Q and A

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Tom Hull.

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December 03, 2023

[Q] I see two fundamental flaws in your thinking. To equate Hamas with the Palestinian people for starters. At it's core Hamas is essentially a criminal enterprise which made nearly a billion in the last few years. Pornography, drugs and human trafficking. Yet is seems as a 'government' little to none of the money seems to make it's way back to the folks they 'represent'. Add in the concept that Hamas merely acts as a beard for Iran. While Israel may serve as a convenient public target that country is a mere excuse to disrupt the balance(s) of power in the region. Presume that Israel and Hamas represent the options. Where would a left leaning (OR right leaning) American fare better? -- Clifford Ocheltree, New Orleans [2023-11-27]

[A] I seriously doubt that I ever "equate[d] Hamas with the Palestinian people," or that I ever would. That would be a category error, and a particularly grave one, given that's exactly what Israel's leaders are doing when they claim to be fighting Hamas but are actually inflicting collective punishment on Palestinians in Gaza. Perhaps I let my guard down and spoke imprecisely. It would, for instance, have been snappier to just write "Israel" instead of "Israel's leaders" just now, but people don't think and move in unison, even when their state does.

But at least in Israel, there is a sort of democratic process, one that promotes leaders from a broad class of people (limited as it is to Jewish citizens of Israel). Whether it's fair to blame people for the leaders they elect is debatable, but where there is no free, informed choice, how can that be helped? Palestinians have never been able to choose their own leaders: either outsiders picked them (as the British did in picking Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1920), or they fought their way to power (as Hamas did in Gaza in 2006).

I'm no expert on Hamas, but what little I know hasn't made me very sympathetic. But it's hard to think of any Palestinian leaders who have served their people well. Most obviously, they've always been late at conceding points Israel had previously claimed, but by then Israelis, with their relentless pursuit of "facts on the ground," had moved on. Abba Eban famously quipped that Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace," but it's doubtful Israel ever offered any such opportunities. Even when hinted at -- e.g., 1967's "land for peace" promise; 1979's pledge for Palestinian "autonomy"; the 1993 Oslo Accords -- they were never serious, and always found excuses.

You can't really claim much credit for Israeli leaders either. Sure, David Ben-Gurion did a remarkable job of building his power base in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in mandatory Palestine), and raising it to independent statehood. But he wasn't satisfied with Israel's borders in 1950, and he left the country divided and poisoned, leading to a series of expansionist and exclusionary wars, up to the present day.

But to get back to your question, between Hamas and Israel as options, I'd have to the US would be better off dealing with Hamas. It's hard to see how that might work, given that the US is insanely phobic about Hamas, and not just because Israel seems to be able to run Washington as a sock puppet. But a tilt toward Hamas would give Israel pause, which is especially important now that Israel is doing immense damage to its standing in the world by even flirting with genocide. And because chances of negotiation are improved when you give the weaker party a bit more leverage. (And I'm not suggesting that the US give Hamas "blank check" support. Just some legitimacy so it can advance reasonable proposals that Israel could actually agree to.)

Moreover, why shouldn't Americans get a little ticked off by how contemptuously Israel treats us? Including how blatantly Israel interferes in our elections? Maybe if they sensed some risk, they'd act a bit more circumspect.

As for the charges that Hamas is "a criminal enterprise" and "a beard for Iran," sure, that's something some people are saying. For instance, I found an article on NBC that makes those points (not very convincingly, as I discuss in today's Speaking of Which). Iran never had the slightest interest in Palestine, even ten years after the 1979 revolution and the US hostage crisis, until Israel decided it could manage Americans better by playing on their grudge against the Ayatollahs. (Trita Parsi details this in his 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.) Since then, Iran may offer occasional words and support to Hamas, but not much, and Hamas has no reason to toe Tehran's line.

As to the "criminal organization" line, that's true of lots of states, especially ones that aren't democratically elected, but all the more so here because Hamas has literally been outlawed by the US and its allies around the world. Still, trade and capital flows are so tightly regulated around Gaza that they have to hide what they're doing. Still, it's hard to believe that their actual graft amounts to much. If it did, why would they have risked it all by foolishly attacking Israel the way they did?

PS [2023-12-04]: Response, quoted last two lines, adding:

I'm not suggesting 'graft' per se. Hamas functions more akin to any criminal enterprise. Their 'business' is near global with governance as a sideline. There is little to no 'risk' involved. That activity will continue regardless of any outcome. In that sense the idea that Israel can eradicate Hamas is inane. Far easier to sacrifice the pawns (Palestinians) to accomplish Iranian goals.

The gains? The upside for both Hamas and Iran? Destabilization. Some great PR and, in the short term, the attacks certainly derailed any potential Saudi / Israeli agreements.

I have no information confirming any of this, other than the last line: Israel's extreme reaction has been terrible for their public standing, with the Saudi agreement a likely casualty; and given that the main purpose behind the Saudi agreement was for Israel to bless America selling more arms to the Saudis, that's probably gratifying for Iran.

But in the absence of information to the contrary, the best I can do is work from my understanding of how people and nations operate. So at this point all I can say is that I don't buy that Hamas and Iran are operating as you describe, mostly because it doesn't make sense to me that they would. I'm not so naive that I can exclude the possibility, and I'd even grant that it is probable that there are some bad actors on all sides. But it is also the case that Israel and their allies are producing enormous amounts of propaganda, something we should be very skeptical of. Especially when the intent is to distract from the core issue of the moment: genocide.

[Q] Hello Tom, keep up the great work. I always look forward to Monday's edition of Music Week to see what you've been listening to. It's one of the things that keeps me going, so thanks and please don't stop!

No one's posted a question in bit, so, since you know more about jazz than anyone I know of, I thought I'd ask, as I continue to explore Ornette's catalog: Have you noticed that K. Leander Williams gave Ornette's work on the Naked Lunch soundtrack [Milan, 1992] a 9 in the Spin guide, which is obviously a very high grade? You seem to have never listened to it, even though it's on Spotify. It's basically Ornette occasionally soloing over some pretty standard-sounding string/piano soundtrack arrangements, which I personally find a little bland and grit my teeth to get through until Ornette comes in. But I wonder if the Ornette parts are somehow great enough to justify the grade? They don't seem so to me, but I don't trust my own judgment with jazz. Anyway, probably more attention than the album deserves. Really just an excuse to check in, thank you, and wish you well! -- David, Washington, DC [2023-10-07]

[A] Thanks for the concern. And questions have been scarce lately, so thanks for that, too. But no one needs me to tell you what to think about music you've already heard. Taste is way too variable to trust anyone's but your own. But I did belatedly check out the album, and wrote it up. Long story short, about a fourth of the album is Ornette, and it's instantly recognizable as such, brilliant here but scarcely noticeable had it been embedded in any of his dozen-or-more best albums. As for Howard Shore's soundtrack music, I don't recall complaining about it many years ago when I saw the movie, but I hardly ever find soundtrack music worthwhile on its own.