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Playing Local Politics With Gaza

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By Salam Al-Marayati

This op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 1/19/09.

Is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa right to publicly express his fervent support for Israel's military campaign against Hamas? Tim Rutten, who defends Villaraigosa in his Jan. 14 Times Op-Ed column, thinks so. But there is one major reason, among many, why Villaraigosa and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca are wrong to take sides on the latest crisis in the Gaza Strip. Put aside the human rights of Palestinians, even though the U.S. government's hypocrisy on this issue has never been more blatant and clear to the rest of the world. Put aside the reality that the Palestinian issue remains a fulcrum in U.S.-Muslim world relations, as evidenced by the anti-American outrage we're witnessing in places such as Kabul.

Here's the major problem: Both Baca and Villaraigosa, two leaders I have worked with on several important law enforcement issues, are unaware of the dynamics and political landscape of the Middle East outside Israel. As American public officials, their trips to Israel and their endorsement of that nation's disproportionate military attacks against the Palestinians -- put alongside images of carnage and destruction in Gaza -- are the best possible propaganda for fueling anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.

The immediate aftermath in the conflict zone will be what has happened after every war in the modern Middle East -- radicalization. War radicalizes people and leads to the formation of new resistance groups; most are nonviolent organizations, but some engage in terrorism. The Six-Day War in 1967 and Israel's subsequent occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights resulted in the Palestinian Liberation Organization issuing a public declaration that it would launch an "armed struggle." Hezbollah was founded after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The two U.S. wars against Iraq since 1990 -- connected by a brutal sanctions regime that caused death and starvation -- spawned resistance groups and Al Qaeda in Iraq, which never existed before 2003.

What we should have learned by now is that war hardens the hard liners and leads to the formation of splinter groups that are more extreme than any of today's extremists. Indeed, several reports indicate that Israel's current military assault on Gaza has increased Hamas' popularity.

Villaraigosa and Baca's blind endorsements unwittingly contribute to such extremism. Their failure to understand the realities outside Israel only makes their mistake that much more egregious. They are local politicians playing international politics. They are no doubt aware of the dynamics of Los Angeles and still decided to ignore the many residents beyond just the pro-Palestinian community that oppose war. They sided with the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, who has described anti-war demonstrators as "pro-Hamas." Baca and Villaraigosa should know by now that, with new president's inauguration this week, America has moved beyond "with us or against us."

Back to the international stage. During the first intifada against the occupation in the late 1980s, Israel supported Hamas. According to Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies, Israel "aided Hamas directly -- the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO." Today, Israel supports Fatah, the founding organization of the PLO, as a counter to Hamas. Our local officials' endorsement of Israel's war in Gaza is an attempt to justify the massacre of more than 1,000 Palestinians.
Moreover, our local officials should not undermine mainstream Muslim organizations. These groups continue to make the argument, based on Islam, that extremism is not the right answer to war. Extremism is morally wrong, and terrorism is hated by God. The theology of life must overcome the theology of death. But militarism fuels extremism, and religion becomes a vehicle for resistance.

The dehumanization of Palestinians and the demonization of Islam are now linked to the collateral damage in Gaza, that is, the killing of innocent civilians in this conflict. Until we as Americans demand that our government values human life equally for both Palestinians and Israelis, our public officials will continue to deny human dignity to Palestinians and therefore fuel anti-Americanism around the world.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, is co-chairman of the Los Angeles Police Department's Muslim Forum and a founding member of Sheriff Lee Baca's Muslim American Homeland Security Congress.



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