By Dylan Bergeson/ Special to the AS Review
Locals call Nablus the Mountain of Fire. During the Crusades its inhabitants bled invading forces like an infection.
Today, Nablus is one of the few places in Palestine the Israeli army does not control. Armed men safeguard the streets at night; during the day, young boys patrol with toy Kalashnikovs and M-16s. Many children dream of growing up to be fighters. This, despite the fact that a four square-kilometer section of the city called Balata refugee camp has alone suffered one fifth of total Palestinian casualties since the beginning of the 2000 Intifada, a Palestinian campaign directed at ending Israeli occupation.
The region is a volcano that has erupted for hundreds of years with the demand for freedom – and the willingness to retain it by force. Israeli policy has been to agitate the situation. Nightly invasions are routine. Eventually I’ve learned to sleep through the sounds of gunfights and explosions. As each year passes the community becomes more impoverished, with more people turning to religious conservatism and militarization for hope.
I cannot count the number of machismo displays in which gun-toting young men flooded the streets, propping up one faction or another. They were only differentiated by the colors of banners they flew. In the days leading up to the Palestinian election I expected community tensions to cross over into relations between rival factions. In some ways they did, but on one afternoon Fatah and Hamas supporters, a little too impassioned, got into over each other’s election posters. In an isolated instance of actual rival violence, a man was killed while trying to cover one campaign
poster with another.
The Nablus municipality is consistently supportive of Hamas, while the Fatah-sympathetic Kitaeb al-Aqsa (al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade) maintains a strong armed presence, confirming the municipality’s status as a political hotbed, however, during the election exhilaration I saw festivity and excitement that brought people together across party lines. Two examples come to mind:
While I was videotaping a Hamas youth rally a boy fitted a green hat on my head. A group of kids from Fatah, having infiltrated the march, removed the hat and replaced it with the white and black patterned one for their party. The foreigner had been reclaimed! They all cheered. The “clash”, at least in Nablus, was similar to a high school sports competition.
Later that night I stumbled upon a street parade. Crowds filled the sidewalks while cars zipped up and down the hill, waving flags and honking. There was drumming, dancing and cheering with Fatah, Hamas, and the PFLP side by side. They took turns inundating me with why their “side” was the best while they partied together.
On election night, a BBC World News reporter stood at Manara Square in Ramallah, discussing the inability of “competing factions” to cooperate. Behind him, a convincing backdrop: youth speeding around in cars, leaning out the windows, firing into the air. In reality, it was an expression of victory at having held a fair election with almost no outside interference. Taken out of context, though, and the scene easily fit the narrative. Apparently the real story, the wholly unexpected cross-factional unity, just did not make for interesting news.
The Bush spin factory has lurched back into production as well. The president was forced to congratulate Palestinians for holding democratic election. After all, building democracy in the Middle East was the White House’s latest foundation for the ongoing war in Iraq. In the same speech, he expressed every intention of limiting Hamas’ role in the new government. The implication that Palestine will be denied autonomy based on the decision of its people through an admittedly democratic process, of course, undermines the whole idea of democracy.
Gradually, I’ve had to reconcile the ways I have been indoctrinated in the United States with the experiences I’ve had living in Palestine, and while I would refrain from holding up any faction as a poster child for coexistence, some things just don’t match up.
It is an undeniable fact that Hamas is feared in the West. In the corporate media, they embody many of the nightmarish associations we make with any labelled “terrorist organization.”
Having maintained a distance of space and time from life in America, however, I have come to see that the representation of Hamas in corporate media is often as much a projection of our own fears as a comprehensive understanding of the group. This is not to say the Hamas movement is constructive or healthy, only that we might consider trying to see beyond simplistic “good” and “evil” judgements.
I am conflicted about the legitimacy of Hamas as a political party.
I condemn operations inside Israel as irredeemable, but I have been surprised to find that every Hamsawi (Hamas supporter) I have spoken with– including some higher-ups with strong connections in the party and the several men I spoke with at the organization’s victory celebration in Nablus– strongly condemn suicide bombings. A young man from an extended family of dedicated Hamsawi became upset as he digressed about the moral ineptitude of killing children and innocents, and that attacks should remain focused on occupation targets.
This is surely but a fragment of Hamas’ internal discourse on the subject, but it demonstrates that the group is not one-dimensional. Yet we seem to have a deeply internalized tendency to fit them into an ideological mould with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In conversations with Hamsawi, I still find myself shuffling through a checklist of stereotypes. I would hope to see the American and Israeli responses to the election include a campaign to learn about this bogeyman in the closets of our societies’ subconscious.
Understanding, however, does not seem to be in the agenda. In a way, Hamas’ victory is the best thing to happen for the radical right-wing Likud party since Sharon’s armed visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, and the subsequent uprising that allowed for unprecedented expansion into Palestinian territory. Before the new legislative government could so much as consider affecting some policy change to infuriate Israel, drastic measures were taken to punish Palestinians for exercising democracy. Israel recently cut all tax money to the Palestinian Authority (controlling the borders, Israel taxes Palestinian imports, then routes portions of the money to the P.A.), amounting to forced taxation of occupied population (and surely without representation!). Perhaps worse, the separation wall is now being constructed at a quickened pace.
Word on the street is that shortly before the election, Hamas began quietly buying up other factions’ weapons. In a matter of weeks or months they may have an effective monopoly on arms (if the Palestinian Police Force is considered to now be controlled by Hamas). Intentions remain a mystery. If Hamas is accepted into the government, a slight possibility exists for a long-sought after disarmament of quarrelling factions. If the group is instead forced into the periphery and reverts to violence, it will be stronger than ever.
The situation is currently balancing on a knife edge. The feverish excitement around elections has died down, and premonitions about what the future may hold are coming out of the fog. I am chewing my nails until the Israeli elections, when many of those will be made clear.