Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hamas on Palestine

People have tried to explain to me several times what happened at the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Hamas won the majority of the votes and defeated Fatah who had been in power since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Fatah is traditionally the socialist inspired Palestinian party that was established in 1954 by Yasser Arafat, among others. Hamas is a relatively new Islamist party formed in 1987 and inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Everyone says that people voted for Hamas as a protest against Fatah, especially here in Ramallah which is a very worldly city with a mix of Christians and Muslims and where it’s hard to find any trace of Hamas and Islamists on the streets. Many women wear the hijab but, especially with younger women, the scarves are incredibly fancy and mostly look like fashion statements. On the other hand, I’ve heard that only ten years ago you would hardly see a woman wearing the hijab amongst the Palestinians on the West Bank. This development, however, isn’t just Hamas’s work, as Fatah, I’ve been told, is increasingly employing religion. Hamas supposedly has more influence and plays a larger role in the North where people’s lack of basic needs is greater, and also because they actually do a lot of work there, helping people in their everyday lives, through local initiatives and institutions.

I was at the premiere on Saturday night of the documentary ‘Hamas on Palestine’. The screening took place in the Ramallah Cultural Palace which is an enormous building at the top of one of the hills in the city. The centre had been donated by Japan and to me looks more like a nuclear power station than a social space. The concert and theatre hall are accordingly large and can probably hold a couple of thousand people. For this film showing there were about 200-300 people. Before the film started, we’d met one of the featured personalities. Nicola, who I was with, knew him. He hadn’t seen the film until the day before and wasn’t convinced about its quality. He was an artist, about 60 years old and was one of the voices in the film that was critical of Hamas. I asked him whether his comments would cause him any problems. He shrugged and pointed towards a short man with a grey beard who’d just arrived. He told me that this man had been a minister in the Fatah government and had taken about 20 bullets in an attack by Hamas. ‘But he can still walk’, he commented dryly.

The film was basically one long attack on Hamas. Its connection with the Muslim Brotherhood was described and also how, during the party’s formation, it was supported by both Israel and the USA. The Israelis and the US wanted Hamas as a means to create divisions amongst the Palestinians. This division was illustrated through shockingly bloody images of dead and wounded people from sectarian Palestinian infighting in Gaza. These accusations weren’t necessarily untrue but they were certainly bluntly portrayed. Another criticism made of Hamas was that it had never had an independent Palestinian state as its goal but rather was working towards a pan-Muslim caliphate. After the film, which was hardly very analytical and rather just more opinionated, there was a discussion. It was conducted in Arabic but Nicola and I stayed for a while to see how it would develop. Two wireless microphones were circulated among the audience and the female film director stood on the stage answering questions. The debate was very heated. One of the questions (as far as I could understand) was about why Hamas didn’t get to speak in the film. I don’t think there were any representatives from Hamas in the audience but the discussion began to get even hotter and came close to ending in a big fight. People started speaking at the same time through the two microphones and the whole thing ended when the previous Fatah minister gave a long speech. This seemed to calm things down a bit. It was a shame that I couldn’t understand what was being said, but one thing is certain: politics in Palestine is never simple because the daily reality is constantly shaped and reshaped by political decisions made, not only in Ramallah, but more so in Tel Aviv and in Washington. Daily life in Palestine is a result of global and geopolitical decisions made somewhere else but the impact on people’s life is very concrete. When you talk about what appears as local politics you’re actually very often talking about a geopolitical situation that is out of reach of the Palestinians and this, of course, creates lots of indignation and anger when it comes to a political debate like this one. There is no local solution even though the infighting between Hamas and Fatah has many very local consequences.

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