Of Heroes, Villains and Shades of Grey

People love to have their good guys and bad guys neatly defined.

That is a central point in the debate over the narrative of last weekend’s disastrous Israeli raid of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. I’ve seen it particularly in reactions to things I’ve written about the Turkish aid organization, IHH.

The Israeli propaganda machine has helped to inflame and actually define the debate over IHH by accusing them of ties with al-Qaeda. As a result, the debate has revolved around whether they’re “terrorists.”

Crowd at the funeral of one of those killed on the flotilla

The IHH having ties to al-Qaeda was an absurd accusation on its face. If they did, Turkey would never sanction them on any level and would much more likely be persecuting and arresting them. Americans and Israelis might think of al-Qaeda as primarily targeting them, but secular Muslim regimes are much more in their crosshairs than we are. And, indeed, Israel has quietly retracted the accusation.

Thus Israeli propaganda set up the false dichotomy: either the IHH were horrible terrorists or they were pacifistic heroes.

But they’re neither. On five of six ships, tactics of non-violence were employed. Apparently, from the reports of those who were on the ships, these tactics were indeed met with violence from the invading Israeli commandoes. But equally apparently, things did not escalate to the point they did on the Mavi Marmara.

This is not necessarily an indictment. The Israeli forces, putting it kindly, were acting outside of their jurisdiction and were, contrary to the contention of some, also outside their powers under international law. The passengers on the ship had a right to defend themselves from being boarded, although the specific actions they took may have gone beyond that right—that’s why an investigation is needed.

But it does seem that some of Mavi Marmara passengers did eschew non-violence as a tactic. Again, they may have had a right to do so, but the issue is whether it was wise. I contended that it will mean the Free Gaza Movement’s legitimate contention that they are a non-violent movement will be a very tough sell from here out.

More broadly, the question is one of a group’s character and orientation.

I’ll start by saying that just because a group or individual supports Hamas ideologically or politically, this does not mean that group or or individual does not have the same rights as anyone else. One’s politics cannot be criminalized in any decent society—that is the very cornerstone of totalitarianism. IHH has every right to their views.

But ideologically, IHH is clearly connected with the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas strain (whether there is any practical connection is a separate question, one I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to). This hardly precludes it from being a humanitarian organization, as the MB does a great deal of charitable and humanitarian work. But there is also an underlying ideology there that I think most liberals and progressives, in the Muslim world as well as in the West, would not agree with.

The same false dichotomy has plagued the West’s dealings with Hamas. They rose to power as a terrorist group, which is also true of parties in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Algeria and, yes, Israel. The difference with Hamas is their transformation into a political entity is not complete and is opposed not only by the US and Israel, but also by many of the Arab countries, though most are careful about how they talk about this fact in public. The other difference is that, whether due to a stubbornness of ideology or the circumstances they’re in, they have not foregone the tactics of terrorism.

Those differences are significant, and I am not in favor of accepting Hamas as a legitimate governmental entity. Nonetheless, Hamas is and has always been very different from al-Qaeda and similar groups. They have always been a political movement, albeit a violent one, and have long had an agenda and a desire to be part of the political

Hamas PM in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh

process.  That’s not the case with the groups of al-Qaeda’s ilk.

But Hamas does hold to an ideology that is reactionary and what would be equated in the West to “fundamentalism.” Their rule in Gaza has been far from clean, with their reneging on a promise not to institute shari’a law in many regards, assaults on civil society (the latest being done under the cover of the flotilla controversy).

None of this justifies the siege on Gaza, much less the invasion of the flotilla ships.

And, sure, much of this stems from the Bush Administration’s push for Palestinian elections and their and Israel’s subsequent refusal to live with the result. But that shouldn’t turn a reactionary and repressive ideology into something that those seeking a just, peaceful and practical resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict support.

Nor should it mean that we need to divide everyone into good guys and bad guys. IHH, from all indications, are part of an ideological movement I oppose. But they were also part of an effort to break a blockade that is collectively punishing innocents in Gaza. That was a noble effort and Israel, despite its best propaganda efforts have yet to show that the IHH activists on the flotilla were trying to do anything illegal, were involved in any kind of weapons running or were guilty of anything, before their own attack on the ships, of anything at all.

I may not like IHH, but they are entitled to the same rights as everyone else. I don’t think acknowledging that means one needs to embrace the group. And it’s far past time Israel realize that their distaste for the politics of another group or country does not entitle them to extend their powers under the law or under the norms of international relations. The presence of activists who may (and I stress may as we know nothing of the views of the particular people on the ships from IHH) be quite anti-Israel or may support Hamas doesn’t diminish their rights.

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One Response to “Of Heroes, Villains and Shades of Grey”

  1. Colin Brace Says:

    Thanks for this very nuanced view.

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