Monday, June 02, 2008

The Role of The West in the Establishment of Hamas

Despite dominating the world media for many years, many aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict remain hidden from view. Quite often, contemporary events are not placed in context. No background is given, no explanation is outlined. Large chunks of the history of the conflict are ignored or cast aside as irrelevant. As is the case in reporting of many events across the world, what is left out is nearly always as interesting as what is left in.

Take the rise of Hamas, for example. Hamas is frequently referred to as a terrorist organisation that has a destabilising influence across the Middle East. Western critics often refer to the organisation as an impediment to peace rather than an aid. However, the history of Hamas is clouded in mystery and obscured from any discussion relating to progress in the region. It is, of course, obscured for very good reason - it underlines the duplicity of Western foreign policy within the region. A duplicity that goes some way to explaining why the conflict is so complex and remains some distance from resolution.

Arab nationalism was seen as a threat to Western hegemony throughout the region in the 1950s and 60s. Suddenly Arab leaders were gaining confidence and seeking to reclaim their resources. Underpinned with a nationalist, secular ideology, these leaders declared their refusal to bow to Western demands. The rise of Gamal Abdal Nasser in Egypt and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, gave many Arabs hope that they were about to witness a new era of dignity and freedom. This, of course, scared the West. A populist movement that sought to reclaim its natural resources? They could see that the emergence of Arab nationalism would have a massive impact on oil supplies and thus a situation could emerge whereby the Arab nationalists would hold all the cards, rather than the West. Alongside his nationalist agenda, Nasser also played an important role in the establishment of the PLO, a secular organisation reflecting Nasser’s own particular brand of Arab nationalism. If the PLO were to be successful in negotiating a deal with the Israelis, it would have been a massive victory for Arab nationalism and would have represented a serious threat to Western hegemony. Being the Palestinians sole representative on the world stage, it also united the Palestinian people, at least until the establishment of Hamas in 1987.

However, Nasser was not without his enemies within his own country. Despite initially supporting Nasser’s coup, The Muslim Brotherhood became disillusioned with Nasser’s secularist brand of politics and, in 1954, an attempt was made on his life. After the failed assassination attempt, the Islamists who were not rounded up and arrested subsequently left to settle in Saudi Arabia where they were welcomed as an important bulwark to the rise of ‘godless Communism’. The Saudi regime was particularly disturbed by the rise of Nasser as it threatened their fundamentalist form of government and consequently threatened their influence in the region. If an alternative form of government were to gain momentum, the Saudi regime would surely fall. Consequently, during this period, the Saudi government (alongside its ally the US) continued to provide financial backing to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood continued to agitate in Egypt and engaged in ‘radical activity’ led by one Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Under Yassin’s leadership, longtime Muslim Brotherhood activists were simply redirected from promoting Islamic observance to engaging in violent anti-Israel activities. Yassin had, by this stage, established his violent anti-Israeli credentials and was clearly pursuing a more radical Islamic course compared to the more secular PLO. However, this did not prevent the Western powers from pursuing a course of engagement with Yassin and his colleagues in the Brotherhood.

During the 1980s, Yassin focused on developing a ‘charitable organisation’ within Gaza that developed a network of social-welfare organizations, mosques, and schools. It was also at this time that the US and Israel provided financial support to Yassin and his organisation, despite Yassin’s previous anti-Israeli agitation in Egypt. Ostensibly, his organisation was supported as a counter-balance to the PLO and its secular Arab nationalism, which was seen as a massive threat to Western hegemony in the region (due to the loss of control of natural resources). According to Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies, Israel:

"...aided Hamas directly -- the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization)."

A resurgence of Arab nationalism in the region was of deep concern to the United States and the growth of a radical Islamic organisation would be a useful counter-weight to the rise of nationalist secularism. This was further demonstrated by the support of radical Islamists in Afghanistan (including Osama Bin Laden) during the conflict with the Soviet Union. With a radical alternative to Arab nationalism, the Arab people would remain divided and consequently allow the US to maintain influence in the region. As one former CIA official put it, Israel's support for Hamas :

"...was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative."

Furthermore, according to US officials:

....funds for the movement came from the oil-producing states and directly and indirectly from Israel. The PLO was secular and leftist and promoted Palestinian nationalism. Hamas wanted to set up a transnational state under the rule of Islam, much like Khomeini's Iran.

Consequently, whether it was intentioned or not, it would appear that the growth of Hamas as a power bloc within the region was directly attributable to the United State and her allies. Concerned by the growth of Arab nationalism and the problems that would cause for the West in the region, the US threw in its lot with radical Islamists who would prove to be a useful barrier to the rise of Soviet supported, secular regimes within the region. Despite the background of Yassin in Egypt, both Israel and the US had no problem with supplying funds and offering their support to Yassin’s ‘charitable organisation’. Thus the combination of Israel and the US managed to ensure that the Palestinian people were divided between a secular organisation prepared to do business with Israel (the PLO recognised Israel in 1993 as part of the Declaration of Principles), and a radical Islamic organisation that took a less compromising position regarding peace in the region. And yet, the covert support by the US government for radical Islamic groups over the years has remained firmly outside of the scope of the mainstream media’s assessment of the situation in the Middle East. Yet how can we understand the situation in the Middle East if we do not understand how it was created? The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is tied to the West’s attempts to assert hegemony throughout the region and ensure it remains the dominant force on the global stage. Ironic that the forces they utilised to ensure their dominance are now the very forces that threaten to demolish it.