Who Will Save the Palestinians?
by Mark LeVine
January 19, 2009
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
"Off the record, lets 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,"
I said. __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 focused 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," he said.
Out of ideas
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 was not working.
Hamas's lack of creativity should not
have decisively shaped the broader context of Palestinian politics,
as polls rarely showed its popularity exceeding 20 per cent.__However,
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 and in so doing destroying the basic foundations
of PA rule, Hamas's power was rising quickly.
Aside from adding crudely made rockets
to its arsenal the year before, Hamas was fresh out of ideas.
History of political failures
There were not 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.
Britain, which conquered Palestine in 1917, 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,
while systematically frustrating the emergence of a capable and
democratically chosen nationalist leadership.
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 neighbours 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. __
The first intifada__Israel managed to frustrate the emergence
of a PLO base that would threaten its control of the Occupied
Territories after their conquest in 1967. __However 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.
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 started in 1991.
Neither the PLO's renunciation of terrorism
in 1988 nor the emergence of Hamas earlier that year could change
Yet Israel clearly took note of the threat
posed by local Palestinian activism to its control over the Occupied
Bypassing civil society
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
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 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,
Reliance on violence
Being one of the few groups entirely outside
the process, Hamas was well-positioned to offer an alternative
strategy towards independence. __Instead, in the same year that
the PA was established, 1994, Hamas turned its focus towards the
kind of spectacular violence that characterised 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.
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.
Chaos and anarchy
This dynamic generated a level of chaos
that necessitated the coining of the term intafawda (fawda in
Arabic means chaos or anarchy) to describe the chaos and anarchy
that often characterised life during the al-Aqsa intifada._
Both Hamas and Fatah 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 settlement 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 Israeli 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.
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 neighbouring 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 half a 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
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 42 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
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
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, utilising 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.
However, 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.
According to David Theo Goldberg, a South African scholar, the
example of the defeat of apartheid in his country points to the
importance of "de-normalising" the Israeli occupation
- showing the world that its actions are not normal, and cannot
be justified with claims of self-defence or security. __Instead,
Palestinian terrorism, first by the PLO and later by Hamas and
other groups, helped to normalise the occupation, enabling the
Israeli government to transform an occupation that has always
been about settlement into one premised on legitimate security
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,
or declared Jewish children everywhere to have become legitimate
targets of murder (as did Hamas commander Mahmoud Zahar in a televised
broadcast on January 5), the movement helped normalise the intensifying
siege on Gaza, playing into deep-seated Western - and particularly
American and Israeli - stereotypes of Muslim irrationality and
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 - normalised 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 its 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 the rockets in normalising the occupation.
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 had been
unable to perceive it.
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 Israeli society, however reluctantly) away
from the paradigm of two nationalist movements engaged in a competition
over territory 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
It is worth noting that the far left in Israel has long had such
a bi-national programme. For its part, the PLO came close to it
with its call for a "secular democratic state" in all
of Mandate Palestine in 1969.__However, such an idea has never
had a chance of being considered seriously as long as terrorism
has been identified as the central strategy for the realisation
of Palestinian nationalism.
When the two-state strategy epitomised 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 Yasser
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 Ariel Sharon,
the then Likud leader, 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 have 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 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 is impossible to know for sure
what Sharon would have answered, but there is a good chance that
this would have thrown him off balance, exposing the abnormality
of the peace process-as-occupation for all to see.
Playing their part
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 show
for the violent resistance ... It is at least arguable that the
balance-sheet would have been better had Palestinians en masse
adopted non-violent civil resistance".
Israel offered Hamas another opportunity to change the terms of
the conflict when in late November, 2007, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli
prime minister, warned Israelis that their country "risked
being compared to apartheid-era South Africa if it failed to agree
an independent state for the Palestinians".
With that remark 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 keep their most
powerful weapon under lock and key at the moment it could have
been used to its greatest effect.
Changing the rules
A year later, much of Gaza has been turned
to rubble, at least 1,300 more Gazans are dead, joined by at least
13 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 miscarried 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. __However, it
seems more likely that the two-state solution will remain as illusive
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 is hard to
imagine another path emerging that could lead to an independent,
peaceful future for Palestine, or Israel.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle East
history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author
of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the
Soul of Islam and the soon to be published An Impossible Peace:
Israel/Palestine Since 1989.