Dispatch | Gaza and the Israeli-Hamas Conflict as Seen from Iran
24 Nov 2012 22:07
[ dispatch ] The recent fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has been a hot topic of conversation among Iranians.
I visit 35-year-old Manouchehr, who considers himself a nationalist, near Tehran's Felestin Circle. "Honestly, in a way I think we and Palestinians are alike," he says.
In what way?
"We are both ensnarled in unique but different situations that others probably can't appreciate," he replies. "We are trapped in a religious dictatorship and they by an occupation. Our dictatorship has similarities to an occupation, and their occupation has similarities to a theocracy."
He says that he believes that the rest of the world can't understand the situation of Iranians or Palestinians to any significant extent. I ask him if Israelis are not facing a similar situation that is not properly appreciated. He raises his eyebrows and his voice becomes agitated. "That's a lie. They have come and pushed a people out of their homeland on the basis of some religious mumbo jumbo."
I remind him that the United Nations recognizes Israel within its 1967 borders. He answers in a calmer tone, "Alas, it is so. The United Nations has transferred Europe's recompense for its sin of mistreating the Jews to a different place. And of course, today, Israel's existence is an indisputable reality. Even the Palestinians have had no choice but to accept that."
Mona, 27, works in a travel agency. Her job is to find ways of getting visas for Iranians who want to travel to the United States. Her view is very different from Manouchehr's. "See, the Palestinians were [a] people who went and seized those lands," she asserts. "Now, the Israelis are saying, 'Get out and get lost.'"
I ask her if she means that the land historically belonged to Israel. "Yes," she says, "but they have to sit down and come to an agreement. Why are they killing people? I oppose wars because their consequences fall on helpless people."
Although Mona believes that the Holy Land belong to Israel, she says that she doesn't have much sympathy for Jews. "I am not a racist or any such thing...but my basic thoughts are that they are more hot-tempered than Muslims, and history doesn't recount nice things about Judaism or the tribe of 'sons of Israel' either."
I remind her that we Iranians have changed often throughout history. An Iranian today doesn't resemble one from a century or two ago. Doesn't a statute of limitations apply to any people's historical misdeeds? "Yes," she agrees. "Regardless, I respect nations with histories that have lead them into the First World, because they have not stagnated."
She adds, "What is interesting to me about Israel is that there is no mention of it in any history or geography book I've seen, since childhood. Even the GPS in Iran doesn't show it exactly."
Mona turns to explain to a visitor how to fill out a form. When she's done, I ask her what she thinks Iran's position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be. She answers, "Us, or the government?" After a loud chuckle, she says, "In my view, war is not justifiable in any situation. Governments must choose by themselves. I am pro-people -- Palestinian or Israeli, it makes no difference. When I said I don't like Jews, it was something from my unconscious."
Unlike Mona, the right-wing Kayhan daily is not anti-war. In a front-page editorial earlier this week, Mohammad Immani expressed great joy at the launch of Fajr-5 rockets into the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv. These missiles are the same kind used by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's forces during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. In a news conference on Wednesday, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, top commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said, "Because the Gaza Strip has been surrounded, we can no longer send them rockets, but we have provided them our experience in building Fajr-5 short-range rockets, and today a mass of these rockets are being produced."
The same day, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani told reporters, "We proudly announce that we support the people of Palestine and Hamas and we proudly announce that we will be by the Palestinian people's side in the most difficult conditions." He continued, "We are proud that our help to the Palestinian people has included economic and military aspects."
On condition of anonymity, a prominent Green Movement activist agrees to talk with me about the situation in Gaza. "This crisis was the first difficult test for [President] Barack Obama [since his reelection]. A test that Obama did not pass. He was too much on Israel's side," he says. "I didn't expect this from Obama, and hoped that he would defend both sides."
Which side does he think is guilty of starting the war?
"In my view, Israel is guilty," he replies. "An Israeli daily said, '[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is warming up for war with Iran.' While claiming he had not started any wars, now he wants to enter two wars at once." The activist believes that if Iran becomes deeply entangled in a Gaza conflict, then it will be easier for Israel to justify attacking the Islamic Republic.
While many Iranians have been fixated by media coverage of the Gaza crisis, they have showed little interest in the recent sectarian violence in Burma that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Muslims. I ask the Green Movement activist where the popular concern with Palestinian human rights stems from.
"It arises from history," he says. "The Palestinian issue has always been of interest to the Iranian elite, but not so with Burma. The Palestinian people represent a symbol of oppression to all Iranians, who wish that they would be helped. Israel symbolizes evil and Palestinians the oppressed. [But] I am not discussing the right or wrong of this."
I ask him why the Green Movement doesn't try to change this black-and-white view of the situation.
"Cultural development is not a political task," he says. "It is the job of intellectual groups and educational activists. All political organizations can do is to create an open environment in which the experts and the people can discuss such issues and criticize one another's values, question them and reduce intensities. [We] must deal with what already exists.
"If you don't speak about Burma, no one is surprised. If you don't talk about Palestine, those who have a hankering for Palestine don't see it as a similar stance. If Burma's conflicts were also intertwined with Iranian culture...then the Green Movement had better pay attention to Burma too."
In the lower-middle-class Narmak district, Mehrdad, a 40-year-old elevator installer, is reviewing some architectural drawings. I ask him if he finds Iranians' special sensitivity toward the Palestinian situation rational. "Lord, for me, getting involved in any conflict is stupid," he says. "Like the United States, which sees itself as everyone's representative and solicitor."
Mehrdad says that the Arab-Israeli discord is nothing new and that the two sides share responsibility. He adds, however, that he is opposed to the Israeli "government's actions on humanitarian grounds." He continues, "I think Israelis' approval of their government's violent actions stems from their common hatred for the Arabs."
Mehrad's younger colleague, Ali, joins the discussion. "People in Gaza are being killed and Israel says, 'We are defending ourselves,' and the United States calls this just. How is this right that Israel kills kids and other civilians? Israel targets them without justification.
"Look, sir, fundamentally I don't like my views to coincide with the Islamic Republic's. I am talking from a humanitarian point of view."
After Iran's 1979 Revolution, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became one of the leading foreign policy concerns for the new Islamic Republic. Since then, Iran has given crucial support to Palestinian paramilitary groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred to Israel as a "cancerous tumor." On Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking to hundreds of Basij militia, endorsed the use of force against Israel. He declared, "The Gaza adventure shows that there are no other means against conspiracies, subjugations, and deceitful and cowardly acts than a powerful stance."
Ali says, "I would participate in a demonstration in support of the people of Gaza if it was not under the Islamic Republic's banner, [and] without religious chants and slogans for God and Khamenei."
When he expresses his belief that a radical faction like Hamas is very beneficial for Gaza, Mehrdad disagrees. "What are you saying? This is war. It isn't new either. They've been entangled for 60-70 years. The more powerful has the first and final word. Hamas is a terrorist group and it causes friction and instability in the region. When it can't match Israel's power, it has to stand down." He adds, "Aren't Israeli kids killed? Haven't houses and schools in Israel been bombed? Haven't you seen that? This is a bilateral war and power will determine the outcome."
Ali Reza, 22, a high-tech student, says that though he strongly believes in Islam, he can't take Hamas's side. We're sitting in his school cafeteria, surrounded by students drinking tea and smoking. Ali Reza offers me a fresh glass of tea and says, "Sadly, [Hamas Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh and Ahmad Jabari, the military commander of Hamas [assassinated by an Israeli airstrike on November 14], don't have any regard for peace and tolerance toward the Zionists. For this reason, they seek conflict with Israel based on vacuous reasons so that, according to them, they can defend their interests. I don't follow this issue closely, but that is based on what I've heard."
I ask if Israel's response to Hamas's rocket launches has not been excessive. "Israel is not a nation that will yield easily," he answers. "They have demonstrated that over the last 50, 60 years, and they will not yield now either. Perhaps it will even act more heavily and resolutely this time."
Ali Reza, like Mehrdad, does not want to see Iran enter the conflict. "A war in a country that doesn't share a border with us and doesn't benefit us much economically through export or import? Our involvement would be just a huge expense with no returns. We would not get anything out of it."
So why is the Gaza conflict so important to the Islamic Republic?
"It's just the policy they have chosen in this regard. This is a policy that a group of high-ranking authorities in Iran are following to get a foothold in that country." He finishes his tea and says, "Interesting -- how Iran's government is clearly left outside the court." He means that the civilian government has been sidelined from a game being played by the military elite.
Abolfazl works for an international transport company whose Tehran headquarters are in one of the high-end commercial towers that line Mirdamad Avenue. He says that few in Israel outside Netanyahu's inner circle have much appetite for war. "At a conference in London, I met an Iranian who lives in Israel. He was quite zealous. He had fled to Israel before the Iran-Iraq War. He had been working in the customs at the port of Abadan before that. He believed all the [Holy Land] belongs to them [Jews]. I told him that Iran was once ruled by the Mongols. Or, for example, during Cyrus II's reign [550-530 BCE], Konia was part of Iran. We can't just take ancient history to devise today's policies."
He says that although the recent fighting was quite bloody, Israel has acted more responsibly than in the past. "Israel doesn't attack civilians, as it knows that if a Palestinian child is killed, it will cause a lot of noise. But such things don't matter to Hamas. Even if they kill a whole Israeli family, there will not be so much noise because it is a terrorist group. There are no consequences for it."
Of the 158 people killed in Gaza, according to a preliminary U.N. investigation, 103 were civilians. Thirty of those were children, 12 of them under ten years of age.
Iran has been a primary backer of Hamas since its founding in 1987. Over the past year, however, a serious rift has developed between Hamas's political office in Damascus and the Islamic Republic regarding the bloody suppression of Syrians by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The relationship turned so sour that some state media outlets in Iran have referred to Hamas as a "tool of the oppressors." Nonetheless, Abolfazl says that the extent of their common interests won't allow the Islamic Republic and Hamas to split.
I meet Aynaz, a marketer with the state-owned Central Insurance Company, at a gathering with mutual friends. "I have problems with Israel," she says. "With the principle that they want to have a country based on race. This is a retarded belief. It is quite racist."
Raising her voice, she adds, "A few days ago an Israeli politician said that Israeli blood is more valuable to him than the Palestinians'. That is truly moronic."
Aynaz sips her drink. I ask her what she sees as the solution to the fight between Israel and Palestine. In a calmer tone, she replies, "Well, obviously, the solution lies in patience, in recognition of the rights of both sides. It is not possible to drive away Israelis from there and not possible to tell Palestinians that they can't have a homeland."
I ask her if she condones Hamas's launching of rockets into Israel after the assassination of Jabari, its military leader. She says, "This is a political act. No group in the political arena would stand its leader being assassinated, or sit still and send flowers. Whether we like it or not, Hamas has been elected by the people's votes."
"Well, some in Israel may say that because Hamas is the democratic representative of the Gazans, they have to pay the price of electing such a belligerent group," I suggest.
"It's democracy's chalice," she acknowledges. "Election by a simple majority is not always good. Go look at the people's condition in Gaza. In such conditions, the only thing left for the people is hatred. Their children grow up with hatred, discrimination, poverty, and isolated from the world, and all this helps zealous governments like Hamas to come to power."
How is her support for the Palestinians different from that of the Islamic Republic's regime?
"Well, it is obvious. The government beats the drums of war and resistance. But I want peace, want life and tranquility, want education for Palestinians."
Thursday, as news of a ceasefire breaks, I ask for an opinion from Reza, who works unlocking iPhones and who claims to check the news around the clock. "A ceasefire was predictable," he asserts. "I think Israel's goal was to halt the Hamas rockets."
Will it last?
"Just like before. Before this war. It may last, but will be fragile. Probably it will last for some time."
While Reza dresses and does his hair in a Westernized style, he has no problem with the Islamic Republic's general position on this issue. "I agree with strengthening Hamas," he says. On the other hand, he adds, "I disagree with the regime considering itself Hamas's founder, or real parent. Ayatollah Khamenei's pronouncements are in that vein. Not very pleasant."
What does he think of those who advocate giving even more financial support to Hamas, even as Iran's own economy is very troubled?
He reflects a bit.
"If there was no excess in the aid and if the Islamic Republic authorities managed the country's internal affairs with the same strategic views. That'd be very good."
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau