Understanding Hamas in Gaza

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by Neil Godfrey

Tareq Baconi and cover of his newly published book

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.

Story 1

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.

Story 2

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.

Finding dignity

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.

Hamas Contained

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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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Understanding Hamas in Gaza”

  1. Hamas Charter

    Introduction: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it” (The Martyr, Imam Hassan al-Banna, of blessed memory).

    Article 28: “Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people. “May the cowards never sleep.”

    Here is the rest of what you are defending and promoting. Read it.


    1. Here is what I want you to do. I want you to comment again, but next time I want you to argue your case — that I defend and promote the Hamas charter — with evidence from what I have actually written in the post. (Yes, sorry, but that means you will have to actually read the post you comment on.)

      I can understand why you hide your identity. I would be ashamed to let my identity be known, too, if I were to make outrageous accusations that cannot be defended on the evidence.

      1. You don’t support the Hamas ideology, but you think it is a result of Israeli oppression.

        I have my doubts about that. Xenophobia is everywhere. You find in the West many (rich and unoppressed) people having anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant ideas. Western anti-Judaism isn’t a result of being oppressed by Jews or immigrants.

        Isn’t it possible that many Palestinians had these anti-Jewish ideas in the first place, without Israeli involvement? Islamic ideology has its fair share of anti-Judaism, and some Western anti-Judaism has entered the Islamic world.

        1. You don’t support the Hamas ideology, but you think it is a result of Israeli oppression.

          What do you mean by “Hamas ideology”? The Islamist slogans or the political goals? I don’t know how anyone can deny the history that has led to Hamas.

          Isn’t it possible that many Palestinians had these anti-Jewish ideas in the first place

          How do you relate that possibility to Story 2?

          1. Story 2 doesn’t explain why the young man is anti-Jewish. He could have been anti-Jewish before the siege.

            You said: “I have never said and do not believe that “Hamas ideology” — presumably you are referring to Islamist and anti-semitic slogans — is the “result of Israeli oppression.” (end of quote)

            You imply it. The title of this post is “Understanding Hamas in Gaza”. So I think: you try to give explanations why Hamas thinks such and such. You quote an author approvingly.

            He tries to explain that Hamas saying “We are a people who value death, just like our enemies value life.”, really means “While self-sacrifice in the context of national armies and the defense of one’s homeland is celebrated the world over”. So there is nothing strange about Hamas’ ideology. And then there is the example of the boy becoming anti-Jewish because of the siege and the bombardments. That’s why Hamas is anti-Jewish!

            I have read about a particular incident in an interview with Wim Kortenoeven. You can also read about this incident in Dutch online (https://www.vergadering.nu/boekkortenoeven-hamas.htm). There was a Hamas attack on a pizzeria in Jerusalem. Afterwards Hamas organized a public meeting in a university. A replica of the pizzeria was put into place. They reenacted the attack in a sort of theater play in front of a cheerful crowd. In my honest opinion, this is kind of lugubrious, like the British cheerfully reenacting the bombing of Dresden. Hamas truly is a death-cult.

            1. Story 2 doesn’t explain why the young man is anti-Jewish. He could have been anti-Jewish before the siege.

              He is a young man. We can presume he has known nothing but the siege. That has been his whole life. It is surely understandable why he equates Jews–Israelis–F-16s.

            2. As for the remainder of your comment, yes, I do believe it is a good thing to understand others. I have posted many times here on terrorism and radicalization. I have also discussed why people join cults. I don’t think you really believe I somehow have any sympathy or any sliver of approval for terrorism or religious cults. I also think it’s a good idea to understand psychopaths and mass murderers.

              Historians have sought to understand Nazism. I have also picked up books that attempt to explain human sacrifice.

              Why should anyone fault doing the same with Hamas? The answer is clear and I think I have pointed to it in a quotation in the post itself.

            3. I have read about a particular incident in an interview with Wim Kortenoeven. You can also read about this incident in Dutch online (https://www.vergadering.nu/boekkortenoeven-hamas.htm). There was a Hamas attack on a pizzeria in Jerusalem. Afterwards Hamas organized a public meeting in a university. A replica of the pizzeria was put into place. They reenacted the attack in a sort of theater play in front of a cheerful crowd. In my honest opinion, this is kind of lugubrious, like the British cheerfully reenacting the bombing of Dresden. Hamas truly is a death-cult.

              The story you link to is horrific. Does that not make it all the more imperative that we seek to understand what Hamas is all about?

              Now maybe those people in that report are all psychopaths and are totally evil to the core and should be wiped off the face of the earth or at least incarcerated forever. Or maybe they are just your normal everyday criminals. But I think it is at least worth seeking to understand what they are about, why they did what they did, and what others they are associated with have to say about it all. But before doing that we need to get the facts and that means getting all sides of the story, not just relying on the face value reading of an account on an obviously anti-Islamic and pro-dogmatic-fundamentalist-religious site.

              In war we know the value of propaganda. It is necessary for each side to publish stories that show their enemy as totally depraved. But a serious researcher does not rely on propaganda (or any) claims at face value as telling the whole story or all that anyone ever needs to know.

              1. The source I mentioned is indeed a Christian fundamentalist site. And Kortenoeven worked voor the CIDI. An alternative source of the stage play could be this article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1564188.stm

                And, you don’t support terrorist attacks and islamic fundamentalism. You are a good person. I just think the anti-Jewism of many Palestinians is not influenced by Israel. I think they already were this way before the Jewish-Arab conflict, just like many Europeans were and are mysteriously anti-Jewish, without a rational reason.

      2. I’m not hiding from you, Neil. I did that as part of my comment. I must have misinterpreted your intent. By highlighting certain portions of the quoted materials I assumed you meant to imply that to you, those were the particular segments that you were intending to support. Because they are the most sympathetic parts of the material to the legitimacy and authority (hence acceptability and respect) of the Hamas organization. I was calling your attention to the stated goals and raison d’etre of that organization. If I was mistaken about your sympathies, I apologize.

          1. The organization is defined by its Charter. What more do you want?

            Am I wrong in thinking you support or are sympathetic to Hamas?

            1. Why do you assume that Hamas is defined by its Charter? What have you read about the history of the Charter, how it was drawn up and when and by whom, the many debates and disputes among Hamas individuals and factions in relation to the Charter?

              Again, if you don’t want to be considered a troll, defend your accusations that I “defend and promote” the Hamas Charter in the above post (or anywhere, or have expressed any approval anywhere at any time for any terrorist attack on civilians) or apologize and withdraw your accusation as having overstepped the mark.

            2. I have put “Withheld to protect the innocent” on moderation (and have deleted his most recent comment) — until he/she responds directly to either the content of the post or to the questions and comments I have made in comments.

              (By the way — I should add that I do indeed know the history of the Hamas Charter and the debates about it among various Hamas individuals and factions. I refer anyone interested to any of the works I have linked to.)

  2. What are we all misunderstanding about Hamas, its charter, its goals, and its actions? It is a terrorist organization, proudly advancing a terrorist and propaganda agenda against Jews and the State of Israel, both of which it considers anathema. It instigated and promulgated the recent Gaza border riots, lied about it to the international press, and then got outed when its official spokesperson said this the people it groomed to be “martyrs”:


    What about Hamas do you feel has been distorted?

    1. If you know everything there is to know about Hamas then there is no need for you to read any of these posts or any of the sources mentioned in them. But you know that as it appears you have not read the post above; you certainly have not engaged with any of its content.

      I am in the process of reading a fifth in-depth study of Hamas and am still learning about Hamas and its many constituent parts and diverse membership. Others like yourself don’t need as much information to know all they believe there is to know. I trust you’ll be patient with me as I post little points that I find informative and enlightening. But if you don’t wish to engage with the content of these posts then please abide by our comment policy and refrain from trolling type comments.

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