At a pro-Israel rally in London in January, one Jewish participant compared fighting Hamas terrorism with treating cancer: “When you treat cancer you kill some of the innocent blood cells. We regret any loss of human life [but] you don’t stop before you finish the course of treatment, otherwise it will come back stronger.”
This view, widely supported in the West, is tested in Paul McGeough’s sober history of the Palestinian nationalist and liberation movement. In his telling, Hamas has pursued politically pragmatic policies, often alongside unconscionable violence, to achieve its aims, with varying degrees of success.
Kill Khalid was written before the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza but McGeough deals directly with issues related to it. A foreign correspondent for the Fairfax group who has spent much time in the Middle East, he has ambivalent views towards Hamas. He details its appalling use of terrorism against its opponents and against Israel. But overall he attempts to find some sort of middle ground, a sparsely populated terrain in the Middle East debate.
At the end of the Gaza war, former US president Jimmy Carter told The Daily Beast website that the Islamist group had to be engaged if peace in the Middle East was to be achieved. “I met Hamas last month [December 2008] and Hamas has committed to me, and publicly on Al-Jazeera, that it would accept any agreement negotiated between Palestine and Israel provided it is submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum or if there’s an elected unity government,” Carter said. He stressed: “That means they [Hamas] accept Israel’s right to exist, to live in peace.”
About the same time The Jerusalem Post editorialised that Hamas was a “movement that amalgamates fascism with religious extremism and a genocidal platform” and the Jewish state had no choice but to respond defensively to “Palestinian bombardment”.
The final ramifications of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas have yet to be written - and a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, negotiated with Egyptian assistance, has to hold - but initial signs are that the movement has gained politically among Palestinians. A survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre last month found a surge of support for Hamas, decline for the corrupt US and Israeli-backed Fatah, and a swing towards resistance rather than negotiation. A veteran Fatah leader in the West Bank city of Nablus observed that the “Hamas era started when Israel attacked Gaza on December 27”.
McGeough’s book opens almost a dozen years earlier, with the botched 1997 Israeli assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in Amman, Jordan. The Jewish state, he writes, felt Mishal “was too credible as the new leader of Hamas, persuasive even. He had to be taken out.” With that, we are launched into a world of Israeli blunders over successive decades that have had the opposite to the intended effect. Israel never accepted the legitimacy of a viable Palestinian entity, McGeough argues, yet never understood that its emergence was unavoidable as long as Palestinian land remained occupied.
“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” retired Israeli official Avner Cohen told The Wall Street Journal in late January. McGeough outlines how the Jewish state tolerated and even encouraged the group since its birth in the 1980s, seeing it as a counterweight to Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. By the time Israel realised its mistake, it was too late, as Hamas provided welfare, education and health services to countless Palestinians. The organisation, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, had immersed itself into society and could not simply be eradicated by military means.
McGeough painstakingly details the reasons for Hamas’s resistance. When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, Mishal’s family was removed from its land. Confrontation with the Jewish state was inevitable. By the time he was a student at Kuwait University Mishal was developing his vision of a strong Palestinian resistance movement. “There was no such thing as a neutral Palestinian,” McGeough writes. “Their history was too new, too raw and, of late, too humiliating.”
Mishal believed even then, decades before the rise of Hamas, that Arafat’s Fatah was too secular, too weak and too arrogant. Achieving his aims, however, would require brutality. McGeough told the Columbia Journalism Review last month the only term for such behaviour was terrorism and that Hamas was “a group that uses terror as a weapon”.
The US government started to investigate Hamas and its ties to terrorism in the ’90s. McGeough details the purchasing of weapons for “holy war” and the “chilling litany of violent upheaval in more than 200 civilian lives”. He devotes many pages to Mishal’s personal history and some may think that by doing so he airbrushes a man who uses violence to further his political aims.
Mishal, we are told, is a former teacher well-versed in Arabic translations of the Western classics, including Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and also reads contemporary texts such as Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Yet he remains sympathetic to the message of the Muslim Brotherhood, the “Islamist current”, and has employed whatever methods are at his disposal, including suicide bombings, to achieve his perceived goals.