Another face of Hamas
Update on 27 August 2006 - Farhan Alqam, Mayor of Beit Ommar, interviewed below, was abducted by the Israeli military, see report here.
7 August 2006
Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Mayor of Beit Ommar, a town (or village as it is termed here) of 14,000 people between Hebron and Bethlehem. It is a village with which the Christian Peacemaking Team (CPT), of which I am a member, has had a long relationship. In 2002, at the height of the intifada, three CPTers lived there, at a time of great tension - 6 unarmed civilians had been shot there by the Israeli army, and the villagers were suffering a great deal with many house demolitions. We know and keep closely in touch with many families there.
42 year old Mayor Farhan Alqam, is one of a number of Hamas mayors elected to office in the West Bank municipal elections last October. He is extremely interested in non-violent resistance, and questioned us searchingly about it when two of our team were setting up this meeting with him. He hosted a group of about thirty people in the Council chambers and talked to us all at length very openly, sitting round the council table, followed by questions, which he answered in detail. Our group included four CPTers and the delegation of ten people from US, Canada and Sweden who were with us. There was also a group of US Congressional Accompaniers and Foreign Policy Advisors to some Mid-West Congressmen, and three leaders of the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) also from the USA.
Farhan Alqam, otherwise Abu Musa, spoke first about himself and about Beit Ommar. He is sincere and charming, and came across as a man of integrity, strongly committed to the community and people he serves. He speaks good English, and had no translator, aide, security or other people with him. He was clearly not armed. We were all given glasses of tea, and filled pita bread and soft drinks at lunch time. What follows is as nearly as possible his own words, in full or summarised. He told us that he has a degree in Computer Science, and a family of two sons and two daughters. Like most Palestinian men he has been arrested - three times, and once jailed for 7 months - for 'resisting the Occupation'.
Beit Ommar is above all a farming community, he told us. (It is said to have more tractors per capita than any other West Bank town). Even those with other jobs farm their family land after work, so land is of special importance to all the people, including doctors, teachers, lawyers and shopkeepers. There is much scientific interest in modern methods, for instance of irrigation. The dangers of land confiscation and the threat of it being stolen [by the Israeli authorities and settlers] add extra concern about questions of ownership. They love every piece of their land - more than their life, he emphasised: the land is the life.
"I am very happy to welcome you" he went on. "I am very happy that some American people are willing to come and find the real facts. I believe that if the American people knew the real facts, they would change the policy of the American State. If you want to be the only guardians of the security of the world, you must look at all peoples in the same way. You do not have the right to look at the Palestinians in a different way from the Israelis. The brotherhood of humanity - all human beings - should bring us close to one another. There are enough natural disasters without us creating wars and destruction, and demolishing things to make the rich richer. Much riches for individual purposes means much poverty for general purposes [i.e. for the general good]. American weapons are destroying the shelters which the children are in. This is the 'War on Terrorism'. The job you have to do in America is a very hard one. It is very hard to change the mind of many people with the same idea. I pray to God to give you the power you need to change the media." During his talk he came back a number of times to the theme of the brotherhood of all people, as being far more important than the things which divide us.
Question: Can tell us about the ideas of Hamas, about the occupation, about the use of violence and about the 'facts on the ground' that Israel has created?
Answer: "Hamas has been given the face of a terrorist movement rather than a resistance movement.
I ask you: Is the occupation finished? Has the killing of Palestinian people stopped? No.
Has the supply of American weapons to Israel stopped? Has the transfer of American tax dollars to Israel stopped? No.
Do you know how many Hamas persons are involved in violent resistance? Do you know how many Hamas persons [far, far more] are involved in humanitarian work for the Palestinian people?
But they must at the same time defend themselves and their children.
"Will Hamas continue as a resistance movement after Occupation ends? Of course not. Tell the Americans to end the Occupation, and the resistance will end. Now, a Palestinian feels he has no Human Rights. For instance, [Israeli] settlements and settlers confiscate more and more Palestinian land - backed up by the Israeli Courts and security regulations. They confiscate not only our lands, but our hopes and our future. The pressure of the US and Israeli States on the Palestinian people must be stopped - for instance the new special Congress decision about Palestinians as a 'terrorism people' - but Palestinians must be a people of resistance. I have the hope that this change in the opinion of the American people will come soon. Whatever happens to us, we own our hope."
Q: Can you tell us about specific problems you face in Beit Ommar?
A: "Many problems arise from decisions of the military and the expansion of the settlements. Israeli settlers prevent farmers from harvesting their produce and working on their land for long periods. And the Israeli police behave badly, and do not defend Palestinian people when they need help.
For example, Abu Jaber Sleibi and his brother own land near Beit Ain settlement. Settlers this year have destroyed his land many times. Their sheep and goats completely destroyed his crops. He went to the police to file a complaint, taking his land titles dating from before the Occupation - maybe from 1950.
'You must have new documents stamped by the Israeli government, with new maps and photographs' the police tell him. But he has no money to pay for all that, and even if he did, he might still get no justice.
"Beit Ommar covers 30 square kilometres. The Wall will confiscate 5 or 6 square kilometres - the land of 50 farmers, and about 1/6 of all our land. The municipality is about 18m shekels short because farmers cannot pay for their electricity and services. They owe about $10,000 each to the municipality. Some municipalities have had to stop supplying some services.
"At the edge of Beit Ommar, there is an army watchtower by the only entrance road. One soldier can make the village a prison by closing the gate. One day when I was in my car with my family, wanting to drive out on municipality business, the soldier stopped me and asked my job. He says he doesn't believe me when I say I am the mayor. Then he treats it as a joke "Here's the mayor - shall we let him pass or not?" At last they say "Let's let him go". My 5 year old son asks what we were talking about. I don't like to lie, but this time I do, and make out it was a friendly conversation. I do not want to teach my children to hate - I want to teach them to love - even the soldiers.
"Six years ago the Municipality established a market for the farmers but almost straight away it was closed as a 'security threat' by the Army. This year, with help from the Red Cross, we reopened it - but this made the Israelis unhappy. They brought concrete blocks and closed the road to the market - for 'security reasons', which cannot be questioned."
Q: With the situation you have described, how do you manage financially?
A:" The people owe us 18m shekels, and we owe the Ministry of Finance 18m shekels, so that balances out! We press the only small industries, the stone factories and plastics factories, to pay more. That is all we can do."
Q: What is your relationship with the other parties?
A: "On the ground, we have protocols for working together on how we can do the best we can for the community, the people. In the media of course, and in public pronouncements, the differences are emphasised."
Q: Where are the markets for your produce?
A: "A small percentage goes in local consumption here in Beit Ommar. All grow the same products - each family takes what they need, and gives to their brothers, neighbours, friends.
"Usually, the Israeli market takes most: our produce is very good quality, very good taste, grown with no artificial fertilizers, no irrigation. But this year and last, there has been pressure put on us: Israel has closed its markets against Palestine.
"We cannot export, because everything has to go through Israel, who will not allow it out.
"We cannot sell in the Hebron District, because they grow the same fruit and vegetables as we do.
"That leaves only Gaza and the Northern West Bank. When the Gaza Strip is open we have a good market there, but mostly it is closed. Even in the Northern West Bank we have constant trouble at checkpoints. For instance, even with the right permit, the truck driver can find the entrance to Nablus is closed. The soldier will often say 'not today; come back tomorrow'- and then in the hot weather the fruit is rotten."
Q: What are your thoughts on non-violence?
A: "As mayor I must serve my people. It is a heavy duty to do the best I can for them. Maybe by resisting the Occupation, the confiscations and settlement expansion; maybe by fighting for better services - but donors overseas will not donate for any municipality with a Hamas mayor, even if he is non-violent. Give me the chance to speak with them, even if we don't agree. I believe strongly that resistance does not need to be violent. Palestinian people resist sometimes with violence, but most often in other ways, including humanitarian."
At the end of the meeting, I asked Firhan Alqam if there were many Hamas mayors like him, choosing non-violence as their primary way of operating. He said yes, there are many - in fact most of them. I asked him if he would be interested in forming a Twin Town relationship with a town in New Zealand. His eyes lit up and he said warmly that he would be very interested. I said I would explore the possibilities, when I return to New Zealand - maybe with another fruit growing town of a similar size. Any town that takes this up would find it a rewarding relationship, with a most hospitable people struggling courageously with impossible conditions.