Blogs > Liberty and Power > Israel/Rwanda/Iraq

Apr 7, 2004 7:10 am


As we move toward setting up a Quisling government in Iraq, with a requested increase in troops while talking of handing over power June 30th -- our Kommandant in Guantanamo has just been sent to Iraq to supervise more prisons there (some exit strategy !) -- we should not forget the events which continue to unfold in Israel. A Financial Times piece, for subscribers only, is pasted in below.

You might also want to check out this NYT piece describing the growth of Islam in Rwanda, based in no small part on the Muslims heroic efforts to protect people from the killers ten years ago, while it would appear many Christians, especially Catholics, were complicit in the affair.

Also, here is a piece of mine on Iraq, linked as well at

A somewhat lengthier and updated version of this will appear in The Asheville Citizen-Times next Sunday. ---------------------------------------------------------------------

Financial Times  April 6 2004

Sharon's gamble could trigger holy war

By Henry Siegman

Since September 11 2001, Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, and members of his government have insisted that there is not much difference between al-Qaeda and Hamas and that indeed Israel's war with Hamas places Israel in the vanguard of President George W. Bush's global war on terror.

It is this conception of Hamas that underlies not only Mr Sharon's justification for the assassination two weeks ago of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, but also the difficulty Mr Bush seems to have in objecting to Mr Sharon's resort to extra-judicial executions.

The analogy between Hamas and al-Qaeda is false. Hamas, for all its fundamentalist Islamic passions, is a movement for Palestinian national liberation with a clear political agenda - the establishment of a Palestinian state. While its convictions define the Palestinian national goal as a return to all of Palestine, the goal of statehood is so central for Hamas that Sheikh Yassin offered an open-ended ceasefire ( hudna ) if Israel were to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and return to the pre-1967 borders.

Israelis view those who attach any seriousness to such Hamas declarations as hopelessly naive. They are convinced that no one understands Hamas and Palestinians better than they do because they live with them and next to them. But for all this geographic intimacy, the understanding that many Israelis have of Palestinians is profoundly and pathologically distorted. The two peoples' century-long conflict has resulted in demonisation of the other, not deeper mutual understanding.

An Israeli security expert who sees the situation in entirely different terms is Ephraim Halevy. Mr Halevy was until last September the head of Israel's National Security Council and Mr Sharon's national security adviser. In an interview published in the newspaper Ha'aretz (September 4 2003), Mr Halevy said:"Anyone who thinks it is possible to ignore so central an element of Palestinian society [as Hamas] is simply mistaken." While Mr Halevy advocated"a strategy of brutal force" against its terrorist activities, he urged Israel's government to encourage Hamas' political and religious leadership to"enter the fabric of the Palestinian establishment". He added:"In the end, there will be no way around Hamas being a partner in the Palestinian government". Mr Halevy also insisted that the conflict between Judaism and Islam was"resolvable" and that the two could achieve"a historic hudna such as existed between Islam and Christianity for the past 300 years".

When Abu Mazen was appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority last year, Hamas leaders declared a hudna partly because they did not want the US or their own activists to see their conflict with Israel as connected to al-Qaeda's ideological war with the west. They feared that such a perception would discredit the Palestinian national struggle and permanently alienate Washington. Despite their political and ideological extremism, Hamas' leaders are pragmatic and understand that, ultimately, Palestinian statehood cannot be achieved without US support. That is why when Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a hard-liner who replaced Sheikh Yassin as Hamas' leader in the occupied territories, threatened to launch terrorist attacks against the US, he retracted the threat the following day.

Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Jeddah told me in 1999 that Saudis saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in political, not religious, terms. Therefore, if the two parties were to reach a reasonable compromise based on the pre-1967 borders, Saudi Arabia would establish normal diplomatic ties with Israel.

Mr Sharon's decision, however, to assassinate a man seen as a religious leader by both Palestinians and Muslims risks transforming what most Muslims have so far considered to be a conflict over competing national and territorial claims - albeit claims that have religious resonances - into a religious conflict whose claims are absolute and existential.

The insistence by Mr Sharon and so many Israelis that Sheikh Yassin deserved his fate is beside the point. To be sure, Hamas had no right to demand immunity for someone who provided religious legitimacy for the brutal killing of Israeli civilians. But if the assassination is transforming Israel's conflict with the Palestinians into a religious war, the Israeli civilians in whose name Mr Sharon carries out these extra-judicial killings may yet pay a far more bitter price.

The writer is a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations

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