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Defying Hamas

Arab commentators refuse to toe the terrorists' line.

6:15 PM, Jan 5, 2009 • By HASSAN MNEIMNEH
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There is a distinct novelty in the current war in Gaza. While much of the Arab broadcast media displays graphic scenes of and outrage about the mounting Palestinian casualties, print media in the Arab world is steering in the direction of a far more nuanced position that recognizes, albeit often implicitly, Israel's right for self-defense in the initiation of its military operation. This recognition is generally framed as a denunciation of Hamas's reckless behavior, from its targeting of Israeli towns with rockets, to its termination of the truce and rejection of Egyptian and Saudi initiatives. Embedded in this formulation, though, is the evident corollary that Israel did not act out of the latent "lust for blood", attributed to it by much of Arab political culture, but as a result of a legitimate rational calculation to defend its own citizens. Arab commentators still express their disagreement with the methods used and/or their efficacy, but their acknowledgement, however shyly articulated, of Israeli rights, is an opportunity that needs to be developed.

From Al Jazeera to Al Manar, media outlets loyal to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis have endeavored to restore the fading demonized image of Israel through selective sensationalist coverage, redacting Hamas's continuous provocations and refusing any distinction in the casualty count between civilians and Hamas operatives. The one Arab satellite network that dared to point to such distinction was barred from Gaza. However the anti-Israel message comes across today as confused and lacking credibility on more than one account.

While Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah, in a fiery speech, calls on the Egyptian public to rise against its government for its engagement of Israel and for its failure to allow the free flow of weapons to Gaza, his premier ally in Damascus, having kept his own borders with Israel free of any act of "resistance" for decades, is busy convincing the world that "Syria is ready for direct peace negotiations with Israel". Syria's peace overtures might be insincere promises designed to buy its Iranian ally enough time to fulfill its nuclear ambitions. They do however conflict with and hence discredit the "resistance" rhetoric that Hezbollah has sought to impose as normative on Arab culture.

The dilemma of this rhetoric is self-evident: to mobilize its target audience, it has to highlight the dire circumstances that the Gaza civilian population is enduring, while denouncing the "bankrupt" Arab regimes for failure to provide aid, support, and weapons. However, beyond the rhetoric, the self-styled "rejectionist" (mumana'ah, the rejection of compromises) forces themselves have done nothing to help Hamas and left Gaza to its fate. To shield its patrons from the resulting criticism, the rejectionist media is therefore promoting the contradictory notion that the Israeli war efforts have failed, and that the "resistance" has the upper hand. In a repeat of Hezbollah's claim to a "Divine Victory" in 2006 (a slogan not-so-modestly inspired by the name of Nasrallah, Arabic for "Victory from God") the Arab public is thus presented with the dual proposition of civilian carnage and the promise of an alleged Hamas victory.

Since the inconclusive end of Hezbollah's lethal adventurism more than two years ago, and the subsequent media saturation aiming to transform the failure of Israel to reach its stated goals in its second war in Lebanon into an existential defeat ushering the unraveling of the Jewish State and U.S. dominated world order, cracks in the "resistance" propaganda have multiplied. From Hezbollah's sacking of Beirut in May 2008, to Syria and Iran's sabotaging of efforts by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to avoid Palestinian civil war, the Arab public was soberly exposed to the utilitarian and cynical use of resistance rhetoric. Hamas's insistence on sacrificing the Palestinian population in its pursuit of fictional victories, à la Hezbollah, is an opportunity to deepen the widespread realization of the hollowness of the "rejectionist" posture.

To their credit, a number of Arab leaders, including the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas, have stated that Hamas bears the responsibility for the conflict. These statements are however invariably buffered with a denunciation of the Israeli "aggression". While showing compassion for all the victims of the conflict is expected, it is important for Arab leaders, as well as for official and independent media in the Arab world, not to fall into the trap of the rejectionists: the on-going responsibility of Hamas for the carnage should be continuously underlined. More significantly, with adventurism discredited, now is the time to highlight a reality that "resistance" culture strives to obfuscate: that the conflict with Israel is one of borders, not of existence. Israel, like any and all other states in the region--including Palestine--has the right to exist in peace, and to defend itself against blatant aggression. By committing excesses that even the rejectionist media is at a loss of defending, Hamas might have given Arab political culture a way out the vicious circle of rejectionism.

Hassan Mneimneh is a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.