Gaza, the strip of land between Egypt and Israel, is far better known than the town of Abu Kamal in Syria. However, they may have a lot in common. Abu Kamal was the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Syria. Its fall signaled the end of the most successful call to jihad in modern times.
Gaza is no different. One can engage forever in the chicken and egg argument over the cause of the horrific suffering in Gaza: Was it an unfair Israeli (and partially Egyptian) blockade? Or is Gaza’s suffering the natural result of Hamas using the strip as a violent launching pad for the liberation of the rest of Palestine?
One might have thought that after 9/11 the world would take Islamic fundamentalism and its belief in martyrdom seriously. The 19 Islamists who died that day made it clear that they are more than willing to die so that those they deem in opposition to Allah’s way are murdered. Since then, the world has witnessed martyrdom operations in dozens of countries: Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, France, America, Israel, Egypt, and Malaysia, just to name a few. Tens of thousands have been killed and wounded. At the same time Gaza was erupting, a Muslim family in Indonesia blew themselves up, killing 12 churchgoers.
“He prepared himself, like a shahid (martyr),” Gazan resident Mohammed Morsi said of his 14-year-old son Abdallah, who is in a coma after being shot in the head by Israeli snipers as he approached the border fence with Israel. “He is just a boy, you know…he thought he was being brave,” Mohammed added, as reported by Mehul Srivastava in the Financial Times.
“Now we are heading to Jerusalem with millions of martyrs. We may die, but Palestine will live,” remarked Sheikh Marwan Abu Rass of Gaza, as reported in The New York Times. “It would be a great honor to be martyred by the occupation,” said Khalil Nassar, an official in the Hamas government, in front of his 12-year-old daughter who he brought to the Gaza protests. There are an infinite amount of quotes extolling martyrdom from both the Hamas leadership and the regular Gazan on the street. Like the perpetrators of 9/11 or ISIS leaders, Hamas spokesmen have made no secret of their desire to die for the cause.
The reactions of both the Western and Islamic worlds are fascinating.
The West continues to refuse to take the Gazans at their word. This is not surprising, as Hamas plays it both ways. When a shahid is killed, Hamas plays the “murder” card. The younger the victim the better. Hamas is always outraged with Israel’s predictable use of lethal force. But how is it logical to be angry and grieving (often for the cameras) while simultaneously wishing for death? If one is proudly marching with a suicide belt, as Hamas terrorists do, why grieve when they go off? The wear and tear of this contradiction seems to have dawned on many residents in Gaza. Recently, it is not unusual to hear Palestinians blaming Hamas and Fatah as much as Israel for their problems.
On the Islamic front, the quiet from Ramallah, Jenin, Riyadh, and Cairo was telling. After the slaughter in Syria and the battle against ISIS, it seems the region has become inured to bloodshed. It is possible that the Islamic world now notes the difference between violence at the Gaza border and barrel bombs of chlorine gas dropped on bakeries and hospitals in Syria. As cruel as the Israelis may be, the Islamic world’s Taliban, ISIS, and Assad-aligned butchers may have desensitized an entire region to Israeli behavior.
Even more important would be the Islamic world’s realization that extremism is a dead end. It has crippled the Middle East and its young people, who now constitute about 65 percent of the population. They want a brighter future. This is true in Ramallah and several other West Bank cities, where there is a vibrant tech start up culture. It is certainly true for Israeli Arabs who are attending Israeli universities in ever-growing numbers. At the Technion, the MIT of Israel, Arabs make up over 20 percent of the student body. Graduates are working for Google and Intel side by side with Jewish Israelis.
The Islamic world, from Pakistan to Morocco, is in and epic battle, one that pits violent fundamentalism against economic and social progress. It is a fight playing out to the bitter end. As of this time, there is no clear winner. But the trend is actually encouraging. Given a chance, the younger generation would reject their Islamist rulers.
It is useful to see recent events in Gaza in this light. Hamas is part of the axis of fanaticism. When jihad is your governing strategy, people die. Many are fond of saying Gaza is the world’s largest prison camp. Another way to describe it would be as the Islamic world’s Jonestown.