Into the Abyss: Gaza and the Crisis of Political Morality


January 08, 2009 at 12:35 pm

“If he has not virtue, man is the most unholy and the most savage of animals…” Aristotle

In America and Israel it is frequently said that Hamas is guilty of killing the political process evolving between Israel and the Palestinians, owing to its obscurantist insistence on Israel’s destruction. The truth of the matter is that the political process died long before Hamas even ascended to power. Although it is frequently stated, again in Israel and America, that there is no meaningful political process between Israel and the Palestinians because Israel can find no Palestinian partners desiring peace, the truth of the situation, captured by what Henry Siegman writes in the New York Review of Books, is to the contrary:

Whatever one’s reading of Hamas’s intentions as it takes over the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, the notion that its sweeping electoral victory spells “the end of the peace process” is nonsense. The peace process died when Sharon was elected prime minister in 2000. More correctly, it was killed—with malice aforethought—by Sharon’s “unilateralism” with which he implemented the disengagement from Gaza, which in turn provided cover for his continued unilateralism. That he was bringing off the disengagement against the wishes of the settlers helped to divert attention from his refusal to have any negotiations with the Palestinians.

Unilateralism continues to serve as the euphemism for Israeli policies that are expropriating half of what was to have been the state of Palestine, and are concentrating the Palestinian population, about to outnumber the Jewish population, in territorially disconnected Bantustans that make a mockery of the promise of an independent, sovereign, and viable Palestinian state made in the “road map” of 2003, which was put forward by the Quartet of the US, the EU, the UN, and Russia. [1]

Israel’s unilateralism and the callous disregard for Palestinian suffering that it involves is the real reason for the collapse of any viable political process between the Palestinians and Israel. The arrogant political morality that such unilateralism is predicated on is captured in the remarks made by Dov Weissglas, a top Israeli political advisor and a member of the Israeli government’s “Hamas Team” when he joked about the prospects for the Palestinians in the aftermath of their electing the Hamas government, to the raucous laughter of an assembly of high-ranking Israeli officials: “It’s like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but they won’t die.” [2]

Weissglas’ callous statement marked the beginning of the Israeli campaign to destroy Gaza. The current crisis, like the punishing invasion in the aftermath of the capture of Gilad Shilat by Palestinian forces, are just murderous escalations in a campaign dating back to the Palestinians’ election of the Hamas government. Contrary to Weissglas’ quip, many Palestinians have died as a result of the sanctions, bombardments, and extra-judicial assassinations preceding Israel’s all-out assault on Gaza.

As for Hamas, it was never given a chance to prove its commitment to the peace process. Looking beyond the absolutist nature of its founding charter, and the pathetic reality of its strategic capabilities, symbolized by the ill-conceived rocket attacks against Israel, Siegman was able to discern the following facts about Hamas’ political program in an interview with a member of Hamas’s political committee, conducted shortly after the elections that brought the Islamic group to power:

Members of Hamas’s political directorate do not preclude significant changes over time in their policies toward Israel and in their founding charter, including recognition of Israel, and even mutual minor border adjustments. Such changes depend on Israel’s recognition of Palestinian rights. Hamas will settle for nothing less than full reciprocity.

Hamas is not opposed to negotiations with Israel, provided negotiations are based on the provision that neither party may act unilaterally to change the situation that prevailed before the 1967 war, and that negotiations, when they are resumed, will take the pre-1967 border as their starting point.

Hamas will not renounce its religious belief that Palestine is a waqf, or religious endowment, assigned by God to Muslims for all time. However, this theological belief does not preclude accommodation to temporal realities and international law, including Israel’s statehood.

Hamas is prepared to abide by a long-term hudna, or cease-fire, which would end all violence. Here again, complete reciprocity must prevail, and Israel must end all attacks on Palestinians. If Israel agrees to the cease-fire, Hamas will take responsibility for preventing and punishing Palestinian violations, whether committed by Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Intifada, or its own people. Hamas understands that it cannot demand recognition as the legitimate government of Palestine if it is not prepared to enforce such a cease-fire, in the context of its responsibility for law and order.

Hamas’s first priority will be to revitalize Palestinian society by strengthening the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers between various branches of government, and the professionalizing and accountability of the security services. It will aim to end corruption in government and implement new economic and social initiatives that are appropriate to the Palestinians’ present circumstances. (My Hamas informant told me that well before the recent legislative elections, Hamas had commissioned teams of experts to prepare detailed plans for the economic and social recovery of Palestinian society; he said that the implementation of these plans would be Hamas’s highest priority, but he did not discuss their content.)

Hamas will not seek to impose standards of religious behavior and piety on the Palestinian population, such as the wearing of the veil or the abaya, although Hamas believes that certain standards of public modesty—but not of religious observance—should be followed by everyone. [3]

Unfortunately, the promise represented by meaningful talks with Hamas, talks which would have gone a long way towards defusing a lot of the anti-Israeli/American fervor in the Muslim World was not grasped by the Israeli government. Israel’s failure to understand the deeper implications of the legitimacy crisis confronting the “moderate” Arab regimes in the area, her commitment to preemptive warfare, the dictates of pre-election Israeli politics, and her imprisonment to atavistic notions of tribe, nation, and state are too strong to allow her to venture into the moral territory where peace resides. Hence, the gates have been opened to the succession of events that have culminated in the ongoing slaughter occurring in the Gaza Strip.

However, enough is being written about the moral and political failings of the Zionist state. Here, I wish to write about something a lot more difficult for Muslims to examine, namely, our own moral and political failures. The emotional outbursts and enraged diatribes of many Muslims in the aftermath of the latest assault on Gaza have served, in some instances, to highlight many of those failures.

In the anger ensuing during the aftermath of the Israeli assault on Gaza, many Muslims have been moved to unacceptable levels of anger. Unacceptable anger does not lie in outraged reactions to scenes of dead Palestinian babies and decimated property. Such scenes should elicit anger. Hence, when our Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, counseled against anger when he repeated stated, “Do not become angry,” he was not urging us to rid ourselves of this natural human reaction as that would be impossible. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali explains his counsel in the following manner:

His counseling, mercy and peace of God upon him, one seeking his advice to not become angry bears two meanings. The first is that he intends to counsel with [taking] the means that obligate good character, such as nobility, generosity, forbearance, humility, bearing abuse, withholding ones harm to others, overlooking the faults of others, pardoning transgressions, maintaining a cheerful countenance and attitude, and similar beautiful traits. For when the souls adopts these traits until they become second nature, this allows one to repulse anger when those things that precipitate it occur.

The second is that he means you should not act on the demands of anger when it occurs. Rather, you should struggle against your soul to leave implementing anger and acting on its commands. When anger owns a human being it becomes the source of his commandments and prohibitions. [4]

Hence the danger of being overwhelmed by anger is that it commands to actions that are contrary to prophetic teachings and the divine law. As the scenes of carnage and destruction mount in Gaza the Muslim blogosphere is filling up with angry calls for the indiscriminate murder of Jews: soldiers, civilians, men, women, and children. Such calls for indiscriminate killing have nothing to do with our religion. Our Prophet, peace upon him, forbade the killing of women and children in combat. This is one of the points that scholarly consensus has been established concerning. He also forbade the killing of non-combatants. Based on these prophetic teachings Muslim scholars outlined strict rules of engagement governing the conduct of war, as it relates to upholding the sanctity of human life.

Currently, there are those who argue on the basis of the isolated opinions of a minority of jurists, or on the basis of “Jewish exceptionalism,” an idea unknown in our history, that the prophetic teachings relating to the sanctity of civilian life, as well as those protecting women and children should currently be discarded.

Discarding such teachings not only allows Israel to claim a moral equivalency between empty words threatening the death of Jewish children and Israeli actions that actually result in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children, it also leads many Muslims to miss the opportunity to demonstrate the loftiness of the ethical standard our Prophet, peace upon him, defined for us. We are the followers of a merciful Prophet, peace upon him, and not the ideological and philosophical children of those who have introduced the idea that the slaughter of an opponent’s civilian population is an acceptable stratagem or consequence of warfare.

The idea of total warfare is not an Islamic innovation. It is one of the bastard children of the political morality emerging in the post-Enlightenment West. During World War II, it led to both Hitler’s atrocities against the civilian populations of Eastern Europe and Russian, as well as the Nazi Blitzkrieg against London. It also led to the Allied fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and Tokyo, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If anyone were to argue that the flawed morality that made those atrocities possible disappeared with the end of World War II, America’s excesses in Vietnam, her recent destruction of Iraq, with the ensuing deaths of one million Iraqi civilians, Israel’s destruction of Beirut in 1982, an operation that resulted in the deaths of 25,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, along with the current carnage in Gaza all belie that claim.

As Muslims, we must ask ourselves if we wish do go down this slippery slope? This is a question we must consider now as an Ummah, and as individuals, because the advancement and proliferation of weapons technology will one day allow us to potentially wreak upon others the wanton death and destruction that is frequently visited upon us. We must take the high road that warns against killing innocent civilians in the strongest terms: On that account [Cain’s murder of Abel]: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one killed a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading murderous sedition in the land - it would be as if he killed the whole of humanity: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the whole of humanity. Then although there came to them Our Prophets with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. (Qur’an 5:32)

If we chose to tread this high road, as a community, we will be a source of hope for a human family that has grown weary of seeing the blood of innocent people flow in the name of causes deemed lofty or base, and we will invite divine grace and providence into our individual lives and into the life of our community. These two factors are the only guarantors that we will be able to repulse the assaults of oppressive enemies.

On the other hand, if we choose to tread the low road, possibly because we think that we can hasten a victory through our own atrocities and abominations that God has denied us, or by imitating our enemies, we are sorely mistaken. Victory only comes from God, as He reminds us in the Qur’an, Victory only comes from God, the Mighty, the Wise. (Qur’an 3:126) God is Mighty, He is capable of giving victory to whomsoever He pleases, and He is Wise, He knows when and unto whom to bestow victory. Victory will never come from our hands. Knowing that we should understand that there will never be a Muslim victory that comes via hands that are stained with the blood of innocent people.

As we move deeper into this new century, we are in the process of defining our faith for the coming generations of Muslims. Will we be a community of virtue, or will we be a community of expediency? We should understand that expediency will never be a substitute for virtue. Our Lord has called us to be a community of virtue; circumstances are calling us to be a community of expediency. Virtue is its own reward in this world, and it is rewarded handsomely by God in the next. Expediency can bring about short-term gains in this world. However, it has no heavenly reward, and history has shown that in the long-run it leads into the abyss of immorality. Israel has fallen into that abyss. We must ask ourselves if we wish to follow her.

Not equal are good and evil. Repel [evil] with what is best. Unexpectedly, you will find one whom between you and he there was enmity become an intimate friend. (Qur’an 41:34)


1. Henry Siegman, “Hamas: The Last Chance for Peace,” New York Review of Books, 53:7, April 27, 2006.
2. Gideon Levy, “Joking About Palestinian Suffering,” Haaretz, February 19, 2006.
3. Siegman, “Hamas: The Last Chance for Peace.”
4. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Jami’ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Muassasah al-Risalah, 1414/1994), 1:363-364.