I have read four studies of Hamas and have this evening begun to update my information by beginning my fifth, Hamas Contained : The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance by Tareq Baconi. So far I have only read the Preface and already I wish everyone could read it and follow up by speaking out and doing their little bits to spread light on a world that is too often lost behind distortions of reality.
Sections of the Preface that hit home with me:
The simplistic binaries that frame conversations of Palestinian armed struggle evoke the condescension expressed by colonial overlords toward the resistance of indigenous peoples. “Palestinians have a culture of hate,” commentators blast on American TV screens. “They are a people who celebrate death.” These familiar accusations, quick to roll off tongues, are both highly effective at framing public discourse and insulting as racist epithets.
Bolded emphasis in all quotations is my own.
I have often found discussions about Hamas very difficult so when I read the following I recognized something immediately:
The prevailing inability or unwillingness to talk about Hamas in a nuanced manner is deeply familiar. During the summer of 2014, when global news rooms were covering Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, I watched Palestinian analysts being rudely silenced on the air for failing to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization outright. This condemnation was demanded as a prerequisite for the right of these analysts to engage in any debate about the events on the ground. There was no other explanation, it seemed, for the loss of life in Gaza and Israel other than pure-and-simple Palestinian hatred and bloodlust, embodied by Hamas.
Totally absent from any discussion, it seems, is any serious consciousness of the “broader historical and political context of the Palestinian struggle”.
Whether condemnation or support, it felt to me, many of the views I faced on Palestinian armed resistance were unburdened by moral angst or ambiguity. There was often a certainty or a conviction about resistance that was too easily forthcoming.
Oh yes. Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and evil. The simplistic paradigms that have always guaranteed the perpetuation of ignorance and suffering.
Tareq Baconi explains that what he attempts to do in the book is to
peel back all the layers that have given rise to the present dynamic of vilifying and isolating Hamas, and with it, of making acceptable the demonization and suffering of millions of Palestinians within the Gaza Strip. . . . This book works to advance our knowledge of Hamas by elucidating the manner in which the movement evolved over the course of its three decades in existence, from 1987 onward. Understanding Hamas is key to ending the denial of Palestinians their rights after nearly a century of struggle for self-determination.
At the end of his Preface Baconi discusses the wide ranging archival and other sources he has used for this purpose.
Personal anecdotes have the potential to encapsulate hundreds of words of analysis. One discussion was with a young boy that took place about a year after the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza:
The conversation was during the Islamic month of Ramadan in 2015, and everyone was sluggish from the June heat. I asked him about the school year he had just finished and whether he was happy to be on holiday. He shrugged. “Sixth grade was fine,” he said, “a bit odd.” He was in Grade A and he used to look forward to playing football against Grade B. That past year, though, the school administration had merged several grades together. The classes were crowded and the football games less enjoyable. I wondered aloud to the boy why the school administration had done that. Annoyed that I was not engaging with the issue at hand, that of football politics, he answered in an exasperated tone. “Half of the Grade A kids had been martyred the summer before,” he snapped. The kids who had survived no longer filled an entire classroom.
Another conversation with a Gazan boy (driving his taxi) who was about to graduate from his final school year:
I asked him what he wanted to do postgraduation — always a fraught topic in a place like Gaza. He said he “was thinking of joining the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades,” Hamas’s military wing. I had seen posters throughout the city and on mosque walls announcing that registration was open for their summer training camps. A few of his friends had apparently signed up. Why, I asked. He replied that he wanted to “fight the Jews.” He’d never seen one in real life, he added, but he had seen the F-16s dropping the bombs.
Almost a decade into the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which had begun in earnest in 2007, “Jew,” “Israeli,” and “F-16” had become synonymous. A few years prior, this boy’s father would have been able to travel into Israel, to work as a day laborer or in menial jobs. While it would have been structurally problematic, that man would have nonetheless interacted with Israeli Jews, even Palestinian citizens of Israel, in a nonmilitarized way. This is no longer the case. One could see in my driver how the foundation was laid for history to repeat itself. Resistance had become sacred, a way of living in which he could take a great deal of pride serving his nation.
Reality is complex
Here is why I wish many people would read this book:
Given prevalent media discourse, one might be forgiven for thinking that Israel has besieged and bombarded Gaza because it has been faced with a radical terrorist organization in the form of Hamas. But as this book shows, the reality is more complex and is one in which the fates of Gaza and Hamas have been irreversibly intertwined in the Palestinian struggle for liberation from an interminable occupation.
Years ago I would hear of the pride of Palestinians from those who had spent time in the West Bank, but that was before the current Gaza siege, so I found the following of particular interest:
Israel has focused all its efforts on shaming and breaking [the Gazan armed resistance against Israel]. For she remains the only proud bit of Palestine that refuses to yield. One only needs to walk the streets of Gaza to feel the pride that people take in “the resistance.” In countless conversations, I was reminded that while the Israeli army can drive up to any house in the West Bank and arrest its members — even to the house of the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbasl — it was unable to step foot in Gaza. At least not without incurring a beating. This strip of land is thought of as undefiled, Palestinian, sterile of Israel’s occupation.
Of course, the occupation persists, but it is no longer in people’s homes. Palestinians in Gaza celebrate being able to go about their lives without the daily indignities of having Israeli teenagers armed with rifles harass and humiliate them.
That passage reminded me of stories I had heard from some who had lived in the West Bank about Israeli soldiers shooting in the direction of Palestinian farmers going about their work in their fields, whether simply for fun or to randomly terrorize them or both. The passage refers to the checkpoints, something more official, of course.
Further, on the pride of the Gazan population despite their dire conditions:
Against this blueprint of Israel’s colonization of Gaza, Palestinians are now free to build their own infrastructure, wherever they want. And the pleasure felt from this sense of liberty, of quasi sovereignty, is immense. This is so even when everyone understands all too well how truncated such sovereignty is. In matters of life and death, Israel’s occupation grinds on relentlessly in the form of an external structure of control on a besieged population. But within this prison cell, Gazans have staked their flag.
Palestinian pride in the resistance has trickled down to the younger generation. . . . Gazans lived a life of resistance. This was the first plot of land within the boundaries of what was formerly Mandate Palestine to be governed by a Palestinian party that was unapologetically defiant to Israeli rule. There was dignity and a sense of promise that if “liberation” happened in Gaza, it could be replicated in the rest of the Palestinian territories. Complaining about Hamas’s governance of the Gaza Strip, even if in silent whispers, rarely extended to criticizing “the resistance.”
Yet we all have our limits. I continue to be very surprised that so many Palestinians have still not reached theirs.
The question of terrorism
It is exceedingly difficult to engage in a discussion on terrorism, which is precisely why it is a powerful device to undermine any legitimacy that organizations such as Hamas may have. Like all definitions of terrorism, the one put forward by the U.S. State Department is highly contested. Why is terrorism limited to subnational groups or clandestine agents if states are the biggest perpetrators of organized violence against civilians?’ How does one differentiate between indiscriminate violence aimed solely at terrorizing civilians and legitimate armed resistance aimed at securing internationally sanctioned rights that invariably ends up killing civilians? How are civilians defined in a world where the notions of war and peace are increasingly difficult to ascertain, and where the form of warfare has outgrown the very laws that define it?”
Classifying Hamas as a terrorist organization has justified sweeping military action against Palestinians, depoliticizing and dehumanizing their struggle. It has also prevented the possibility of viewing Palestinian armed resistance as a form of self-defense within the context of war. The notions of war and peace are subjective for Israel and the Palestinians. For the former, war begins when rockets fall on its territory or when suicide bombers invade its streets. For the latter, war is constant, manifest through a brutal military occupation that has persisted for more than half a century.
That’s exactly what the British attempted to do with the Irish struggle: label the liberation movement as terrorists in order to depoliticize it, rendering the very idea of any political solution an impossible and even vile fantasy.
Self-sacrifice and demonization
What I think is missing in many Western criticisms of the Palestinians is a human perspective. We form opinions based on media images with little thought to the machinery delivering those images to us and even less understanding of the humanity, history, and context that media-bytes strip away.
In thinking of the morality of Palestinian armed struggle, the knowledge that violence has animated numerous anticolonial liberation trajectories somehow dissipates. The historical context within which Hamas operates, and which has given rise to Hamas as an armed resistance movement in the first place, is overlooked. Palestinians instead are collectively demonized as a people that celebrate death. Their political struggle for self-determination is eclipsed by indictments of their bloodlust. In one of the carnivals in Gaza before the 2014 escalation, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh blasted through the loudspeakers to a vast crowd, “We are a people who value death, just like our enemies value life.” A few weeks later, as Hamas was boosting the morale of Gazans amid Israel’s onslaught, another Hamas leader called on people to face the occupation “with their bare chests,” and to embrace death if it came their way. These remarks were used throughout global media channels to signify that Hamas was using civilians as human shields and that Palestinians revere a culture of death where martyrdom is a goal to be rejoiced. While self-sacrifice in the context of national armies and the defense of one’s homeland is celebrated the world over, indeed is a foundation of nationalism, Palestinian self-sacrifice is studied as a perplexing anomaly.
I recall a scene from the film Gladiator where the Roman commander was preparing his legionaries to fight the barbarians. He was telling them to courageously prepare to enter the fields of paradise should they die. It was a heroic scene; transposed to modern Palestine it would convey not heroism but a fanatical death cult.
The worldview of Palestinian resistance fighters
So what goes on in the minds of Palestinian resistance fighters?
The worldview of Palestinian resistance fighters is that they are engaged in a justified war against a violent and illegal occupation that terrorizes them and their family members. Their adoption of armed struggle, in this particular context, draws on its own legal, political, and theological justifications governing the laws of war and its conduct. Without justifying this resort to violence, one has to see and understand it from a center of gravity that is rooted in the Palestinian territories, not in the West. One has to grapple with the organic thoughts, emotions, and feelings that give rise to a universe that is often at odds with the dominant Western-centric framing of political violence. It is my aim in this book to trace the architecture of this alternate reality from the perspective of Hamas. Stepping away from polemics associated with the use of a deeply charged and ultimately ineffective term such as “terrorism,” this book describes violence, military attacks, occupation, suicide bombings, assassinations, rocket fire, and air-raids in their most basic characteristics, while acknowledging and mourning the devastation and human suffering that underpin these acts. The book will have fulfilled its purpose if it presents Hamas’s counternarrative on its own terms. Such an undertaking is made with the hope that the movement will emerge and be understood in a wider space where such critical examination has so often been lacking.
I have yet to read Baconi’s study. Unfortunately the concluding paragraph of its Preface warns me that it does not have a happy ending.
By eliding the movement’s political ideology, as was done to the PLO before it, Israel has maintained policies aimed at depoliticizing Palestinian nationalism, and sustained its approach of conflict management rather than resolution. Through a dual process of containment and pacification, Hamas has been forcefully transformed into little more than an administrative authority in the Gaza Strip, in many ways akin to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. At the time of its thirtieth anniversary, the movement appears temporarily — if not conclusively — pacified, and Israel seems to have succeeded in maintaining the permanence of an occupation long deemed unsustainable.
Baconi, T., 2018. Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
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