The Region: A review that speaks volumes

The New York Times' Jerusalem correspondent reveals his basic acceptance of Hamas's aims.

barry rubin column 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin column 88
(photo credit: )
In a shocking anti-Israel diatribe, the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem has revealed both his profound personal bias and basic acceptance of Hamas's political claims. These revelations came in a review by Steven Erlanger in the International Herald Tribune of June 23 (reprinted from the Times) of Hamas. Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad by Matthew Levitt, currently a deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury department. Erlanger spends little time covering the actual contents of the book, but instead launches an attack on the book's premises, sources and on Israeli policy. The most important aspect of the review is Erlanger's complaint that Levitt "does not discuss (and never even seems to entertain) the premise that Palestinians have a right to resist a 40- year Israeli occupation and partial annexation of their land." He says that Hamas is popular because of the existence of Jewish settlements, the separation barrier, restrictions on Palestinian movements and "the failure by Israelis to support those in Fatah committed to nonviolence, like President Mahmoud Abbas..." CLEARLY, ERLANGER views the conflict from a radical Palestinian standpoint, probably without consciously understanding why his statement demonstrates this fact. Hamas itself and its main supporters do not hold their views because of anger at Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - now greatly diminished, though Erlanger appears unaware of this - but due to a desire to wipe Israel off the map. Apparently, though, Erlanger views anti-Israel extremism - the factor that is maintaining all the issues he mentions - as merely a reaction to Israeli policies. Yet, to cite only two examples, both Hamas and Fatah rejected both peace with a Palestinian state in 2000 and Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip because they saw such developments as undermining their drive to keep the conflict going until they can attain total victory. Equally absurd is Erlanger's blaming Palestinian extremism on an Israeli failure to help Abbas. Leaving aside past Israeli funding of that leader's budget, military restraint, the turning over to him of the Gaza Strip and the recent giving of guns to his forces, it ignores Abbas's unwillingness to do anything moderate. Abbas is hardly committed to nonviolence. To cite only one example, his recent endorsement of the "prisoners' letter" explicitly endorses violence against Israelis. Hamas's success is certainly related to Fatah's incompetence and corruption as well as the nationalist group's refusal to offer an alternative, moderate program, but that is hardly Israel's fault. WHILE ERLANGER would no doubt condemn terrorism, it is also shocking that he does not see that terrorism is not exactly covered by a right to resist occupation. The way he expresses all these issues is the same way that Hamas and Fatah propaganda explain them. And yet Erlanger is accurately explaining the thinking that lies behind most of the Times coverage, the view that Israeli is responsible for the conflict, Abbas is a moderate victim and Hamas is an understandable reaction to Israeli misdeeds. It should be remembered that Osama bin Laden and the terrorists in Iraq also justify their deeds, including September 11, as falling under a right to resist occupation. ON TWO other points, Erlanger makes interesting observations. First, he is obsessed with Levitt's use of sources, complaining that the author employs material from a research center associated with Israel's government and has worked at a think tank - the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center of the Center for Special Studies - "considered friendly to Israel." Thus, he concludes, "There will be readers of this book who will see it as fronting for the Israeli intelligence establishment and its views." Of course, Erlanger is signaling people that they should reach this conclusion. This kind of writing is inappropriate because the research center in question is almost exclusively merely translating Palestinian documents and texts. At any rate, the proper course for Erlanger would have been to point out some error or questionable interpretation by Levitt based on his use of this material. Instead, we have guilt by association. I think that what Erlanger is really doing here is revealing his own fear of being branded pro-Israel if he pays too much attention - or at times merely reports - Israel's side of the story. There is a constant tendency to take Palestinian sources at face value but to energetically challenge Israeli sources, which have proven far more reliable. Finally, Erlanger is insistent on a very curious argument. He spends a lot of the review criticizing Levitt for not agreeing that the most important aspect of Hamas is trying to Islamicize Palestinian society rather than fighting against Israel. Ironically, this contradicts his claim that Hamas and its supporters are motivated by Israeli actions. But obviously both fighting Israel and Islamicizing Palestinian society are goals of Hamas. Indeed, Hamas believes that continuing to fight Israel, ignoring Israeli concessions and ensuring that peace fails is the best way to build support for an Islamist revolution among Palestinians. Why, then, is Erlanger obsessed with this distinction? I suggest that what Erlanger is actually saying is that what is really bad about Hamas is not that it is a racist, terrorist group with genocidal intentions against Israelis but that it is an Islamist organization. If, after all, Hamas is exercising a just right of resistance motivated by Israeli misdeeds, how can it be condemned on those grounds? The trouble with Hamas is that it is a "right-wing" religious group rather than a "left-wing" nationalist one. The bottom line of all these points is that after reading Erlanger's review it is impossible to take seriously the idea that he is a fair reporter or has a good understanding of the contemporary issues he is covering. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center.