Hamas, Gaza and the blockade

Issue: 128

Jamie Allinson

The Israeli commando raid on the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara, part of the international “Freedom Flotilla” on a mission to break the blockade of Gaza, seemed to cross a boundary not broken even in the 2006 war against Lebanon or the 2009 war against Gaza. These three events together mark a distinct phase of what the Western press calls the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

A tense and frightening stasis characterises the Middle East since the second intifada. Israel, assured by its US patron of overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority, barely even pretends to negotiate with the Palestinians any more. The basic Israeli policy is one of physical separation based on force. Yet that force is incapable of achieving its objective: to crush a resistance that is only politically strengthened by Israel’s increasing belligerence. Hence the pattern of grinding oppression of the Palestinians punctuated by outbursts of extreme violence by Israel.

Israel had allowed a previous humanitarian flotilla to dock in Gaza in August 2008. The assault on the Mavi Marmara, unanimously approved by the Israeli cabinet despite the opposition of senior civil servants, represents a step-change in the violence the state is prepared to use.1 The flagrancy of the attack, carried out by special forces against unarmed third-country civilians sailing further into international waters, stimulated a further revival of worldwide solidarity with the Palestinians, which rightly identified the siege of Gaza as the main issue.2 The backlash of the Israeli attack led even US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to declare the blockade “unsustainable”.3

Israel maintains that its blockade prevents Gaza from becoming “an Iranian port” by which the (elected) Hamas government of the territory would import weapons.4 The blockade imposed on the territory since 2007 has, in the words of UN under-secretary-general John Holmes, “worsened conditions of life for one and a half million Palestinians, deepened poverty and food insecurity, prevented reconstruction, and increased aid dependence by destroying livelihoods and economic activity”.5 Gazans remain unable to repair the destruction visited upon them by the Israeli assault of early 2009 because Israel will not allow building materials to enter the territory.6

Israeli spokespeople claim they have no choice but to blockade Gaza because Hamas is an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organisation that does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. Since Israel’s “right to exist” implies the denial of the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland on a basis of equality with Israeli Jews, one might wonder why Hamas—or anyone committed to the idea of racial equality—is obliged to recognise it. Nonetheless, the objection is false. For almost the two decades of its existence Hamas strategy has called for a generation-long ceasefire, a hudna, implying de facto recognition of the Israeli state in its 1967 borders, provided Israel withdraws to those borders and removes its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.7 It is Hamas’s insistence on the Palestinian right to resist the occupation and their refusal to negotiate terms that will perpetuate it that earns the organisation the enmity of Israel and the Western powers.

How did Hamas come to occupy this position and does the movement have the capacity to end the blockade and liberate Palestine? Is the organisation really, as one fallen British leftist claimed in response to Israel’s 2009 attack on Gaza, “an anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic, anti trade union, authoritarian, clericalist movement” seeking “the ultimate goal of establishing a theocratic state, where every detail of Palestinian life is governed by its hard-line misinterpretation of the Qur’an”?8 In what follows I argue against this view and trace Hamas’s origins as a national liberation movement with Islamist characteristics, emerging from the failure of the previous generation of secular and leftist Palestinian organisations. Although its popularity has increased as those movements have waned, Hamas remains trapped in the same contradictions faced by its predecessors: contradictions brought about by a strategic perspective that divorces Palestinian liberation from the struggles for democracy and equality in the wider Arab world.

Hamas and the dilemmas of Palestinian liberation

From its foundation in 1987 the novelty of Hamas—a self-proclaimed “Palestinian national liberation movement” for which Islam is the “ideological frame of reference”—has confused many commentators.9 Hamas is a religious movement (“the Islamic resistance movement”) and its rise at the expense of secular and leftist organisations has dismayed many on the Arab and Western left. Although far from the Al Qaida affiliate it is occasionally portrayed as in the West,10 Hamas holds deeply conservative positions on issues such as the free market and sexual liberation.11 Hamas and Hizbollah, both Islamist organisations, are the only mass organisations in the Middle East that continue to resist Israel and the US.12 It is important to understand how Hamas came to occupy this position, and how its politics are likely to constrain the struggle for Palestinian liberation.13 The history of Hamas is inseparable from that of the most popular and widespread Islamist trend in the Arab world—the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by the Egyptian school teacher Hassan al-Banna. At this time Egypt was nominally independent but effectively under British control, British troops having suppressed a popular anti-colonial uprising in 1919. Liberal nationalists, often landowners and industrialists organised in the Wafd party, sought to win more power from Britain while discouraging any mass mobilisations that might challenge their economic position.14 Al-Banna’s organisation responded to imperial domination and social inequality by arguing for a return to the perceived principles of the early Islamic community.15 Hamas is fundamentally a continuation of this tradition.

The idea of an Islamic community, morally reinvigorated and able to repel the colonial powers, appealed to particular social groups. Hassan
al-Banna and his cadres emerged from the context of economic pressures on the old middle classes and the development of a new middle class of teachers, civil servants, engineers and so on.16 Such groups were the mainstay of other anti-colonial movements in the Arab world and beyond. The Brotherhood differed from these by funding its petty bourgeois cadres with donations from landowners and industrialists in order to spread an Islamic revivalist message among the dispossessed of the cities, often recent arrivals from the countryside.17 Charitable foundations and hospitals were particularly useful in this strategy. Hamas in Gaza, growing out of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighbouring Egypt, has followed the same pattern. Much of Hamas’s funding comes from Palestinian businessmen, heavily supplemented by large flows of money from Gulf-based capitalists, Palestinian or otherwise.18

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has, of course, undergone considerable evolution and generational change in the eight decades since its founding.19 It is now the largest mass movement in Egypt (indeed, in the Arab world) with an estimated one million members, and forms the main opposition to the Mubarak regime.20 Throughout that history the Brotherhood has played a frequently contradictory role mediating between the Egyptian ruling elite and the poverty-stricken mass of the population. On the one hand the Brotherhood must appeal to the poor; on the other its upper echelons and funders seek influence in order to bring about their vision of moral revival. In particular the regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successors have used the Brotherhood as a counterweight to the left, only then to repress the Brotherhood themselves. As a result, the Brotherhood’s membership is continually embroiled in discussing the best strategic option to Islamise society, which then implies division about concrete political questions. Should the movement concentrate on da’wa, reviving Islamic morality from below by evangelism and social welfare work? Should it participate in the political system? Or should it consider the regime an infidel one and oppose it by terrorist means—the option of “anathema and exile”?

For the most part, the mainstream leadership of the Brotherhood have pursued the path of da’wa and a piecemeal search for influence.21 They have tended to avoid direct confrontation with the state, particularly anything that would mobilise overly large numbers of workers and the poor. Hamas’s politics are firmly anchored in this mainstream. The predominant influence of the Egyptian Brotherhood derives from the territorial situation between 1948 and 1967. The West Bank was annexed to Jordan but Gaza fell under Egyptian administration. Brotherhood volunteers fought against the establishment and expansion of Israel in 1948,22 but their subsequent quietism left them unpopular among Palestinians.23 Under Egyptian rule the Gazan Muslim Brothers—among them Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the future leader of Hamas—were subject to the same bouts of repression and legalisation as the organisation in Egypt proper. Yassin founded the Islamic Centre, which became the Brotherhood’s main base in Gaza. Although he was arrested in Nasser’s renewed repression of the Brothers in 1965, Yassin, and the other members who would later form Hamas, avoided conflict with Israel.24

The Israeli occupation of Gaza after the 1967 Six Day War did not alter Yassin’s focus on religious revivalism. Secular organisations such as Fatah, and later the avowedly Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, not the Muslim Brotherhood, took up the resistance to the occupation. The Brothers actually found their position eased by the fact that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were under one authority—an authority more favourable to da’wa than Nasser had been.25 Organisations related to the Islamic Centre offered the social welfare and healthcare services the occupation was unwilling to provide. Yassin’s adherents muscled out the left in a struggle for predominance among Gazan students.26

The rise of an Islamist current to predominance in the Palestinian resistance was a far from inevitable development, however. An armed Islamic resistance movement emerged only after the crisis of the secular nationalist organisations after their defeat in Lebanon in 1982, which formed the backdrop to the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987. This crisis—culminating in the physical destruction and expulsion of Palestinian cadres from Lebanon in 1982, alongside the horrific Israeli-sponsored massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps near Beirut—resulted from their responses to the basic dilemma of the Israeli settler-colonial state and its relationship to imperialism.

Settler colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East

There are two basic kinds of settler colonialism, which produce different economic and political relations between the colonists and the colonised. In Australia and most of the Americas the colonists simply destroyed the indigenous population (whom they outnumbered) and took their land. In Africa (Algeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the Portuguese colonies) a relatively small number of settlers expropriated the indigenous population but remained economically dependent on their labour.27 In South Africa in particular, this meant that the black working class played a crucial role in ending apartheid.

The Palestinian experience lies between these two poles. The numbers of colonists and colonised are roughly equal, the Palestinians holding a slight majority when the refugees from the Israeli ethnic cleansing of 1948 are included. Much as the more genocidally minded Israeli liberals might call for it, Israel cannot get rid of the native Palestinian population.28 Thus the racist idea of a “demographic threat” (the “danger” posed by the relatively higher birth rate of Palestinians compared to Israeli Jews) is not just accepted in Israel: it has been bandied about by the prime minister.29 The Israeli dilemma is how to get the land without the people. This is why the Israeli vision of a two-state solution is to render the Palestinians politically absent even if they are physically present.30 The network of physical barriers to Palestinian life, such as the apartheid wall and checkpoints in the West Bank, has partially achieved this aim.31

The Palestinian dilemma, by contrast, lies in their basic weakness faced with a heavily armed settler community supported by the world’s most powerful states. Palestinian labour is not economically irrelevant to Israel but, unlike US aid, it is not vital to the settler economy. The Zionist project has always sought to exclude Palestinians from the economy rather than to exploit them productively.32 The closure of the Israeli labour market hurts the Palestinians much more than it does Israel. Although Gazan labour was becoming increasingly important to Israel prior to the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel was able to reverse this development at greater cost to the Palestinians.33 During the first intifada Gazans lost access to 80,000 jobs on the other side of the Green Line, Israel’s 1948 border.34 The current blockade has rendered the majority of the Gazan labour force unemployed without any significant effect on the Israeli economy. The Palestinian population is also divided between the West Bank, Gaza, Israel behind the Green Line and the refugees in the Arab world and beyond. Mass mobilisation of the Palestinians always comes up against this economic limit: military resistance, on the other hand, can force withdrawals and concessions from Israel but is limited by the superiority Israel derives from US aid. Without extending the struggle to the system of imperialism in the Middle East as a whole, therefore, there can be no liberation of Palestine. Confined just to Palestinian land, the history of the Palestinian struggle repeats the same episodes of heroism and militancy leading to an exhausted accommodation to the idea of a “mini-state” on Israeli terms.

The rise of Hamas is the latest episode in this history. The exhaustion of Fatah and the Palestinian left in the early 1980s arose from their detachment of the struggle for Palestinian liberation from “internal” struggles against the surrounding Arab regimes, in particular from the potential power of the Egyptian working class. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), under Fatah’s leadership, followed a strategy of establishing bases in neighbouring Arab states while avoiding any challenge to the ruling regimes.35 The regimes themselves observed no such restraint. Thus the PLO were driven from even the weakest frontline Arab states—Jordan in 1970 and (in the midst of civil war and Israeli invasion) Lebanon in 1982. The Palestinian left in the more left-wing “fronts” did recognise that revolution in the Arab states was a precondition for the liberation of Palestine but their idea of this revolution was Mao Zedong’s “protracted people’s war” or Che Guevara’s guerrilla focos.36 Although the revolutionary and proto-revolutionary movements inspired by the Palestinian left did reach the non-Palestinian populations, any attempt to establish liberated areas in the refugee camps was doomed: Israel, the local Arab ruling class or both would intervene to crush such areas—precisely what happened in Jordan and Lebanon.

By the early 1980s, then, the secular and leftist nationalists had hit a strategic dead end.37 Into this crisis stepped Islamist movements, throughout the Arab world and especially in Gaza. Sheikh Yassin had carefully built up a power base in the Islamic Centre of Gaza, at new mosques and the university, which had begun to admit more rural and conservative students.38 Majd, a militia-like offshoot of the Islamic Centre, emerged, fighting the left and bullying people into greater religious observance.39 An armed structure of sorts was thus already in place before the first intifada. However, it was only with the outbreak of that popular uprising in December 1987 that Hamas was officially formed.40 The new organisation conceived of itself as primarily a national liberation movement, albeit one which proposed “Islam” as the solution to the crisis of Palestinian nationalism.

The charter of the new movement insisted upon the Palestinians’ claim to all their homeland, including that part which became Israel in 1948. It also included an ample share of what Lenin called the “prejudices” of the petty bourgeoisie.41 So, for example, the charter considers Judaism a kindred monotheism to be protected by Islamic rule but also repeats anti-Semitic claptrap found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.42 These ideas have been abandoned by Hamas leaders and their original authors have long passed out of influence. Such passages—repugnant and counterproductive in equal measure—persist not because of any ingrained Arab or Islamic anti-Semitism but rather as a symptom of dangerous political confusion among those Palestinians who have only encountered Jews as agents of an oppressive colonial project.43 This confusion can only be effectively challenged from a standpoint that supports resistance to that oppression. To do otherwise is to permit or encourage the identification of opposition to anti-Semitism with Zionism.

Hamas’s primary appeal lay not in its charter, whatever the contents of that document. Rather Palestinians were drawn to Hamas’s rejection of the PLO’s proposed compromise with Israel on a two-state solution. The PLO’s Tangiers Declaration of 1988 and Jordan’s renunciation of any claim to the West Bank offered recognition to Israel in return for ending the intifada.44 That compromise was particularly unpalatable to the Gazan population, the majority of them refugees who would be denied any prospect of return to their homes under a two-state deal with Israel. Hamas refused to join the PLO during the intifada but carried out essentially the same acts of resistance.45 The new Islamist movement denounced the manoeuvres of the PLO leadership in attempting to participate in (ultimately fruitless) negotiations at Madrid. Nonetheless, they remained financially and politically weaker than Fatah and the PLO. The balance turned in Hamas’s favour as the PLO became identified with the slow surrender of Palestinian rights in the “peace process” that followed the intifada.

The peace process (also known as the Oslo process because of the role played by Norwegian mediators) comprised a series of agreements between the PLO and Israel. The first of these was the Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn in 1993. The main principle declared was that the Palestinians “recognise” Israel—thus legimitisng their ethnic cleansing from their homeland—in 78 percent of the land of historic Palestine. The PLO believed that this meant Israel would withdraw gradually from the remaining 22 percent occupied in 1967: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel conceived of a phased withdrawal but one in which it would retain control of settlements and roads.46 Although Arafat and the PLO recognised Israel’s right to exist, Israel merely recognised the PLO’s competence to negotiate. The agreements postponed the issues of borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements until final talks. This manoeuvre allowed Israel not only to maintain but to expand the occupation in the form of checkpoints and settlements. The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip increased by 50 percent in the period of the Oslo negotiations between 1993 and 2000.47 A Palestinian Authority (PA) was established which would have an elected legislature and president. These would rule only over the most populous Palestinian areas, the rest remaining under Israeli or joint control.48 The PA would also be tasked with policing the Palestinian population. The Israeli objective of ruling the land without the people was close to realisation.

Hamas opposed the Oslo accords from the start and throughout. They insisted on the Palestinian claim to all of historic Palestine and the right of refugees to return. They also denounced the PLO leaders who returned to run the PA and crassly enrich themselves in the manner of other Arab rulers.49 Hamas refused to participate in elections at this time, not because they rejected democratic procedures but because they refused to legitimate Oslo.50 It was a shrewd decision. As the Oslo process faltered the PA became more and more irrelevant. Hamas did not (and does not) reject the effective principle of a two-state solution. All of its major figures have stated their willingness to sign a generation-long ceasefire provided that Israel withdraws its troops and settlers behind the 1967 border.51 The supreme malleability of religious language allows Hamas to preserve the image of fighting for all of historic Palestine, but in practice the ceasefire means recognition of Israel. Hamas was not prepared, however, to renounce military resistance until such an agreement was achieved. Thus Hamas launched a series of suicide attacks on Israeli targets throughout the Oslo negotiations, the first of these being carried out in revenge for the Hebron massacre in 1994 when an Israeli settler reservist killed 40 worshippers at an Islamic sacred site in Hebron.52

Hamas’s position was vindicated by the collapse of the Oslo process and the eruption of the second intifada in 2000. Israel’s tactical errors—such as the botched assassination attempt on Khaled Mesh’al, a major Hamas leader in Jordan, or the exiling of hundreds of Hamas cadres to Hizbollah’s Southern Lebanese stronghold—contributed to the movement’s rise. The main reason was political, however. The second intifada reflected Palestinian anger at a peace process that had only made their lives worse.53 Hamas was identified with the resistance to that process. The intifada brought Hamas and Fatah closer as their cadres fought a common enemy. Yet the continual Israeli assaults on Palestinian political and physical infrastructure, particularly the Israeli offensive on the urban centres in the spring of 2004, mostly weakened Fatah, who had embedded themselves deeply in those structures.54 At the titular head of the Palestinian political structure stood Yasser Arafat who retained, even regained, his prestige as the leader of the Palestinian resistance. Arafat’s death in November 2004 deprived Fatah of their greatest remaining claim to hegemony over the Palestinian struggle.55 His replacement, Mahmoud Abbas, appeared keener than ever to compromise with Israel.

The contrast between this weakened Fatah and Hamas at the end of the second intifada was sharp. While Abbas scuttled after the pointless initiatives of George W Bush’s successor to the Oslo process, the “road map”, Hamas achieved the only withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Palestinian land when Israeli troops and colonists left Gaza in July 2005. It is true that the territory remained besieged by Israeli air, land and sea power. It is also true that the withdrawal reflected the racial calculus of Israeli politics: ridding the state of a large and restive Arab population all the better to retain the colonies in the West Bank. Thus the Gaza withdrawal formed an integral part of “a new Israeli defence concept” of unilateral separation behind a “hard border”.56 This doctrine—what one might call “cage and ignore”—seeks to render the Palestinians’ physical presence politically meaningless. The apartheid wall that physically cuts Palestinian communities off from one another is a literally concrete manifestation of this strategy. Yet Israel would not have withdrawn the settlements if the benefits of occupying Gaza outweighed the costs. It was Hamas that raised those costs. For nearly 30 years the Palestinians had been convinced that compromise with Israel was the route to regaining at least some of their land. Hamas, like Hizbollah, had shown that resistance was more effective.

The “earthquake” and the coup against Hamas

Israeli and Western media frequently refer to “the Hamas regime in Gaza” and claim that the movement came to power by coup in 2007. The precise opposite is true. Hamas has been the duly elected government of the Palestinian Territories since 2006. It was Fatah that carried out a coup with Israeli and Western backing. Hamas’s success in forcing the Israeli withdrawal of 2005 opened the way to the “earthquake” of the movement’s electoral victory in the Palestinian legislative council elections in January 2006.57 Hamas decided to drop its boycott of this Oslo institution because the Oslo accords were plainly dead. Hamas also thought it could do very well in the elections. Even those expectations were exceeded. Their electoral platform, the Change and Reform list, won 60 percent of the popular vote.58 “Change and reform” is a vacuous slogan but any Fatah candidate uttering it would have been ridiculed, so firmly were they identified with stasis and reaction. Fatah and Abbas were not only unable to mount effective resistance to Israel, but were also identified with corruption and mismanagement at every level.59 Their campaign in the legislative elections was heavily supported by Israel and the US.60

Fatah and its Israeli and Western backers were incredulous at the election result. They have been trying to change it ever since by means of the blockade and extreme violence against perceived violation of that blockade. The Israeli cabinet refused to recognise the new legislature and declared that it would never negotiate with “any Palestinian administration even part of which is composed of an armed terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel”.61 The US and EU, who balk at any idea of sanctions on Israel for its serial violations of international law, followed in imposing a blockade on the newly elected government. Fatah stripped ministries of equipment and refused to cooperate with Hamas ministers. The Palestinian presidency was at armed odds with the legislative body and the cabinet. Fatah militias received Jordanian and US training and funds, while simultaneously engaging in “national dialogue” with Hamas under Egyptian pressure.62 From Hamas’s election in January 2006 Muhammad Dahlan, Fatah’s would-be ruler of Gaza, had threatened trouble in the territory. Dahlan was recorded admitting as much by an Egyptian newspaper, saying, “I just deploy two jeeps, and people would say Gaza is on fire… Hamas is now the weakest Palestinian faction. They are whining and complaining. Well, they will have to suffer yet more until they are damned to the seventh ancestor”.63 Were two jeeps insufficient to ensure damnation, Dahlan could count on the support of the US. A senior US diplomat stated privately, “I like this violence”.64

The notion, then, that Hamas seized power in Gaza in the summer of 2007 is a deliberately propagated myth. In the words of Dick Wurmser, then vice-president Dick Cheney’s adviser on the Middle East, “what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen”.65 The Mecca Agreement of March 2007 was supposed to reconcile the two sides in a coalition cabinet and, in Hamas’s interpretation, the subordination of the security forces to the prime minister.66 The mini civil war between Hamas and Fatah in July 2007 essentially concerned the unwillingness of Fatah militia commanders to submit to Hamas command. Such an attitude is unsurprising but to represent the resulting conflict as a Hamas coup is a reversal of reality. “Iran Contra 2.0”, the plan to get rid of Hamas in the summer of 2007, backfired badly on its perpetrators.67 Hamas fighters were able to drive Fatah underground and out of Gaza. The opposite held true in the West Bank. Abbas simply appointed a new cabinet under the former World Bank bureaucrat Salam Fayyad. The blockade and the spiralling Israeli violence required to maintain it aim at finishing the work of Dahlan in 2007 and dislodging Hamas from Gaza.

Bombing and besieging Gaza

After the assault on the Freedom Flotilla, a columnist on the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote, “We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam”.68 The blockade of exports out of and most imports into Gaza, enforced since June 2007, is an ongoing act of slow and brutal violence punctuated by acts of intense exemplary violence to terrify the population into observing it. Israel claims to allow in “basic humanitarian supplies” but decides for itself what these are. Pasta, light bulbs, shoes and blankets have all been denied entry.69 Canned tuna is allowed in but not canned fruit: tea but not jam.70 Only five shipments of vehicle fuel have been allowed into Gaza under the blockade.71 Even if very basic supplies of cooking oil and wheat are allowed in, Gazans are denied fuel to distribute them, refrigerators in which to store their products or indeed money with which to buy fresh food. As a result, according to the UN, the formal economy in Gaza has “collapsed”, 70 percent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, 75 percent depend on food aid and 61 percent lack daily access to water.72

The total export blockade and restriction of imports—with periods of complete closure—has been Israeli policy since the failure of the attempted Fatah coup in 2007. Israel had been trying to dislodge the Hamas government since its first cabinet was formed in March 2006, however, using increased artillery fire and closure of the strip.73 It was one such artillery attack that killed seven members of the same family on Gaza beach in June 2006, a now largely forgotten outrage that precipitated the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.74 These events were the proximate trigger for the “summer war” Israel fought in Lebanon (and Gaza) in 2006. Hamas still proved impossible to dislodge and a series of inter-Palestinian talks throughout 2007 and 2008 went nowhere. It seemed that Israel was going to have to deal with Hamas. The prospect of recognising Hamas as a negotiating partner, and
therefore of entering a dialogue leading to the lifting of the blockade, lay behind the Israeli assault on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) at the end of 2008.75

A six-month “lull” was agreed between Hamas and Israel in June 2008. Hamas held the renewal of this lull to be conditional on the lifting of the blockade: according to an Israeli think tank closely linked to the Israeli Defence Force, “Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire” which was only sporadically violated by “rogue” organisations, including Fatah members.76 The head of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal intelligence force, told a cabinet meeting prior to Cast Lead that Hamas was “interested in continuing the truce, but wants to improve its terms…it wants us to lift the siege, stop attacks, and extend the truce to include [the West Bank]”.77 Israel did not lift the blockade, and had no intention of doing so, since this would leave Hamas in power. Hamas rockets were a pretext for an all-out attack to get rid of Hamas. Then foreign minister Tzipi Livni clarified this aim the week before the war on Gaza began, saying, “Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza”.78 Deputy prime minister Eli Yishai reiterated the point with greater bloodlust: “[Palestinian buildings] should be razed to the ground, so thousands of houses, tunnels and industries will be demolished…the operation will continue until a total destruction of Hamas”.79

Hamas was not destroyed despite the ferocity of the attack. The war devastated the already ramshackle infrastructure of the territory. According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, half of the 1,387 Palestinians killed were civilians.80 Israel, of course, holds overwhelming military supremacy over Gaza and the Palestinians. Yet it was unable to use that military supremacy to achieve its political aim of toppling Hamas—even over a malnourished people whose territory it entirely controls from land, sea and air. Indeed, Hamas achieved recognition as the representative of the Palestinians in an Arab summit convened in Qatar during the war.81 Israel’s inability to use overwhelming firepower and air supremacy to effect political change undermines the “Dahiya doctrine” that has come to underpin Israeli strategy. Named after the Beirut suburbs (dahiya) that suffered it in 2006, this doctrine applies “disproportionate force” to any area Israel considers a security threat.82 The conceptual line from this doctrine to the raid on the Freedom Flotilla is not hard to trace.

What is to be done?

The use of absurdly savage force produces diminishing returns for Israel. The assault on the Freedom Flotilla only served to highlight the blockade and rendered it unsustainable even for Israel’s closest allies. Turkey, traditionally Israel’s strongest ally in the region, is now perceived as an enemy in the camp of Syria and Iran.83 During the Gaza war Israel was unable to use its military superiority to get its preferred outcome. With Hamas still in power, the axis of anti-imperialist resistance linking that organisation with Hizbollah and Iran remains unbroken. The previous Gaza war constituted another blow to the project of renewed US domination in the region, already hobbled by failure in Iraq, the loss of a proxy war in Lebanon in 2006 and the unfolding prospect of defeat in Afghanistan.

Yet the very weakening of its position has led to some rhetorical change from the US and the appearance of occasional slivers of distance between the Obama administration and Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu’s coalition is committed to further settlement expansion for reasons of ideological commitment and political manoeuvre. The choice between Labour and Likud in Israel was always limited to slightly different varieties of Zionism: now that the main parties are Likud and its offshoot Kadima, the choice is between right wing Zionism, extreme right wing Zionism and genocidally right wing Zionism. At crucial points the US always backs Israel but years of intransigence have made Israeli leaders obstinate enough to embarrass even the US.

The US response to the flotilla raid was instructive. The most supportive comments came from the buffoonish vice-president, Joe Biden, long identified with most pro-Israeli section of Washington opinion and despite (or perhaps because of) this, victim of serial snubs by Binyamin Netanyahu.84 Obama’s statement could muster no more than “deep regret” for the victims of the Israeli attack.85 Members of Netanyahu’s circle see Obama as “very, very hostile” and a “strategic disaster for Israel”.86 This is partly hyperbole of the sort that describes Obama’s healthcare plan as “communist”. Israel can, for the time being, still count on full US support.

Yet the Obama administration is also eager to regain a reputation as an “honest broker” in the conflict, so that the populations of US allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan can be persuaded there is something to be gained by their subservient relationship with the US. This posture is undermined by the Netanyahu coalition’s obstinate attitude to continuing colonisation of East Jerusalem and its obstruction of the US-sponsored indirect talks with Abbas and the PLO-controlled parts of the PA. These talks were unlikely to go anywhere, since they did not include Hamas, but the attack on the Freedom Flotilla matches a pattern of Israeli actions to undermine them.87 The US is not concerned with the dreadful situation in which the Palestinians find themselves. Rather the US military are concerned that the costs of supporting Israel are coming to outweigh its strategic benefits.88

Hamas has, since before the election of the Obama administration, been desperate to join in talks with the US.89 The politics of the organisation, limited to the liberation of Palestine without challenging the networks of imperialist alliances in the region as a whole, will tend towards this conclusion and towards reaching an accommodation of sorts with Israel. Hamas’s redline is the lifting of the blockade. This is achievable but only through a sustained campaign of popular pressure, especially in Israel’s Western backers. A long term solution is unlikely because of Israel’s interlocking relationship with global imperialism. The Israeli idea of security is premised on the maintenance of a “Jewish state” that excludes the Palestinians. So long as the Palestinians exist and resist, that “security” cannot be realised. Internal Israeli opposition and, especially, the increasing disquiet among diaspora Jewish communities are devoutly to be encouraged.90 Yet, as in the case of apartheid South Africa’s defeats in Mozambique and Angola, the ideology of racial supremacy is more likely to collapse if the military guarantee behind it is shown to be useless in the face of effective resistance of the kind offered by Hizbollah and Hamas.

The source of Israel’s military guarantee remains the US, also the primary backer of the Arab regimes. Since the 1960s Israel has closely aligned itself with the US as a guardian of imperial interests in the region. US political and financial support is indispensable to the state. To understand the strategic dynamic between the US, Israel and the Palestinian resistance we must look to the region as a whole and its integration into the capitalist world economy. The politics of the Middle East still revolve around the division between supporters and opponents of imperialist intervention, an intervention motivated by the vital supplies of oil in the Persian Gulf. “Radical” states confront “moderate” ones—except that radicals can become moderate (Egypt following the defeat of 1973 and the adoption of “infitah” neoliberal policies) and moderates radical (Iran after the revolution of 1979). The peculiar and particular importance of the resources of this region for global capitalism has produced the tendency for anti-colonial movements to confront Western hegemony, then to accept it, then to be superseded by a new movement.

Such dramatic political swings reflect waves of what Tony Cliff called “deflected permanent revolution”, a concept discussed at greater length elsewhere in this journal.91 What concerns us here is how to analyse the rise of Hamas to leadership of the Palestinian resistance and how to respond to it. Hamas, needless to say, is not a socialist or working class organisation and it certainly does not offer a vision of universal human emancipation. Like the Vietnamese NLF, Hamas has persecuted activists with whom most European socialists would feel much greater political affinity. However, the task at hand is not to pick which Palestinian faction is most ideologically acceptable—there would be few—but to understand the reasons for Hamas’s rise and, from the basis of support for the resistance, search for the possibilities of a working class alternative that goes beyond the limits of Hamas’s politics.92 To do so we must again discuss the regional context, which is inextricably linked to the Palestinian struggle.

Imperialist intervention and the occupation and dictatorship that accompany it continue to dominate the Middle East. Capitalist penetration has produced a large working class but also an equally large collection of urban petty bourgeois groups resulting from the destruction of traditional artisan production and migration to the cities. These groups have
produced most of the state functionaries and lesser intellectuals who have felt their continued subjugation most keenly.93 They have sought to end that subjugation—embodied most of all in the Israeli occupation—but only in order to take what they imagine to be their rightful place within the system of capitalist states. Hamas in Palestine and the broader regional Islamic current to which it belongs represent a new generation of this phenomenon. Each previous generation eventually came to accept imperialist domination because they did not base themselves on the one force with both the power and the interest to overthrow the capitalist order in the region—the working class. Hamas, and the broader Hizbollah-Syrian-Iranian axis to which it is linked is likely to follow the same path.

Why is this relevant to an understanding of the current oppression and prospects for liberation of the Palestinians? This analysis is necessary in order to approach any kind of solution to what was once called the “Palestine problem”. Like the PLO before it, Hamas avoids any challenge to the Arab regimes.94 Hamas are committed to fighting the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state but they are very concerned to ensure that this struggle does not extend to the exercise of popular power that may pass beyond these goals. Within the confines of Palestine itself they can defy Israel’s military machine but not defeat it. As an alternative to Hamas’s politics of limited liberation the Palestinian working class, such as it is, faces a difficult situation. The impact of nearly two generations of occupation and siege and the exclusion from the colonial economy leave the prospect of an internal South African style transition unlikely. A revival of Palestinian popular resistance would be a necessary part of challenging the colonial state but would have to pass beyond the boundaries of Palestine to be truly effective. Zionism is part of the imperialist architecture of domination in the whole of the Middle East, sustained by American money and Arab collaboration.

What are the prospects for overturning this architecture of domination? The left is always well advised to remember Gramsci’s watchword, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” But one must also reckon with assessments such as that of the Washington bureau chief of the Economist, a magazine not noted for its ultra-leftism: “In almost any Arab country, at almost any time, political and social discontent is in danger of tipping into violence—even, some insiders and outsiders are beginning to argue, into revolution”.95 This judgement remains to be tested. What is certain is that the renewed imperialist adventures of the past decade have solidified Arab opinion against “moderate” (ie pro-Western) regimes and led to an increasing identification with the resistance forces of Hamas and Hizbollah, emboldened by their ability to stand firm against Israel.96

Although there are encouraging signs of struggle in Lebanon and even certain of the Gulf States, we have yet to see a large-scale working class struggle throughout the entire Arab world. However, in Egypt resistance has begun to take a working class character, involving an enormous strike wave and increasingly sharp confrontation with the Mubarak regime.97 This is vital because Egypt is the strategic core of the Arab world. It was Egypt’s separate peace with Israel in 1978 that in part precipitated the crisis of Palestinian resistance. Egypt has the most important non-oil based economy in the region. It is for these reasons that Egypt has received more US aid than any other country except Israel.98 Both the leading Palestinian factions seek and receive influence from Egypt: Fatah through its relationship with Mubarak and Hamas through its parent organisation, the Egyptian Brotherhood.

The Egyptian opposition has opened up the horizon, if not yet the full reality, of the working class as a political subject in the Arab world.99 Anti-imperialist, democratic and social demands have begun to meld into one another, including slogans identifying Mubarak with Israel.100 Strike leaders from the textile workers issued a condemnation of both Israel for the flotilla attack and the Mubarak regime for its cooperation with the blockade.101 Aid convoys and delegations to Gaza have been organised by strikers.102 The strike wave that began in 2006 and reached a peak of confrontation with the state in the uprising in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra in April 2008 has utterly changed the Egyptian scene. In 2009, in a police state where independent workers’ actions are illegal, there were “478 industrial actions by workers, including 184 sit-ins, 123 strikes, 79 demonstrations and 27 rallies”.103 For six months workers occupied the street in front of the Egyptian parliament to demand economic and political rights—including one of the first national protests by disabled people.104

In Egypt the poor and the workers cannot go on being ruled in the old way and the regime cannot go on ruling in the old way. The dying dictator Mubarak is trying to enforce the succession of his son Gamal as president. The situation remains open and political alternatives are presenting themselves. The workers’ movement has won space for popular protest but has not yet (since the brutal suppression of the Mahalla uprising) coalesced into a nationally organised challenge. Popular hopes may converge on Mohammed el-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has returned to Egypt promising political reform. The undeclared candidacy of El-Baradei has crystallised the mood for change and El-Baradei has proved adept at responding to different audiences such as in his call for combining democracy with socialism.105 The Brotherhood is moving to support him.106 Yet El Baradei also shows signs of an unnerving “respectability” in the eyes of the US, in particular in his attitude to Israel.107 This is important, because it is around the issue of Egyptian cooperation with the blockade that the demands of social, national and political liberation converge.

It is here that we see the limits of Hamas’s politics, linked to the intermediary role of the Muslim Brotherhood. This link can win Hamas influence but also cut it off from the potentially powerful Egyptian resistance because of the contradictory politics of the Brotherhood. One tangible example of the pitfalls of this strategy came when Hamas engineers exploded charges beneath the wall that separates the Rafah camp in Gaza from Egypt in January 2008. Palestinian women and children tore down the wall that separates Gaza from Egypt.108 Hamas engineers had helped by laying charges at the foundations, but it was popular power and unity with poor Egyptians that broke Israel’s blockade. Hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps half the population of Gaza, streamed through the wreckage to get food, water, medicine and everything else denied them. Egyptians organised convoys to the town of El-Arish to meet them, effectively shifting the national border.109 The Mubarak regime panicked, at first claiming they authorised the movement and then repressing it viciously.110

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the target of much of the repression, again played a crucial intermediary role, persuading Hamas to meet Mubarak. After that meeting Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister, declared, “Hamas will resume control over this border in cooperation with Egypt”.111 To do otherwise would have meant a full-scale challenge to the Egyptian regime—something that neither Hamas nor its allies in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were willing to risk. Following the mass demonstrations after the Israeli attack on the flotilla, the increasingly nervy Mubarak opened Rafah “indefinitely”.112


Further confrontations, and possibly concessions, lie ahead between Hamas, Israel and the US. The assault on the Mavi Marmara and the popular anger it provoked have led to European diplomatic noises against the blockade.113 A determined boycott campaign could make use of this opening to increase the pressure on Israel. Signs of distance between the US and Israeli positions have opened up but an imperial power on the back foot can ill afford to lose its one unshakably firm ally in such an important region. Hence the weakening of US language on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, from calling for an end to settlement expansion to merely asking for “restraint”.114

The Palestinians will still have something to resist. Hamas has proven its capacity to lead that resistance but, limited to guerrilla action within the land of Palestine, it is unlikely to achieve a solution based on equality between Palestinians and Israelis. Anything less will see the leadership of the resistance pass to some other organisation. So long as the resistance continues, the attempts to crush it will continue on their brutal trajectory—save for the intervention of the Arab working class, whose potential we have at least begun to glimpse.


1: Shulman, 2010.

2: Israeli spokespeople claimed that the Freedom Flotilla activists were armed Al Qaida affiliates-a contemptibly feeble piece of propaganda belied by every survivor’s account. See Booth, 2010, and Ruddick, 2010.

3: Financial Times, 2010.

4: Ravid, 2010.

5: Holmes, 2010.

6: Reuters, 2009b.

7: Hroub, 2000, pp86-87.

8: Tatchell, 2009.

9: Appendix to Tamimi, 2007, p247.

10: Flimsy speculation of this kind can be found in Levitt, 2006, pp167-168.

11: Hroub, 2006, pp67-68, 77.

12: Pappé, 2006.

13: For a similar argument on Hizbollah see Harman, 2006.

14: Hourani, 2002, p329.

15: Mitchell, 1993, p233.

16: Naguib, 2006, p16.

17: Mitchell, 1993, p329.

18: Hroub, 2006, p69.

19: Stacher, 2009.

20: Naguib, 2007.

21: Harman, 1994.

22: Mitchell, 1993, p58.

23: Mishal and Sela, 2006, p16.

24: Tamimi, 2007, p17.

25: Tamimi, 2007, p19.

26: Mishal and Sela, 2006, p23.

27: Kimmerling, 2003, pp21-22.

28: Benny Morris, interviewed by Shavit, 2004.

29: Alon and Benn, 2003.

30: Kimmerling, 2003, pp3-4.

31: Weizmann, 2007, p10.

32: Hirst, 2003, pp147-148.

33: I am indebted to Anne Alexander for this point.

34: Mishal and Sela, 2006, pxvi.

35: Marshall, 1989, p118.

36: Ismael, 1976, p106.

37: Balqaziz, 2006, p11.

38: Mishal and Sela, 2006, p20.

39: Mishal and Sela, 2005, pp25-26.

40: Tamimi, 2007, p55.

41: Lenin, 1916.

42: Appendix to Hroub, 2000, pp298-299.

43: Hroub, 2006, p34.

44: Hirst, 2003, p20.

45: Mishal and Sela, 2006, p60.

46: Shlaim, 2000, p509.

47: Gresh and Vidal, 2004, pp279-280.

48: Smith, 2004, p485.

49: Chehab, 2007, p10.

50: Mishal and Sela, 2006, p138.

51: Mishal and Sela, 2006, pxxii. See also Economist, 2009c, and Hroub, 2006, pp55-56.

52: Chehab, 2007, p56.

53: Shin Bet warned of this in the months prior to the Second Intifada: see Enderlin, 2004, p137.

54: Mishal and Sela, 2006, pxiv.

55: Balqaziz, 2006, p21.

56: Aronson, 2006, p132.

57: Balqaziz, 2006, p93.

58: Hroub, 2006, p66.

59: Mishal and Sela, 2006, pxv.

60: Rose, 2008.

61: Chehab, 2007, p8.

62: Rose, 2008.

63: Crooke, 2007.

64: Crooke, 2007.

65: Rose, 2008.

66: Al Jazeera English, 2007.

67: Rose, 2008.

68: Middle East Report, 2010.

69: BBC News, 2010.

70: BBC News, 2010.

71: BBC News, 6 July 2010.

72: Siddque, 2010.

73: Karmi, 2006.

74: Karmi, 2006.

75: Rabbani, 2009,

76: Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 2008, p2

77: BBC News, 22 December 2008.

78: Ravid, 2008.

79: Quoted in UN Human Rights Council, 2009, p332.

80: Al Jazeera English, 2009.

81: Reuters, 2009.

82: Reuters, 2008.

83: Teitelbaum, 2010.

84: McCarthy and Siddique, 2010.

85: Al Jazeera English, 2010.

86: McCarthy, 2010.

87: Haaretz, 2010.

88: Haaretz, 2010.

89: Al-Naami, 2008.

90: Beinart, 2010.

91: See, of course, Cliff, 1990, as well as Zeilig, 2010, and Neil Davidson’s article in this issue.

92: This is not to disparage the encouraging shoots of revival on the Palestinan left, particularly among the “Sons of the Land” (Abnaa’ al balad) group but also evident at the conference on the Palestinian left held in London on 27 and 28 February 2010.

93: An example of the general process described in Cliff, 1990, p21.

94: In 1999 Hamas accepted their expulsion from Jordan without a fight, reflecting the influence of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. At the 2007 Cairo Conference Hamas representatives refrained from any criticism of the Mubarak regime, despite the raising of the slogan “Down with Mubarak” by practically every other speaker (personal recollection).

95: Economist, 2009a.

96: Economist, 2009b.

97: See Alexander, 2008, and Naguib, 2007.

98: Alexander, 2010, p138.

99: A full account of this is given in El-Mahdi and Marfleet, 2010. See also www.arabawy.org

100: Shenker, 2010.

101: El-Hamawaly, 2010.

102: El-Hamawaly, 2010.

103: Omar, 2010.

104: El-Hamalawy, 2010.

105: Abdel Aziz, 2010.

106: Al-Masry Al-Youm, 2010.

107: Centre for Socialist Studies, 2010.

108: Assaf, 2008.

109: Assaf, 2008.

110: Assaf, 2008.

111: Al Jazeera English, 2009.

112: Gab Allah, 2010.

113: Sherwood, 2010. For more on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement see the article by Tom Hickey and Phil Marfleet in this journal.

114: McCarthy, 2009.


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