Media-savvy westerners arrive in Gaza with usually just one stunning piece of advice for Gaza’s evolving de-facto government: you need a good PR firm. Hamas’s biggest problem, apparently, is not the 63-year illegal occupation: it’s branding.
Picturing Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar sitting down with the Saatchi brothers over some hummus, I imagine those sharp PR minds would hone in quickly on Hamas’s trademark colour green: do we spearhead a Mediterranean basin climate justice campaign or launch an organic falafel moisturizer?
Ismail Haniyeh, the de-facto Gaza PM, recently committed the cardinal sin of lauding Bin Laden, thus providing Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, with the perfect pretext for condemnation in the Los Angeles Times. You don’t need an expensive PR consultant to tell you not to praise Bin Laden. Analysts have not wasted much ink on this one; it was just plain stupid. But would making Hamas’s Islamic resistance brand more palatable to a western audience really be worthwhile?
There is a long history of public relations in the west that has successfully made smoking culturally acceptable for women. It regularly changes consumer habits and is able to make actors look like presidents. There is, however, little evidence that suggests sanitizing or transforming the Palestinian brand produces much of a return, at least not for Palestinians.
In the last 12 years, Fatah has presented itself as a bona fide partner for peace. With their tailored suits they walk the walk and talk the talk. They use phrases like ‘economic growth’ and IMF officials melt; they nurture elite US-sponsored security forces and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exults. Meanwhile settlement expansion inexorably continues and President Abbas is forced to claim victory when attempting to secure a paltry 22% of historic Palestine.
Having lived in Gaza for some time I can attest to some notable, but unreported, PR coups by the amateur boys in green. Most recently Daniel Barenboim - who is Jewish - played a landmark ‘peace’ concert in Gaza, even during Bin Laden’s mourning period. TED Talks, an internationally renowned forum for creative ideas, was screened live in Gaza. Hamas has rounded up and rooted out Salafists, in a manner than would satisfy Dubya. Despite the recent death of Vittorio Arrigono at the hands of Salafists, Gaza has become a safe place for foreign nationals under Hamas’s watch.
Even a network of tunnels cannot hide the obvious: Hamas leaders are neo-liberal capitalists, their economic policy no different from the orthodox economies of any other western nation. In fact Gazans’ ability to deal with enforced austerity and its resilient Big Society should be a model for the west. Ghazi Hamad, the Deputy Foreign Minister, delivered a message to Israelis - in Hebrew - calling for a truce after tensions rose dramatically in April. And in the last week Khaled Meshaal announced an acceptance of the 1967 borders - if that is not recognition of Israel, I don’t know what is - and yet another twenty-year Hudna (Arabic for truce).
Nevertheless, despite these PR triumphs, Hamas have faltered. Their increasingly totalitarian rule has set them on a collision course with Gazan civil society and Palestinian progressives. And whilst rocket fire has reached an all time low, their rhetoric and actions have put Israel on high alert, giving them the casus belli for marked retaliation.
Of course the paradox is that while Israel and the USA can, they will continue to set the agenda. In a devilishly Orwellian manner Israel has succeeded in convincing the world that there is in-fact no occupation. Caging and punishing over 4 million people is a sensible policy and the deaths of over 300 children during the 2008 -2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza, is collateral damage. Meanwhile the US is deemed an honest broker, all the while bank rolling these atrocities, providing pro-bono legal support, and upholding dictators in the name of ‘regional stability’. Perhaps it will after all be the growing global Boycott and Disinvestment Campaign (BDS), which recently provoked admonition from Ehud Barak, which will finally tear holes in this far-reaching and legendary deception.
Glossy PR circumnavigates complexity and context. Yet as we enter into the tumultuous throes of Palestinian reconciliation it is precisely complexity and context that all parties must embrace. Palestinians should not need to work within the cynical paradigm of public relations. Today they are united, neither obfuscating the truth nor making unreasonable demands. It is Israel and the US who are once again presented with a golden opportunity to work with a willing and united Palestinian leadership. As we mourn 63 years since the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) now is the time for Israel and the US to demonstrate to a revitalized Arab world that they are committed to a path of peace, justice and democracy in a region where we can no longer take anything for granted, thankfully.