Khaled Abu Toameh has endured years of criticism for his reporting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. An Arab Muslim with Israeli citizenship, he abandoned the government-controlled Palestinian media years ago for the free press in Israel and the West and has been writing about Palestinian affairs for almost three decades. He isn't afraid to criticize Palestinian leadership when criticism is due, and that candor has earned him a few enemies.
But not all of his enemies are from the streets of Gaza or the West Bank. During a tour of close to 30 campuses in the United States throughout the past year, Toameh encountered what he calls a "pro-Palestinian junta"—a group that goes beyond the usual suspects to include Westerners who have never set foot in Palestine or Israel, professors with an innate anti-Israel bias, and Jews who believe Israel has done more harm than good during its 61 turbulent years of existence.
As the Obama administration attempts to inject life into a stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process, recent polls show that Hamas, the terrorist organization that took over the Gaza Strip two years ago, is losing popularity among Palestinians as its constituents hint that they are beginning to see that Hamas has brought more harm than good. Isolation, increased weapons smuggling (prompting a deadly Israeli offensive), infighting, and tightened press restrictions now plague the coastal enclave.
But the mantra on American campuses has a different ring, according to Toameh: "In some of these campuses I found more sympathy for Hamas than I do in Ramallah [in the West Bank]."
Toameh said during his U.S. campus tour he encountered people shouting that Hamas is a legitimate peace partner and that Hamas is not a terrorist organization—that the group only carries out resistance attacks and has a right to resist occupation. He said he also found students and others who believe, to his surprise, "that suicide bombings are part of the resistance," and that "Israel and America should recognize Hamas even if Hamas doesn't recognize Israel."
Code Pink, a women-initiated peace movement, is one of the few groups that have been able to get into the Gaza Strip since Hamas ousted the rival Fatah party. The organization claims to have led six delegations into Gaza this year—a surprising number considering the territory is generally considered a "no-go" area by the UN, State Department, and others.
Code Pink's next trip to Gaza is scheduled for Dec. 27 through Jan. 2 and centers around a "freedom march" to draw international attention to the one-year anniversary of the Israeli invasion of Gaza and what their co-founder claims is the "largest open-air prison in the world." Although Code Pink's website claims it doesn't take a position on any of the Palestinian parties, Medea Benjamin, the organization's co-founder and delegation leader for five trips into Gaza, told me that Hamas has become more moderate: "There are a lot of moderate people within Hamas. Hamas says that it would recognize the 1967 borders, so Hamas is certainly a government that both the U.S. and Israel have to talk to." Benjamin says 250 people have registered for the trip, and she expects twice that number before the registration deadline.
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Israel and Egypt have closed their borders with the area and tightly controlled movement through entry points in an effort to curb the weapons smuggling—which has sharply increased during the past two years. That means food, medical supplies, and other necessities are often scarce for the average Gazan.
The problem with Code Pink's program lies not in its efforts to help impoverished Gazans but in its propaganda-driven agenda. Attendees learn about Israeli blockades and offensives but never learn about the hundreds of rocket attacks launched from Gaza into Israel. They hear about the deaths of children in Gaza but never about those of Israeli children at the hands of suicide bombers and the complex history of who started which offensive and why.
Israel is framed as the oppressor and instigator of all that is wrong in the Middle East but no mention is made of Hamas' continued refusal to accept the existence of Israel. Attendees—which have included well-meaning Christians—participate in a mile-long "march for freedom" and develop assumptions that Gazans would be free if Israel would end the blockade and stop settlement construction. Toameh disagrees and said he tells "some of these so-called pro-Palestinian people" to teach Palestinians about democracy, freedom of expression, and good government. "It's good to help the people. But if you're going there to help Hamas, that doesn't help the people and that doesn't help the peace process," he said.
Code Pink also sponsors the U.S. tour of two young Israeli women, Maya Wind and Netta Mishly, who refused to join the Israeli army in defiance against Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory. The duo is scheduled to speak at more than a dozen campuses between Sept. 12 and Oct. 10. So far their message has been well received.
Toameh, who has been writing about Palestinian affairs for The Jerusalem Post since 2002 and has worked for NBC News since 1989, wasn't always well received during his U.S. campus tour. At DePaul University in Chicago in March, he was greeted with fliers for the event covered with swastikas. At another Illinois campus (Toameh says he can't remember which one) he saw fliers with devil-like features added to his photograph. "These people hate Israel so much that they will cheer any group or anyone that is against Israel. It's simply that. It's not that Hamas is so brilliant in their PR campaign. I think it's more out of hatred for Israel," Toameh told me.
Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast representative for Campus Watch, agrees with Toameh's assessment: "Hatred of Israel, and in a larger sense, the existence of a Jewish state, is at its heart. Years of propaganda painting Israel as an aggressive, colonialist, apartheid state and the Palestinians as freedom fighters justified in any course of action has taken its toll, to the point where this false narrative has been accepted as the truth, despite all evidence to the contrary. Those who refute the narrative are demonized and intimidated, while those who uphold it are glorified and rewarded. In this way, hatred of Israel has become the prevailing mindset on campus."
Winfield Myers, the director of the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch, says although Hamas supporters are far from a majority on U.S. campuses, their numbers are growing. Many professors—particularly those within the Middle Eastern Studies departments—peddle jihadist views to impressionable students, justifying terrorism for the sake of the oppressed.
Myers named University of California at Berkeley professor Hatem Bazian, who called for an intifada—or Palestinian uprising—against the United States during a rally in San Francisco in 2004, as a chief example.
In May at the University of California in Irvine, the Muslim Student Union hosted a series of speakers who claimed that Zionists are the "new Nazis" and the "party of Satan." A video on the university's website promoting the speaker series included a song in Arabic that said, "With all force we will drive them away. We will restore purity to Jerusalem." Campus administration did nothing in response.
The prospect of receiving Saudi oil money for Middle Eastern Studies programs may be another piece to the pro-Palestinian puzzle. As universities compete for funding, signs of censorship have emerged. Myers points to the recent decision by Yale University Press to remove the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad from a book about the controversy, Jytte Klausen's The Cartoons that Shook the World, as a prominent example. The Yale decision came while it courted for funding the director of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's foundation.
Hamas long has been on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, but former President Jimmy Carter believes there's hope for the group, even though its charter permits the murder of Israeli civilians and its funding comes from Iran. Carter met with Hamas leaders in Gaza over the summer and publicly encouraged the United States to remove the group from its terrorist list.
Toameh puts Carter and others in the so-called "pro-Palestinian camp" into the "wishful thinking" category: "These people who are supporting Hamas, or advocating Hamas or acting as speakers for Hamas, they're actually undermining the moderates among the Palestinians." He said analysts should pay closer attention to what Hamas is saying in Arabic.
The United States Institute of Peace, a taxpayer-funded think tank, released a new report in August about Hamas with the purpose of injecting "some gray areas into an issue that is often framed only in black and white terms." The authors claim that Hamas has already "in certain respects" changed and has sent signals regarding its possible coexistence with Israel.
Marc LeVine, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California in Irvine, engaged in similar "wishful thinking" in an article that appeared on Al Jazeera's website: "The claim that Hamas will never accept the existence of Israel has proved equally misinformed, as Hamas leaders explicitly announce their intention to do just that in the pages of The Los Angeles Times or to any international leader or journalist who will meet with them."
Toameh, who has been covering Palestinian affairs for 27 years, says these assumptions are a stretch: "I've been covering Hamas since day one. When they were established, I was there at the press conference. I never knew they had changed or become more moderate and pragmatic until I read a newspaper in Canada that said Hamas had changed. I brought this newspaper to the West Bank and showed it to some Hamas people and they didn't even know they had changed."
Toameh credits Hamas with being honest and sincere about its mission and message. Article 11 of the Hamas charter states that "the land of Palestine is an Islamic trust consecrated for Muslim generations until the Day of Resurrection, and should not be compromised entirely or partially." Article 13 states that there is "no solution to the Palestinian cause save jihad; for initiatives, proposals and international conferences are nothing but a waste of time and absurd nonsense."
The United States Institute of Peace claims to have found a gray area in that Hamas officials are now calling for a "phased liberation" of Palestine. This new "gray area," however, comes with the usual black and white disclaimer: They will not recognize "the Israeli enemy or its existence" in the process.
Palestinian general elections are currently scheduled for January 2010, although Hamas officials hope to delay the vote, saying Palestinians aren't ready. A recent poll showed that Hamas would lose the election with only 18.8 percent of the vote compared to Fatah's 38.5 percent if elections were held today. Only 17.8 percent of Palestinians trust Fatah leader and President Mahmoud Abbas, but fewer (14.8 percent) trust Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah.
If these numbers reflect the true feelings of Palestinians, Hamas may feel more at home in the Middle Eastern studies departments of U.S. universities than among its constituents, according to Toameh: "We should not be surprised if the next generation of jihadists comes not from the Gaza Strip or the mountains and mosques of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but from university campuses across the United States."