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What Good Friends Should Tell You

What Good Friends Should Tell You

Yvonne Ridley

IT IS becoming increasingly clear that the view from this side of the Atlantic is quite different to what most Americans see but despite our differences - let's not go into the US destruction of our common language! - we remain in a special relationship, good friends and strong allies.

So, as such, it would be wrong of me to remain silent over the latest US blunder which will have serious repercussions unless there is a strategic U-turn. I am talking over the Trump Administration's decision to label Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as a “specially designated global terrorist” and impose a raft of sanctions against him.

Regardless of what you think about Hamas, love them or loathe them, they were the democratically elected choice of the Palestinian people and we must respect that pretty much in the way the rest of us have to put up with your choice of US President Donald Trump.

I will declare an interest at this stage. I have met Haniyeh twice in Gaza, in his capacity as the democratically-elected Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, and the likelihood of him having any assets to freeze in the USA is laughable. He is probably the only political leader in the world today who still has his home in a refugee camp; if he has any trappings of wealth I've not seen any evidence of it.

So why make this grand gesture of putting him on a global terror list and freezing any US-based assets he obviously hasn't got? Sorry folks you've been duped! This action is meaningless and amounts to the square root of nothing, nada, zero, zilch or diddly quit as we say in northern England.

What we are viewing is another example of how Donald Trump's administration shows little understanding of Middle East politics, the people who live there or the consequences of America’s actions. Aside from anything else, Hamas has never, ever, taken its legitimate resistance to Israel’s military occupation beyond the borders of historical Palestine. That’s a fact, so to label him and others like him as “global terrorists” is totally nonsensical, no matter which way you look at it.

A bit like the Taliban in Afghanistan, really and yet some Americans today still think that some of the Taliban were onboard those four hijacked airlines that horrific day known to the world, and more importantly to you, as 9/11. Now Americans can either wish to remain in a state of ignorance and be blissfully unaware of what happens beyond their borders or they can start to wake up to what is being done in their name. And as your good friend, I will tell you - although in truth I have come to know that one of the most educated and internationally aware groups in the US come from the Muslim community.

So returning to Haniyeh. What the US President and his ignorant advisers fail to understand is that the Hamas chief is a hugely respected figure across the Middle East among secular and Islamic groups alike. He is certainly one of the only Arab leaders who has led all-important Friday prayers and is both known personally and loved by countless Palestinians.

I met the former Prime Minister at his home after Israel’s devastating military offensive, the 2008/9 Operation Cast Lead. The visit was poignant for all of us as this was Haniyeh's first visit to his home in more than 100 days because of the very real threat of being assassinated by Israel; the Zionist State has a proven track record of targeting Hamas political leaders. Hamas co-founder Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi was been killed by an Israeli helicopter missile strike on his car in Gaza City and the group's spiritual head Ahmad Yasin was also assassinated despite having no links to the military wing.

Haniyeh met our small delegation from the first Viva Palestina Aid Convoy and he had taken a personal interest in our progress driving scores of British ambulances across North Africa to reach the war-torn, battered Gaza Strip. As he sat talking to us, a door burst open and a toddler came hurtling in and grabbed his leg protectively while surveying our group suspiciously. She was clearly fed up that we were eating into her precious time with her father and the affection with which he reacted to his daughter, one of 13 children, told us all that Ismail Haniyeh is very much a family man.

How many of us would have admonished the child and sent her back to her mother while continuing the meeting? Not Haniyeh, who gently rubbed her head and continued to speak to our group. I discovered later that apart from his own family — who live very modestly — he has also adopted Palestinian orphans whose upkeep he covers from his own pocket.

Paying directly out of his monthly wages in the besieged Gaza Strip, in June 2006 he saw to it personally that 12-year-old Huda Ghalia would be cared for financially. May be I am breaking a confidence telling you this, but it gives an indication of the moral fibre and conscience of this man. Who can forget the heart-breaking video images of Huda running and screaming for her father along a Gaza beach? Anyone who views that video, still on Youtube, from that awful day when her father was killed by the Israelis will be haunted by it. Falling on to the sand, crying inconsolably beside her father's body, she came to epitomise the Palestinian struggle.

We learned later that all of her family had been killed, including her stepmother and five of her siblings. They had been enjoying a family picnic when a barrage of Israeli shells turned the beach into a slaughterhouse. In an emotional ceremony last year, Huda graduated with a law degree from the Islamic University of Gaza.

Incidentally, when Hamas took office to run the Palestinian Authority, the sanctions imposed on the Palestinians for voting the “wrong” way meant that money was extremely tight. Haniyeh ordered the salaries of PA employees to be paid before any official or minister took a wage. That was a measure of his integrity and sense of duty to his people.

There are some signs of wealth in Gaza and you can see this by looking at the number of Mercedes cars on driveways, even a handful or so of swimming pools and villas, Mahmoud Abbas has a very fine villa in Gaza, it sits there incongruous among the high rise blocks nearby which are scarred and battered from previous Israeli wars - when I saw the PA leader's villa after Operation Cast Lead it remained unscathed. He'd only stayed there once and as far as I know he's not been back to Gaza since.

I first met Prime Minister Haniyeh when he presented the international peace activists on board the two Free Gaza boats which broke the siege of the coastal enclave in August 2008 with Palestinian diplomatic passports, myself included. It was a rare occasion and he was smiling broadly as he asked us all to become ambassadors for his country.

However, I imagine that the US decision to put his name on a terrorist list will induce another broad smile because of the irony of it all. Haniyeh is key to any future peace negotiations and the blundering, blinkered fools within the Trump administration have now ruled themselves out of being able to sit down and talk to him.

Like it or not, Hamas is a major part of Palestinian politics. Former Middle East Peace Envoy Tony Blair was a failure in the role, but admitted for the first time, just a few months ago, that it was a mistake to leave Hamas out of negotiations. When the Palestinian people exercised their democratic right and voted for the Islamic Resistance Movement it enraged US President George W Bush and the then British Prime Minister Blair. They moved immediately to cut off aid and sever relations with the newly-elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. The election won by Hamas, by the way, was judged free and fair by international monitors and, I do believe US President Jimmy Carter's monitoring group was among those to reach that conclusion. 

Once again the US has shown itself to be out of touch and out of step with Middle East politics, exposing why it can never be considered as an impartial peace broker. The silly decision to impose its meaningless sanctions on Haniyeh, the only Arab leader to be born, educated and still living in a refugee camp will damage the White House far more than it will affect the Hamas leader. Who is advising POTUS on the Middle East these days?

Perhaps the decision to target Haniyeh was made in light of his huge criticism of Trump's barking mad Jerusalem declaration in which he wants to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Who else is he going to punish because there most be a long list of names since the Jerusalem proposal drew widespread condemnation and derision across the Arab and Muslim world as well as South America, Europe, Africa, Russia and beyond.

As I said before the move to target Haniyeh was just plain stupid on so many different levels and exposes the juvenile tactics and playground politics that we've now come to expect from the petulant POTUS. Freezing Haniyeh's assets in the US ... seriously folks? America is thus probably the last place that Haniyeh would invest any spare cash; he’s much more likely to use it to benefit Gaza's orphans and refugees. 

Just for the record, on my subsequent visits to Gaza I can say with confidence that the Palestinian Authority under Ismail Haniyeh’s premiership was largely free of the corruption that mires the Abbas-led regime. Hamas cannot be bought like the Fatah opportunists in Ramallah, which is probably why they are favoured by the West and Israel, for whom they act as a security screen. 

In terms of strategic blunders, designating Haniyeh as a "global terrorist" is up there with some of the biggest so far by the Trump White House, but perhaps that is why the move has been made. Israel is terrified of seeing Fatah and Hamas reconcile and form a truly national Palestinian government because that will expose the lie that it is the Palestinians who are stalling on peace. The status quo suits Israel and its colonial occupation much better; divide and rule is an old colonialist tactic, and we all know it. 

The great thing is that Ismail Haniyeh and everyone else who is sincere about trying to find a just peace in the Middle East will simply ignore the terrorist designation and continue to resist Israel’s brutal military occupation until the day dawns that justice for the Palestinians will be seen to be done. That day will not be long in coming.

So let's not shoot the messenger but instead send this message to the White House. Good friends should be able to sit down and talk without fear or favour and jaw jaw (to misquote Sir Winston Churchill) is far more preferable than war war.

 -Sister Yvonne Ridley is an author and journalist living in the UK. Her latest books is called TORTURE: Does it work? Interrogation issues and effectiveness in the Global War on Terror. You can order a copy here: 


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