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Who Will Save Palestinians From Themselves

It was a hot September day in Gaza and I was sitting in the office of a Hamas-affiliated newspaper talking with a senior Hamas intellectual. As the French news crew that had given me a ride from Jerusalem packed up their camera equipment, I took the opportunity to change the subject from the latest happenings in Gaza to a more fundamental question that had long bothered me.


Off the record, let's put aside whether or not Palestinians have the moral or legal right to use violence against civilians to resist the occupation. The fact is, it doesn't work.” Suicide bombings and other direct attacks on Israeli civilians, I argued, helped to keep the subject off the occupation and in so doing allowed Israel to build even more settlements while the media focuses on the violence.

His response both surprised me with its honesty and troubled me with its implications. “We know the violence doesn't work, but we don't know how to stop it.”

More than two years into the al-Aqsa intifada, when the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority had demonstrated itself to be incapable either of effectively governing the small parts of the Occupied Territories under its control, or of resisting the ongoing occupation, Hamas was increasingly being seen as the most viable alternative force in Palestinian politics.

Yet on the most basic questions confronting the movement and Palestinian leaders more broadly--how to force Israel to stop expanding the occupation and negotiate a peace agreement that would bring real independence--Hamas's best minds had no clue what to do except continue with a strategy that many in the leadership understood wasn't working.

Hamas's lack of creativity should not have decisively shaped the broader context of Palestinian politics, as polls rarely showed its popularity exceeding twenty percent. But by 2002, with negotiations nowhere in sight, whole regions of cities such as Nablus and Jenin destroyed, and Israel sewing chaos across the West Bank that was destroying the basic foundations of PA rule, Hamas's power was rising quickly.

And aside from adding crudely made rockets to its arsenal the year before, it was fresh out of ideas.

A History of Violence, and Political Failure
There weren't many viable alternative strategies to violence Hamas or any other Palestinian movement could choose from in 2002, or in the century leading up to it. Whether it was an Ottoman state turning a blind eye to early Jewish land purchases, landowners (often with few or no local ties) selling peasant-worked land to Zionists for a tidy sum, urban notables refusing to support democracy or better conditions for workers, or much of the Palestinian elite fleeing the country in the months before the British Mandate's end, in its crucial formative phase Palestinian society did not have a political and economic leadership that consistently put national considerations ahead of more narrow political, factional, economic or personal interests.

Great Britain, which , was mandated to support Zionist national goals while merely “safeguarding” the civil and religious rights of Palestine's indigenous inhabitants. Enabling the development of independent and strong Palestinian political institutions would have undercut the creation of a Jewish National Home. And so, in good colonial fashion, Britain encouraged the more conservative and corrupt tendencies of Palestinian society (which also suited the needs of the Zionist movement), while systematically frustrating the emergence of a capable and democratically chosen nationalist leadership.

It's not surprising that the most successful episode of Palestinian opposition the Zionist-British transformation of the country was prompted by the death of Izz al-Din al-Qassam (for whom the Qassam rockets and the Hamas's military wing are named). His failed guerrilla insurgency helped ignite the Great Revolt of 1936-39. But by the end of its first year the British had largely brought it under control, while the Palestinian elite supported the strike's end to staunch the loss of income and political power caused by the largely worker-led strike.

As had happened in previous episodes of Palestinian resistance—1921 and 1929—the Zionist leadership used Palestinian violence to strengthen its political, economic and security position, even as (similar to today) most official analyses of the causes of these episodes of violence placed the majority of the blame on Zionist settlement policies.

When the inevitable civil war in Palestine erupted in 1948, the social, political and economic weaknesses within Palestinian society (most of its leadership had been exiled by 1939), coupled with the opposition to the establishment of an independent Palestine by the very Arab neighbors supposedly invading to support it, enabled a seemingly improbable Zionist/Israeli victory.

There was little room for independent Palestinian political development after 1948, with Gaza and the West Bank under Egyptian and Jordanian rule, even after the creation of the PLO in 1964. Israel managed to frustrate the emergence of a PLO base that would threaten its control of the Occupied Territories after their conquest in 1967. But it could not prevent the development of the sophisticated civil society and social networks that enabled the early successes of the Intifada, which erupted in late 1987.

The Intifada succeeded in good measure because of its mass social base and focus on largely non-violent protests such as commercial and tax strikes and blocking roads. But however powerful the symbolic violence of stone throwing youths pitted against the “Goliath” of the Israeli army, Israel's far superior military power and willingness to use indiscriminate force, coupled with the arrest and long term imprisonment of tens of thousands of Palestinians, wore down Palestinian society, sapping the strength of the Intifada by the time the Gulf War of 1991.

Neither the PLO's renunciation of terrorism in 1988 nor the emergence of Hamas earlier that year could change this dynamic.

Yet Israel clearly took note of the threat posed by local Palestinian activism to its control over the Occupied Territories. The Oslo back channel was pursued in good measure to bypass Palestinian civil society and the locally rooted negotiators who led the Madrid peace talks in the wake of the Gulf War. The Palestinian Authority established in the wake of the Oslo accords was run largely by PLO officials from Tunis, who were not rooted in the Territories.

Whatever their original intentions, their interests quickly morphed from securing a full Israeli withdrawal, which in the Oslo framework was postponed to “final status” negotiations, to maintaining their newfound political power, access to wealth and patronage through Israeli-sponsored monopolies, large-scale international aid, and various forms of corruption.

Israel's leverage over the the Oslo Palestinian elite helped ensure that the PA functioned as much as Israel's policeman in the Occupied Territories—controlling and when necessary repressing opposition to the ongoing occupation—as it did a partially sovereign government preparing the country for independence. The Palestinian Legislative Assembly and Judiciary, both of which were more accountable to the citizens of the Territories, were intentionally marginalized.

Being one of the few groups entirely outside the process, Hamas was well-positioned to offer an alternative strategy towards independence. Instead, the same year the PA was established, 1994, Hamas turned its focus towards the kind of spectacular violence that characterized the PLO a generation before. This strategy achieved little besides strengthening Israel's matrix of control over the Territories (most recently by providing the rationale for the construction of the Separation Wall, most of which has been built inside the West Bank).

Aside from the moral and legal problems associated with such attacks—whether by rockets or suicide bombs—Hamas and other militant groups failed to understand that terrorism rarely succeeds unless the insurgency deploying it is already strong enough demographically, militarily and politically to defeat the occupier. This situation held true in Algeria, Vietnam, and even Lebanon, but it has never existed in Palestine.

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With the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, Hamas's reliance on extreme violence—in its rhetoric as well as actions—overshadowed other forms of Palestinian resistance, giving Israel the necessary cover to deploy an even greater intensity of violence across the Territories. This dynamic generated a level of chaos that necessitated the coining of the term intafawda (fawda in Arabic means chaos or anarchy) to described the chaos and anarchy that often characterized life during al-Aqsa intifada.

The chaos became increasingly more palpable to anyone who traveled regularly through the Territories during the 2000s, particularly once Hamas and Fatah fighters began turning their guns on each other. Both groups engaged in kidnappings, torture and murder of opponents of all stripes, leaving little space for Palestinian civil society to shape a viable strategy of resistance against the occupation.

Hamas's reliance on violence as its chief tactic of resistance provided Israel with the opportunity to use its victory in the 2006 Legislative elections to split Palestinians geographically and politically. In the West Bank, where territorial conflict is now centered and settlements construction continues, Israel helped the more cooperative Fatah-led PA to maintain its power (although the Gaza war may now render the PA unsalvageable). Hamas was relegated to the prison of Gaza. By early 2007 the situation was so bad that Gazans suffered attacks by IDF helicopter gunships and street battles between Hamas and Fatah on the same day.

As Hamas and Fatah veered increasingly towards civil war, Hamas fulfilled precisely the function Israel hoped it would when it tolerated and even encouraged the movement's early development. Israel saw it as an alternative to the PLO that would weaken or split the Palestinian national movement politically and territorially; precisely what ultimately happened.

A Watershed Moment
By early 2008, Israel's siege had made matters so desperate that Gazans broke through the border wall between Gaza and Egypt in order to escape into neighboring Sinai towns for a few days to buy food, medicine and other necessities in short supply because of the siege. Yet when a group of NGOs joined by ordinary citizens tried to build on the momentum at the southern border by staging a peaceful mass march to the Erez border in order, symbolically at least, to dismantle it, a line of armed Hamas policemen stopped the 5,000 strong marchers a half mile south of the crossing.

Rather than seizing the opportunity to shift the struggle towards a terrain—mass civil disobedience backed by international law—on which Israel's footing would be far less sure, Hamas served Israel's interests by stopping the march. Later that afternoon, Hamas launched a rocket assault on Sderot, injuring a small Israeli girl, continuing a cycle of violence that ultimately led to the December-January war.

Jihad, but Which Kind?
Hamas's Charter declares that “There is no solution to the Palestinian Question except by Jihad” (Article 13). Perhaps. But what kind? If “jihad is the path” (Article 8), is violence the only vehicle that can travel upon it?

Martin Luther King engaged in holy war, as did Gandhi before him, and Bishop Tutu after. Palestinians too have waged more than one kind of jihad. In fact, for most of the last decade—indeed, throughout the forty-two year occupation—just going about one's daily life and navigating the innumerable obstacles of the occupation, has for most Palestinians constituted a supreme act of non-violent resistance.

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There have also been literally thousands of non-violent protests staged by Palestinians across the Occupied Territories, the majority of them ignored by the media and repressed, often violently, by Israel.

Successful non-violent movements, such as in the US, India or (for the most part) South Africa, succeeded because, in Gandhi's words, they sought “to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.” As Gandhi explained it, the goal of non-violence must be to obtain the cooperation of one's opponent to achieve a just end to a conflict, utilizing means that reflect rather than degrade the justice of one's cause.

At the same time, Gandhi also understood that no conversion of the occupier could occur without also transforming oppressive social and economic relations within one's society. As a socio-religious movement heavily involved in the provision of social welfare services, whose popularity has in good measure been tied to its anti-corruption and social justice rhetoric, Hamas was well positioned to follow this path, which could have provided the kernel for the kind of “constructive program” of non-violent resistance and non-cooperation that ultimately made British ruled India or white-ruled South Africa, ungovernable.

Specifically, Hamas could have challenged the new types of economic exploitation and oppression engendered by the Oslo process, through building autonomous local economies that built on the successes of the first intifada and similar experiments by indigenous peoples around the globe.

But instead of learning from the experiences of the first Intifada and successful activism in other countries, Hamas looked backwards, to a vision of revolutionary violence whose record of producing real freedom and development in developing societies has been checkered, at best.

De-Normalizing Israel
According to South African scholar David Theo Goldberg, the example of the defeat of Apartheid in his country points to the importance of “denormalizing” the Israeli occupation—showing the world that its actions are not normal, and cannot be justified with claims of self-defense or security. Instead, however, Palestinian terrorism, first by the PLO and later by Hamas and other groups, helped to normalize the occupation, enabling the Israeli government to transform an occupation that has always been about settlement into one premised on legitimate security needs.

Rhetoric matters too. When during the past year Hamas leaders talked proudly of making “death an industry of the Palestinian people” and creating “human shields” composed of old people and children (see video below), declared Jewish children everywhere to have become legitimate targets of murder because of Israel's onslaught in Gaza (as did Hamas commander Mahmoud Zahar on January 5, 2009), or imposed an “Islamic penal code” in Gaza featuring stoning for adultery and amputation of limbs for theft, the movement helped normalize the intensifying siege on Gaza, playing into deep-seated Western—and particularly American and Israeli—stereotypes of Muslim irrationality and brutality. Indeed, such statements have long made it easier for the media, and the public, to ignore or even justify similarly racist or bigoted statements by Israeli leaders.

In this context, once the truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas in June 2008 broke down, the relaunching of Qassam rockets—even if they were in response to an Israeli provocation—normalized Israel's massive response in the eyes of its citizens, and a large majority of Americans as well.

In this discourse, any “normal” country would feel compelled to respond militarily when thousands of rockets are fired into one's territory by an adversary who uses its own children as human shields while threatening to kill one's children the world over. That such a narrative avoids the larger context in which the Qassams were fired does not change the role played by Qassam's in normalizing the occupation.

Indeed, this discourse is so powerful that in the midst of Israel's bombardment of Gaza the New York Times saw fit to publish adjoining opinion articles, by columnist Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg (a former Israeli prison guard), that without bothering to mention the word “occupation” argued that Hamas's hate-filled theology had made negotiations with Israel impossible, a dynamic that will likely not change until the movement has been “educated” by the large-scale Israeli violence of the Gaza war.

An Opportunity in Gaza's Ashes?
If there is a bright spot for Palestinians in the horrific violence of the last few weeks, it is that Israel's deployment of disproportionate and indiscriminate violence in Gaza has revealed the abnormality of the occupation for millions of people who previously been unable to perceive it (even its own generals describe its conduct during the war as “madness”).

This revelation offers Hamas and the Palestinian leadership more broadly the chance to change the larger terms of the debate over the future of Israel/Palestine. It could help move Palestinian society (and with it Israelis society, however reluctantly) away from the paradigm of two nationalist movements engaged in a competition over territory—which Palestinians have never been strong enough to win and Israel not brutal enough to “finish the job” of 1948—and towards a common future. This process can only begin with the conversion of Israelis and Palestinians to the idea of sharing sovereignty, territory and even identity in order to achieve the greatest good for the most members of the two societies.

Such a strategy might seem incompatible with the kind of Salafi and even mainstream conservative Islamic ideology that most Westerners and even many Muslims identify as the “authentic” version of Islam, and specifically Hamas. Yet it is rooted in traditional Islamic notions of a just society and the common good that are both applicable, and much needed, today. In fact, they are the prerequisite for any just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is worth noting that the far left in Israel has long had such a binational program. For its part, the PLO came close to it with its call for a “secular democratic state” in all of Mandate Palestine in 1969. But such an idea has never had a chance of being considered seriously (even though some on the Israeli Right admitted that in a Greater Israel Palestinians would have to be given citizenship rights) as long as terrorism has been identified as the central strategy for the realization of Palestinian nationalism.

When the two-state strategy epitomized by the Oslo peace process collapsed at the Camp David talks of July 2000, there was an opportunity for Palestinians again to change the terms of the debate. Hamas in particular could have offered an alternative discourse to Yassir Arafat's supposed “No” to a generous Israeli final offer.

But the movement had little new to offer. Indeed, at this crucial moment a leadership vacuum opened across Palestinian society, which Likud leader Ariel Sharon, ever alert to an opportunity to throw the peace process further off balance, exploited with his infamous visit to the Temple Mount.

Sharon clearly hoped to provoke a violent Palestinian response that would shift attention away from the reality that Israel had not in fact offered Palestinians a viable deal at Camp David. His highly symbolic but politically meaningless visit became the spark for the al-Aqsa intifada.

What few considered as the new intifada unfolded was whether Palestinians should have responded to Sharon's visit with violent protests. There were certainly other options. Mosque officials could have offered him tea, and in the in front of the media's glare, asked him politely but firmly to explain how he expected Jews and Palestinians to live together peacefully when the occupation had intensified during Oslo. It's impossible to know for sure what Sharon would have answered, but there's a good chance that he would have thrown him off balance, exposing the abnormality of the peace process-as-occupation for all to see.

Instead, Palestinians played the part assigned to them, and a so-far eight year long intifada erupted. As no less a supporter of Palestinian rights than Norman Finkelstein argues, it has left “Palestinians... [with] little to to show for the violent resistance... It is at least arguable that the balance-sheet would have been better had Palestinians en masse adopted nonviolent civil resistance.”

Israel offered Hamas another opportunity to change the terms of the conflict when in late November, 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Israelis that their country “risked being compared to apartheid-era South Africa if it failed to agree an independent state for the Palestinians.” Specifically, he argued that Israel would be “finished” if it forced the Palestinians into a struggle for equal rights. Even American Jewish organizations, he argued, would “be the first to come out against us because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.”

With those remarks Olmert was revealing to the world what Haaretz commentator Bradley Burston has called the “ultimate doomsday weapon,” one which senior Israeli commanders “could only pray that Palestinians would never take out and use."

As Burston pointed out, when the opportunity for Palestinians en masse to just “get up and walk” arose with the march to Erez less than two months after Olmert made his remarks, Hamas forced Palestinians to hold their fire, keeping their most powerful weapon under lock and key at the moment it could have been used to its greatest effect.

A year later, much of Gaza has been turned to rubble, another 1,200 Gazans are dead, joined by a bit over two dozen Israelis. The futility of violence as a strategy to achieve either society's core objectives has never been so clearly on display, as has the bankruptcy of a two-state solution that was likely miscaried at the very inception of the peace process a decade and a half ago.

It is not likely that Israel will emerge from this tragedy ready to offer Palestinians a territorially viable Palestinian state. The newly inaugurated Obama Administration could force it to do so, garnering near universal acclaim for salvaging the two-state solution in the process. But it seems more likely that the two-state solution will remain as elusive in the near future as it has in the past.

In such a situation Palestinians face a choice: continue to play by Israel's rules and see their dreams of independence disappear for at least another generation, or change the rules by demanding the same rights enjoyed by Israelis over the entirety of historic Palestine. By taking heed of Olmert's warning, Palestinians can begin the journey towards a future in which Jews and Palestinians can share the land of historical Palestine/Eretz Yisrael for the benefit of both peoples, rather than at the expense of the other.

The road will no doubt be long and painful; but even as the fog of the latest war dissipates it's hard to imagine another path emerging that could lead to an independent, peaceful future for Palestine, or for Israel.


Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, July 8, 2008), and An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books, in press). He is also author of Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005), and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948 (California, 2005), and co-editor of Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2007), Religion, Social Practices and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies (Palgrave, 2005) and with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation.

Republished with permission from the History News Network.