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Targeting Hamas

December 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: To discuss Hamas, we are joined by Neil Livingstone, who has written nine books on terrorism and who is president of Global Options, a security firm; and Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Neil Livingstone, is Hamas an old group? What are its origins? When was it founded?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well, the first time that we actually saw the word Hamas appear in… in a from a western point of view was in 1988. And it’s an Islamist organization, very radical, that believes in the replacement of Israel by a Palestinian state but a religiously based radical Islamist state. And it has made its voice heard very loudly through acts of terrorism and through various political channels ever since 1988.

RAY SUAREZ: Shibley Telhami, what else is Hamas up to in that part of the world, in Israel and the occupied territories?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: You know, Hamas was actually born out of the Islamic movement, the Muslim brotherhood, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza, which actually was initially encouraged by Israel as a way of undermining PLO Institutions in the ’70s. It initially, of course, made its effectiveness in the Palestinian community not so much through political agenda, but actually by creating charities and providing services where there was a huge vacuum in the communities, the poor communities.

And through those services, it actually built a very significant constituency. In 1988, as Mr. Livingstone pointed out, it was the first full year of the Palestinian Intifada, the first Palestinian Intifada. Clearly that Intifada which was asserting itself on the ground and it was really being in a way an instrument of the PLO as well, although it was spontaneous Intifada, Hamas did not want to be outdone and it, in fact, jumped on the Intifada as another player using more violent instruments than was the norm in that Intifada.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Professor, this is a group that started, had its origins in the mosques, clinics, hospitals, schools and then turned to political violence?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: You know, it’s interesting. I think if you look back at almost all the Islamic political organizations, a significant part of their support is based on community services. This is the secret, so to speak, of the effectiveness of these organizations. A lot of people rally behind them less for their political agendas although clearly that resonates, too, and less for their means, although that resonates, and more with the services that they provide, that typically states even outside the Palestinian areas do not provide.

Even, by the way, in democratic countries like Israel, in villages and towns that are Muslim or mostly Muslim like the largest Arab-Israeli town, you’ve had the Islamists succeed in electing a mayor of that town largely because that mayor and those groups that he represented provided services to the community.

In fact, they overthrew a previous mayor who had been communist. The town went from electing a communist mayor in the ’70s to an Islamic mayor… In the ’70s, the communist mayor himself was being elected largely because he was providing services with the help of the Soviet Union and East Germany. They were sending a lot on Arab children, Arab young men and women who couldn’t get education in Israel to medical schools outside at the expense of the party and bringing them back to serve in the community.

That, in fact, enlarged their services. With the demise of the Soviet Union oddly enough, they couldn’t do that. And the Islamic groups actually filled the vacuum. So we see that those kinds of services are very important for maintaining the power of these groups and clearly, in fact, if you destroy that, you’re going to have to fill that vacuum because there’s a demand side. The public needs the services. Somebody is going to have to fill in those services if, in fact, you eradicate the sources of the money that goes to them.

RAY SUAREZ: Neil Livingstone, could you compare Hamas to groups like Eta in Spain or the IRA in Ireland that have both a civic life and a shadier terrorist life at the same time?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well, we have to remember that Hamas is predominantly a terrorist group, but it also has a public face. It backs.. has backed candidates in elections and in the Palestinian Authority.

And one of the things that they do is obviously they raise money, some of it done through extortion or basically leaning on members of their community in the United States and elsewhere to contribute, and then using that money as your other guest has so correctly pointed out to fill in the vacuum that the Palestinian Authority has been unable to address.

That’s really one of Mr. Arafat’s major failings. I was in the Palestinian Authority not long ago. And what you see there is essentially a governing body that really doesn’t have the confidence of many of the people if not most of the people that are under its rule because it is roundly regarded as to be corrupt.

It is roundly regarded as to waste the money that it has and it doesn’t serve the needs of the people. So it’s very similar in that way to the IRA in the sense that the IRA has… The Irish Republican Army has had for traditionally a public face and headed by Gerry Adams, which participates in dialogue and elections and so on and has the military arm on the other side, which is very clandestine and carries out terrorist attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk more about money, Neil Livingstone. Is it your impression that much of the money for funding this work is coming from outside Israel and the occupied territories?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: There’s no question that it’s coming from largely outs Israel. It comes from the Palestinian Diaspora from around the work and other Co-religionists. In the United States we’ve had a number of examples where various Hamas related organizations have engaged in criminal activity, in some cases insurance fraud, other things like that, to raise money for Hamas but also they go into the large Arab-American communities in places like Dearborn and so on, Michigan, and people there know that… No one actually comes out and says that you have to contribute, but there’s an underlying, underscored threat that if you don’t contribute, that bad things may happen to you.

So people contribute and it’s done through these… A variety of these front organizations or what General Ashcroft said the other day, to be hijacked charities or hijacked religions where essentially people can say, “well, I didn’t really contribute directly to killing people. What I did was contribute money to this charitable organization and I really don’t know or want to know very much about how they spent it.”

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Telhami — go ahead.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Let me just say certainly most Arab and Muslim Americans don’t contribute because of threats to them. They contribute because they care. Let’s face it; there is a reality out there that is very ugly. They watch it. The Palestinians are going through hell. A lot of other Muslims around the world are in difficult conditions, and people have affinity and they want to help.

Just like any other, when you have a Jewish organization helping Israel significantly and other organizations, not just directly to the state but other groups, most of them do it as charity. They care and they send their money. Now the question is, how is this money used? I think, you know, obviously if this money is used for terrorism, the U.S. has every right to stop it.

I think we have to be very careful though not to just justify it on the basis of going to a school we don’t like. Now if a school is really training terrorism or inviting people to commit violence, that’s one issue. But if it is largely because the school is saying that “we don’t accept Israel,” that’s not enough. That is a school I don’t like. That is a school we should hope to persuade the governments to change, but it’s not enough.

For one thing, you can have, for example, even in the Israeli government in recent years, we’ve had members of the government who were actually calling for expelling all the Arabs and the Palestinians from the West Bank and to incorporate the West Bank into Israel. That is troubling, but they are not the government. They’re not representing the Israeli government policy. You don’t ask the Israeli government to expel them because that’s not government policy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well Professor, let me get a reply from Neil Livingstone, because Shibley Telhami is suggesting that you can’t cut off, you know, with simple cut all this money. Is it possible to cut the revenue stream to the terrorists and let it continue to these civil organizations?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: I think to some extent it is, but these organizations are going to have to become much more transparent than they are today. They’re really not transparent because their foreign organizations or they’re organizations like the Holy Land Foundation operating in the United States that once the money leaves our shores, we really don’t know how it’s spent.

And the one area I have to disagree with your other guest is Hamas a very dangerous terrorist group as the president suggested today. And we also have to worry about the fact the money that sometimes goes into these organizations frees up other money… Not only does it buy them political power in the areas where they reside, but it frees up other money that then can be used to carry out terrorist attacks.

And so that’s why we have to be very careful about how this money is spent and even if it ostensibly some of it is used for humanitarian purposes we need more transparency.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Certainly. I agree.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, Shibley.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Money is fungible most certainly. I think that’s right. I think if there is a clear-cut relationship between that money and the organizations, that’s a good justification, but the justification that the money goes to schools that we don’t like is not enough.

Now if the fungibility issue is more persuasive. We have to be very clear in our justification. I don’t think we can lump these issues together and talk about them if they’re one in the same. Terrorism is unacceptable. Attacking civilians is unacceptable. Organizations that attack civilians we have a right to pressure, and we should do that.

But at the same time, we also have to be very clear that we are not going after charities, we are not going after people strictly because of political views. Political views even we don’t like we have to accept but not actions that involve terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: Shibley Telhami, Neil Livingstone, thank you both.