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Opinion | What a ‘Free Palestine’ Means in Practice


Imagine that the campus protesters got their wish tomorrow: Not just “Cease-fire Now” in Gaza, but the creation of a “Free Palestine.” How free would that future Palestine be?

This isn’t a speculative question. Palestinians have had a measure of self-rule in the West Bank since Yasir Arafat entered Gaza in 1994. Israel evacuated its settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority that same year and Hamas won legislative elections the next.

How much freedom have Palestinians enjoyed since then? They and their allies abroad argue they’ve had none because Israel has denied it to them — not just by refusing to accept a Palestinian state, but also through road closings, land expropriations in the West Bank, an economic blockade of Gaza and frequent Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas.

There’s partial truth to this. Israeli settlers have run riot against their Palestinian neighbors. The Israeli government imposes heavy and unequal restrictions on Palestinians, as my colleague Megan Stack has reported in painful detail. The frequent mistreatment of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints is a long-running disgrace.

At the same time, Israeli leaders have repeatedly offered the creation of a Palestinian state — offers Arafat and Abbas rejected. Charges of an Israeli economic blockade tend to ignore a few facts: Gaza also has a border with Egypt; many goods, including fuel and electricity, flowed from Israel to Gaza up until Oct. 7; much of the international aid given to Gaza to build civilian infrastructure was diverted for Hamas’s tunnels, and Hamas used the territory to start five wars with Israel in 15 years.

But there’s an equally important dimension to Palestinian politics that is purely domestic. When Abbas was elected in 2005, it was for a four-year term. He is now in the 20th year of his four-year term. When Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections, it didn’t just defeat its political rivals in Fatah. It overthrew the Palestinian Authority completely in Gaza after a brief civil war and followed it up with a killing, torture and terror spree that eliminated all political opposition.

Perhaps the absence of Palestinian democracy shouldn’t come as a shock. The regime established by Hamas isn’t merely autocratic. It’s more like the old East Germany, complete with its own version of the Stasi, which spied on, blackmailed and abused its own citizens.

“Hamas leaders, despite claiming to represent the people of Gaza, would not tolerate even a whiff of dissent,” The Times’s Adam Rasgon and Ronen Bergman reported on Monday. “Security officials trailed journalists and people they suspected of immoral behavior. Agents got criticism removed from social media and discussed ways to defame political adversaries. Political protests were viewed as threats to be undermined.”

Even this doesn’t quite capture the extent of Hamas’s cruelty. Consider its treatment of gay Palestinians — a point worth emphasizing since “Queers for Palestine” is a sign sometimes seen at anti-Israel marches.

In 2019, the Palestinian Authority banned an L.G.B.T.Q.-rights group’s activities in the West Bank, claiming they are “harmful to the higher values and ideals of Palestinian society.” In 2016, Hamas tortured and killed one of its own commanders, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, on suspicions of “moral turpitude” — code for homosexuality. “Relatives said Mr. Ishtiwi had told them he had been suspended from a ceiling for hours on end, for days in a row,” The Times’s Diaa Hadid and Majd Al Waheidi wrote.

Would an independent Palestinian state, living alongside Israel, improve its internal governance? Not if Hamas took control — which it almost certainly would if it isn’t utterly defeated in the current war. And what if the protesters achieved their larger goal — that is, a Palestine “from the river to the sea”?

We know something about what Hamas intends thanks to the concluding statement of a conference that it held in 2021 about its plans for “liberated” Gaza. Any Jew considered a “fighter” “must be killed”; Jews who flee could either “be left alone” or “prosecuted”; peaceful individuals could either be “integrated or given time to leave.” Finally, “educated Jews” with valuable skills “should not be allowed to leave.”

In other words, what the campus protesters happily envisage as a utopian, post-Zionist “state for all of its citizens” would under Hamas be one in which Jews were killed, exiled, prosecuted, integrated into an Islamist state or pressed into the servitude of a Levantine version of Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle. Those same protesters might rejoin that they don’t want a future to be led by Hamas — but that only raises the question of why they do absolutely nothing to oppose it.

This is not the first generation of Western activists who championed movements that promised liberation in theory and misery and murder in practice: The Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975 to the cheers of even mainstream liberal voices. Mao Zedong, possibly the greatest mass murderer of the past 100 years, never quite lost his cachet on the political left. And magazines like The Nation eulogized Hugo Chávez as a paragon of democracy.

These attitudes are a luxury that people living in safe and free societies can freely indulge. Israelis, whose freedom is made more precious by being less safe, can be forgiven for thinking differently.



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