directed by Hany Abu-Assaad seems to accurately portray the reality of organisations happy to send the depressed and frustrated children of others to their deaths in the name of a sick and demented theology with little relation to mainstream Islam.

HAMAS is a proscribed terrorist organisation under Australian, EU and United States law. Its past actions have certainly earned this proscription. Nothing in this article should be construed as constituting support for the organisation and its murderous activities.

But what is perhaps often forgotten is the role groups linked to HAMAS play in providing essential services to ordinary Palestinians. HAMAS is not a terror monolith. In December 2001, exactly 3 months following the September 11 attacks, TIME Magazine reporter Tony Karon wrote about the “large scale welfare arm” of the organisation.

“Hamas provides educational, medical and other desperately needed welfare services in impoverished West Bank and Gaza towns and refugee camps, creating a marked contrast with the image of corruption and cronyism most Palestinians have of Arafat's administration.”

Karon also writes of how the Israelis themselves encouraged HAMAS to openly operate from 1987 until HAMAS commenced armed action in 1989. Israel hoped HAMAS would provide an alternative indigenous Palestinian leadership to Yasser Arafat, then viewed in Israel as an enemy.

The record of HAMAS in the organised, efficient and effective provision of essential services may make its involvement in a future Palestinian government a plus for a future Palestinian administration. Gaza remains one of the poorest population centres on earth. It is also one of the most densely populated.

It is arguable that in Lebanon, the political, media and welfare wings of Hizbollah (whose armed wing is also proscribed in Australia) have led to the scaling down of military attacks on Israel. Democratic political processes in Lebanon have also seen the withdrawal of Syrian troops, seen as prime sponsors of Hizbollah. The organisation has little choice but to abstain from violence.

Peace cannot be achieved without compromise. Further, even those known for their extremist tendencies are known to moderate their positions when the trappings of government are at stake. Politics is a dirty game, but its utility lies in its ability to sap the militancy of even the most players on the terror chessboard. Parliamentary hawks are generally less dangerous than militants locked out of a political process.

I am no fan of HAMAS, just as I am no fan of the Stern Gang. But as Israel’s own history of electing former terrorists to Parliament has shown, democracy has the power to moderate the radical and clip the wings of the fiercest hawks. If organisations linked to HAMAS do have the popularity inherently anti-Palestinian commentators claim they have, surely this is even more reason to expose them to the mainstream political activity.

© Irfan Yusuf 2005