The Enemy Without – Palestine and Democracy

“The chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East have seemed frozen in place for decades. Yet, at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun.” [President George W Bush, The Washington Post, March 9, 2005] [1]

Following democratic elections of varying degrees of freeness and fairness across the Middle East in 2005 President Bush uttered these less than immortal words. He explained that “the advance of democracy leads to peace because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbours.” [Ibid]

And so it was, the Middle East had embraced democracy, following wars and insurrections, “some largely outside Bush’s control.” The thaw we had all been waiting for, the magical birth of democracies, repeatedly and irritatingly prophesised by the Western interventionists had now arrived. Democracy, not only a buzz word used by leaders, but a concept held dearly where it is practised, was now a tangible entity in the Middle East. [Ibid]

The problem with democracy

In late 2005 following local elections hailed as ‘a great day for democracy’ President Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s successor, called parliamentary elections in occupied Palestine. The two main parties of Fatah and Hamas competed in what was described as free and fair elections: [2]

“A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement congratulating President Abbas and the Palestinian people on the peaceful and orderly conduct of their legislative elections, which he called “an important step toward the achievement of a Palestinian State.” [3]

“The Quartet [the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations] consulted today on the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. It congratulates President Abbas and the Palestinian people on an electoral process that was free, fair and secure. The Quartet calls on all parties to respect the results of the election and the outcome of the Palestinian constitutional process so that it may unfold in an atmosphere of calm and security.” [4]

On January 27th 2006 the Irish Times reported of a “spectacular landslide victory”; Hamas had taken a majority of seats and thus assumed control of the parliament. The Palestinian people had overturned decades of Fatah rule, in what was generally regarded as punishment for endemic corruption, political deadlock and detrimental collusion with Western powers; and thus re-structured an “Authority [which had become] a byword for brutality, autocracy and unimaginable corruption.” The people had spoken, democracy in all its imperfect glory had appeared, and it would leave a bitter taste in both Washington and Tel Aviv. [5] [6]

The following day the Irish Times’ Roula Khalaf and William Wallis wrote, as if to pre-empt Washington’s ironic but inevitable dissatisfaction, to suggest a re-think on the behalf of the great democrats; “Faced with these results, some Arab governments, and even liberal intellectuals, have been arguing that the US should now reconsider its approach to democracy in the Arab world.” [7]

To no one’s surprise Washington took up this ‘new’ challenge and set about emboldening the defeated Fatah, both politically and militarily. The New York Times explained as follows: “Since the election victory of Hamas in January 2006, the United States and Israel have worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry.” The isolation facet of the US’ ‘reconsidered approach’ to democracy, aimed at undermining political Hamas by targeting their support base, the Palestinian people, proved expectedly destructive: [8]

“Oxfam said in a report that the year-long boycott of the Hamas-led government has seen poverty levels rise by 30% while basic services faced a meltdown.” [9]

The dissatisfaction of Fatah, and the international communities refusal to engage with Hamas set the two parties for an inevitable clash, and following months of conflict, events culminated in the past weeks with the opposing political parties and their associated militant wings, now formed into a ham fisted coalition, violently colliding. Hamas the democratically elected government won control of Gaza, and Fatah, the opposition party, claimed control of the West Bank; two parts of the one, divided by 45 km of Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, declared a ‘state of emergency’ and dissolved the Hamas-led government, installing a Fatah-led government in its stead. Western powers soon arrived to pledge their support for this newly established government, and vowed to reinstate aid programs, previously withheld under Hamas. The dominant media followed suit, almost immediately adopting the Fatah declaration and began referring to the Hamas government in the past tense, despite valid questions as to the President’s authority to remove an elected government or install an unelected one.*

“[A]id, which was suspended from the Hamas led government.” [RTE Six One News, June 17, 2007] [10]

“Ismail Hamis, who was prime minister of the Hamas led government, has reiterated that Hamas does not want to run a separate state in Gaza.” [RTE Six One News, June 17, 2007] [10]

As if it fell right from their heads

We recently spoke to Fintan O’Toole, Assistant Editor at the Irish Times, about the ways in which discourse in the media evolves. He noted:

“It’s a strange thing about political and media discourse; There is a kind of a symbiotic relationship here, whereby the politicians don’t raise it as an issue, the media then don’t put it up as an issue to be addressed, and it forms a closed circle. The politicians say no one is talking about this, so it’s not important, the media don’t mention it because it is not on the political agenda and so on. So you get a very closed world, it’s not a conspiracy; it’s the way this kind of discourse works.” [11]

So it seems this is the case here too. Western leaders have concluded that the democracy Palestinians want does not serve Western and therefore, given their reliance on foreign aid, Palestinian interests. The word ‘democracy’ is then hastily removed from political discourse. And the dominant media, as though also dissatisfied with the route democracy has taken, or simply unconsciously internalising the rhetoric of the West’s powerful, shun the word so cringingly often on the lips of those in the media spotlight. ‘Democracy’, one of the two words (the other being ‘terrorism’) that even the most casual media consumer could not have escaped from over the last years, has simply fallen right from their heads.

We wrote to the Irish Times, for one, to highlight this obvious omission:

Dear Geraldine Kennedy [Irish Times Editor],

In all of the Irish Times’ coverage of the latest developments from occupied Palestine over the last week, there has been no reference to Hamas’ democratic credentials.

In each article they are described as either ‘Islamist’, ‘extremist’, ‘violent’ or ‘militant’; in some cases all of the above. They are then sparingly referred to as ‘elected’; yet no where is the value laden term ‘democracy’ mentioned.

A search of the Irish Times archive returns 386 articles over the last 180 days mentioning ‘democracy’. But while the interventionists partly responsible for the Hamas victory have been proclaiming a democratic agenda in the Middle East over the last years, no reference is made to this unwanted democracy. Is this a notable oversight?

Yours sincerely,

David Manning and Miriam Cotton [Email, June 21, 2007]

That the media has adapted to this complete reversal of rhetoric so quickly is testament to two things, firstly its ability to regurgitate ‘official’ statements and secondly its inability to question the illogical frames defined by these powers.

The Enemy Within

The recent violence was described as ‘infighting’ – and it clearly was, two factions fighting for control of two beleaguered patches of land, and one people. But it is too simple, and disingenuously so, to leave it at that. The violence that consumes Palestine does not exist in isolation; the reasons why the Palestinian people voted for a party such as Hamas did not originate within its ever shrinking borders; they have more to do with Israel’s brutal occupation and the West’s ‘unilateral blockade’, than the failures of Fatah and the sheer independent obstinacy of choosing to elect a party so diametrically opposed to the Western preference. [12]

Earlier this year Irish Times journalist Paul Gillespie drew an obvious conclusion from the US political scientists, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder’s study, ‘Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War’:

“The political lessons to be drawn from all this are plain. Democracy cannot be imposed without a huge commitment to build the civil society on which it needs to be based.” [13]

And yet in Palestine we have unavoidable proof that those interventionist leaders shouting democracy from every band stand and aircraft carrier have little intention of committing themselves to even basic humanitarian aid let alone to the construction of civil society, where unwanted democracy exists. That their opinions are still entertained as truth is to continually re-establish the actual meaning of ‘democracy’. That President Bush can on one day say, “For the Palestinian people, the only path to independence and dignity and progress is the path of democracy,” and the ‘next’, “he hoped Mr Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad ‘will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction,’” without so much as finger raised in valid objection flies in the face of every corporate pledge to uphold ‘fairness and accuracy’. [14] [15]

The result being that the complex, but strikingly obvious evidence of the situation is so easily lost in the dominant media’s daily editorials and reports. For instance the primary editorial on the issue from Ireland’s most influential broadsheet, The Irish Times, summarised as follows:

“In the longer term it seems tragically inevitable now that if any kind of a peace process is to re-emerge it will be on twin tracks at completely different speeds. And with two Palestinian entities singing off different hymn sheets the Palestinian case for a two-state solution is fatally undermined. For the majority of Palestinians that reality represents a desperate self-inflicted wound that sets their cause back many years.” [16]

The ‘bought priesthood’

Noam Chomsky observed of the notion ‘bringing democracy’ as it might apply to Eastern Europe:

“One intriguing illustration of the state of the intellectual culture and its prevailing values is the commentary on the difficult problems we face in uplifting the people of Eastern Europe, now at last liberated, so that we can extend to them the loving care we have lavished on our wards elsewhere for several hundred years. The consequences seem rather clear in an impressive array of horror chambers around the world, but miraculously – and most fortunately – they teach no lessons about the values of our civilisation and the principles that guide its noble leaders; only ‘anti-Americans’ and their ilk could be so demented as to suggest that the consistent record of history might merit a side glance, perhaps. Now there are new opportunities for our beneficence. We can help the people released from Communist tyranny to reach, or at least approach, the blessed state of Bengalis, Haitians, Brazilians, Guatemalans, Filipinos, indigenous peoples everywhere, Africa slaves, and on, and on.” [17]

Palestine should heed Chomsky’s words. It must learn exactly what type of democracy to inflict on itself to suit the western perspective. It is very simple – only when it ends up looking like a member of the chamber of horrors club – complete with a suitably pliant puppet government, preferably corrupt, will we smile warmly and offer paternal approval. Then ‘the lies…can be quietly shelved: terror and economic warfare have always been an attempt to bring democracy, in the revised, standard version.’ [Ibid]. And the bought priesthood that is western political commentary will have played its now customary role in heralding in the bright new Palestinian spring thaw.

Suggested Action

Please write to the Irish Times and RTE to ask they address these important issues:

Complaints, RTE

Michael Good, RTE News Editor

Letters to the Editor, The Irish Times

Geraldine Kennedy, Irish Times Editor

Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times Assistant Editor

MediaBite supports an open and constructive debate with the media and individual journalists, please ensure all correspondence is polite. Please copy all emails to

* In December 2006 the Guardian reported that “Palestinian electoral law gives the President responsibility for key powers relating to elections, including the declaration of the date for general elections.” However “A Hamas legislator, Mushir al-Masri, said Hamas considers early elections illegal, and independent experts say disbanding the government would put Abbas on shaky legal ground.” Whether the President has the authority to disband the elected government and install an emergency government is not clear, and remains unquestioned. [18] [19]

** The Irish Independent online referred to the elections won by Hamas as democratic once on the 18/06/07: “the militant Hamas-led government, which came to power 18 months ago in democratic elections.” [20]

17. From Chomsky’s essay ‘Goals and visions’, 1996, Chomsky on Anarchism AK Press 2005 and in a section of the essay headed ‘The New Spirit of the Age’.

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