“It [should be] possible to destroy Gaza, so they will understand not to mess with us…I hope the operation will come to an end with great achievements and with the complete destruction of terrorism and Hamas. In my opinion, they [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.” Eli Yishai, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, 6th of January 2009
“There is nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone is terrorized and traumatized.” John Ging, Gaza Director of UNRWA, 6th of January 2009
“We’re pretty much in the same situation.” Moshe Arens, Former Israeli Defence Minister, after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza 22nd of January 2009
The Israeli war on Gaza from the 27th of December 2008 to the 22nd of January 2009 constituted, in the words of the UN Human Rights council report on the subject, ‘a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability’ . During the assault Israel committed acts amounting to ‘possible war crimes, and crimes against humanity.’ As well as leaving nearly 1,400 Palestinians dead, the war devastated the – already ramshackle – infrastructure of the territory. Reconstruction has yet to begin, because Israel will not allow building materials to enter the territory, continuing the near total blockade it has enforced since 2007 . Aid money pledged to the Palestinians has yet to arrive because Western donor countries will not co-operate with the (elected) Hamas government in Gaza. Despite the changes in American rhetoric following the inauguration of Barack Obama, most notably the widely trailed and excessively praised speech at Cairo University, Washington persists in ignoring Hamas’s position as the duly elected representative of the Palestinians. George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, pointedly failed to visit Gaza on his trip to the region to hawk the imaginary ‘peace process’ in September 2009 . Instead the Obama administration has continued to buttress the redundant Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah president of the Palestinian authority – a man whose near-alliance with Israel against Hamas during the Gaza war has left him with neither the mandate to negotiate any deal nor the credibility to enforce one. The old Israeli line that ‘there is no negotiating partner’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why are Israel and its Western supporters so keen to get rid of Hamas and to blockade and bomb the Palestinian people in order to do so? The reason, they claim, is that Hamas does not recognize 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 the 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 . It is Hamas’ insistence on the Palestinian right to resist the occupation and their refusal to negotiate terms that will perpetuate it that earns Hamas the enmity of Israel and the Western powers.
Hamas and the Palestinians are not completely isolated, however. ‘Operation Cast Lead’, as Israeli commanders dubbed the assault, provoked an eruption of popular solidarity with the Palestinians, in the Middle East and beyond. 150,000 people marched in London support of Gaza, risking arrest and police violence to do so . In the words of the Independent newspaper ‘a seismic change’ spread through British universities as students at thirty colleges occupied their lecture halls in protest . The contrast with the Arab kings, emirs and presidents-for-life, who sat inert or worse for the duration of the attack, was not lost on their long-suffering populations. The Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington and head of the secret police, was moved to warn his Western backers that ‘[e]ventually, the kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel.’
The protests faced not only the physical opposition of the police but also the rhetorical attacks of those, often former leftists, who considered Hamas at least partially responsible for the war. Had not Hamas provoked Israel by firing rockets at Israeli towns despite Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005? Was not the organisation, as one fallen leftist claimed ‘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 hardline misinterpretation of the Qur’an’?
These arguments were, and remain, mistaken. In what follows I attempt to 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 organisations have waned, Hamas has remained 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. The balance sheet of Operation Cast Lead, a setback for Israel but on a lesser scale than the Lebanon War of 2006, reflects these limitations.
Operation Cast Lead: Conduct and Results
Israel’s winter war on Gaza was even more brutal and one-sided than the assault on Lebanon in summer 2006. According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, half of the 1,387 Palestinians killed were civilians . The infrastructure of the blockaded territory was devastated by the bombing ; at the time of writing 20,000 people remain displaced and the promised $4.4 billion of reconstruction aid has been refused entry by Israel . Senior Hamas figures such as Said Siam and Nizar Rayan were assassinated and hospitals, mosques, universities, schools and government ministries hit . In troops, materiel and morale the attack on Gaza was less costly for Israel than the Lebanon of 2006, and Hamas’s resistance far less visible than that of Hizbollah. Three Israeli civilians and ten Israeli soldiers were killed . The grotesque imbalance seems simply to confirm Israeli superiority. Nevertheless, Cast Lead was a setback for Israel and its Western supporters because the war showed that Israel’s overwhelming military superiority cannot achieve a political victory. Israel lost, perhaps conclusively, the sympathy of most of European public opinion, yet failed to achieve either the stated or implicit aims of the war.
One must disentangle Israel’s strategic aims from the accompanying justifications for the war. Operation Cast Lead, Israeli spokespeople insisted with varying degrees of sincerity, was aimed at ‘Hamas strongholds’ being used to produce and fire Qassam rockets mainly at the southern Israeli towns . These rockets themselves are erratic in flight and had killed 21 Israeli citizens between 2004 and 2008 . Quite apart from the imbalance between the results of Gazan rocket attacks and the purported response to them, a reduction in rocket attacks had already been achieved by effective agreement with Hamas. 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 IDF, ‘Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire’, which was only ‘sporadically’ violated by ‘rogue’ organizations including Fatah members .
The situation changed after the 4th of November 2008 . On that day Israel killed six Hamas operatives in an attack on one of the tunnels used by Gazans to bring in weapons, food and other necessities . In response to Israel’s killing seven Palestinians in this attack, Hamas and other organizations resumed rocket strikes against Israel. Hamas instituted another one-day lull on the 20th of December, the day the original agreement had been due to expire: Israel did not reciprocate . IDF officials announced that a full-scale military attack would begin ‘soon’ – which it did, on the 27th of January. When Israeli forces finally withdrew from Gaza, Hamas were still firing rockets.
So, if Cast Lead was supposed to end rocket fire, it failed. There was however a deeper aim behind the war. Then foreign minister Tzi Livni clarified this aim the week before Cast Lead began, saying ‘[t]he state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza.’ The fact that the “Hamas regime’ formed the elected Palestinian government featured neither here nor there in this strategy. Hamas was to be toppled not because it refused to negotiate but rather because it wanted to do so from a position of strength. Thus the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal intelligence force, told an Israeli cabinet meeting prior to Cast Lead that Hamas was ‘interested in continuing the truce, but wants to improve its terms…[i]t wants us to lift the siege [of Gaza], stop attacks, and extend the truce to include [the West Bank].’ Toppling Hamas would repeat the success in the West Bank, where a US-funded and trained Fatah government polices the Palestinian population . The renewed attempt to dislodge Hamas and replace it with Fatah’s local hard-man in Gaza, Muhammad Dahlan, failed.
Cast Lead thus marked a dead-end for Israeli strategy. 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 . 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 strategy applies ‘disproportionate force’ to any area Israel considers a source of enemy fire . Thus, most of Israel’s war on Gaza was carried out from the air.
The aerial assault began on the 27th of December: the largest ever carried out on Gaza, resulting in the highest one-day death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least 225 Palestinians were killed: 1 Israeli was killed by the Hamas rockets fired in response . The solely aerial bombardment continued for a week. 400 Palestinians were killed during this first week of the war . IDF ground troops entered Gaza on the night of the third of January 2009 . They carried out an effective pincer movement around Gaza City but avoided entering the heavily built up area itself, although resistance fighters did engage the IDF in the outskirts of the city . Although paratroopers and the elite ‘Golani’ brigade of the IDF operated in the north of the Strip and around Gaza city, they did not attempt to re-occupy the city itself . Throughout the assault the response of the ‘international community’ was predictably feeble. On the 8th of January the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for ‘an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire.’ The US abstained on the vote on the resolution despite having helped to write it . Israeli troops withdrew from the strip on the 21st of January 2009, while Hamas kept up a symbolically defiant spray of rockets.
Operation Cast Lead thus consisted mainly of bombardment by air, land and sea designed to smash the civil and political structures of Hamas. It failed. At the time of writing, Hamas remains in power in Gaza and no effective agreement can be reached without them. Hamas’s leaders are aware of this and are engaged in continual attempts to negotiate with the US and Israel . Without Hamas the best the Obama administration has been able to manage is a feeble photo-opportunity between its protégé Mahmoud Abbas and the resurgent Israeli right embodied in Benjamin Netanyahu. But what is Hamas? Where did it come from and why was it able to withstand the Israeli assault ?
The origins of Hamas and the dilemmas of Palestinian liberation
From its foundation in 1987, the novel character of Hamas – a self proclaimed ‘Palestinian national liberation movement’ for which Islam is the ‘ideological frame of reference’ – has confused many commentators. Hamas, is needless to say, 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-Qaeda affiliate it is occasionally portrayed as in the West , Hamas holds to deeply conservative positions on issues such as the free market and sexual liberation . Hamas and Hizbollah, Islamist organisations both, are the only mass organisations in the Middle East that continue to resist Israel and the US . The important political point to understand concretely is how Hamas came to occupy this position, and how its politics are likely to constrain the struggle for Palestinian liberation .
Hamas is essentially an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The MB was founded in 1928 by the Egyptian school-teacher Hassan al-Banna. At this time Egypt was nominally independent but in reality 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 mobilizations that might challenge their economic position. Al-Banna’s organization responded to imperial domination and social inequality by arguing that a return to the perceived principles of the early Islamic community .
The idea of an Islamic community, morally re-invigorated and able to repel the colonial powers, appealed to a particular social base. Hassan al-Banna and his cadres emerged from the context of a economic pressure on the old middle classes and the development of a ‘new effendiyya’ of teachers, civil servants, engineers and so on . Such groups were the mainstay of other anti-colonial movements in the Arab world and beyond. Where the Brotherhood differed was uniting its petty-bourgeois cadres with some funding from landowners and industrialists to spread an Islamic revivalist message amongst the dispossessed of the cities, often recent arrivals from the countryside . 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 .
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has, of course, undergone considerable evolution and generational change in the eight decades since its founding . It is now the largest mass movement in Egypt – in the Arab world – with an estimated one million members and forms the effective opposition to the Mubarak regime . Throughout that history however, 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 Abd-al Nasser and his successors have used the Brotherhood as a counterweight to the left, only then to be repress the MB themselves. As a result, the Brotherhood’s membership is continually embroiled about the best strategic option to Islamize 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 has pursued the path of da”wa and a piecemeal search for influence . They have tended to avoid direct confrontation with the state, particularly anything that would mobilize overly large numbers of workers and the poor. Hamas’ 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, while Gaza fell under Egyptian administration. Brotherhood volunteers did fight against the establishment and expansion of Israel in 1948 but their subsequent quietism left them unpopular amongst Palestinians . 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 legalization as the organisation in Egypt proper. Yassin founded the Islamic Centre, which became Brotherhood’s central base in Gaza. Although he was arrested in Nasser’s renewed repression of the Brothers in 1965, Sheikh Yasin and the other MB members who would later form Hamas avoided conflict with Israel .
The Israeli occupation of Gaza after the 1967 Six Day War did not alter Yasin’s focus on religious revivalism. Secular organisations such as Fatah and later the avowedly ‘marxist’ DFLP and PFLP, not the MB, took up the resistance to the occupation. The Muslim 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 . Islamic centre related organizations offered the social welfare and healthcare services the occupation was unwilling to provide. Yasin’s adherents successfully muscled out the left for predominance amongst Gazan students . 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 their physical destruction and expulsion 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 relation 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 colonized. 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 Portugese colonies) a relatively smaller number of settlers expropriated the indigenous population but remained economically dependent on their labour . 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 colonist and colonized 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 . 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 . The Israeli dilemma then 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. The network of physical barriers to Palestinian life, such the Apartheid Wall and checkpoints in the West Bank, has partially achieved this aim .
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. Although not economically irrelevant to Israel, Palestinian labour – unlike US aid - 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 . 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. During the first intifada Gazans lost access to 80,000 jobs on the other side of the Green Line, Israel’s 1948 border . 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 mobilization 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 some kind of ‘mini-state’ on Israeli terms.
The rise of Hamas is simply 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 the ‘internal’ struggles against the surrounding Arab regimes, in particular from the potential power of the Egyptian working class. The PLO, under Fatah’s leadership, followed a strategy of establishing bases in neighbouring Arab states while avoiding any challenge to the ruling Arab regimes . The regimes themselves observed no such restraint. Thus the PLO were driven from even the weakest front-lines Arab states - Jordan in 1970 and (in the midst of civil war and Israeli invasion) Lebanon in 1982. The Palestinian left in the ‘fronts’ did recognise that revolution in the Arab states was a precondition for the liberation of Palestine but their idea of this revolution was the ‘protracted people’s war’ of Mao Zedong or the guerilla ‘focos’ of Che Guevara. 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 camps was doomed. Israel, the local Arab ruling class or both, would intervene to crush such areas precisely as happened in Jordan and Lebanon.
By the early 1980s then, the secular and leftist nationalists had hit a strategic dead end . Into this crisis stepped Islamic movements: throughout the Arab world and especially in Gaza. Sheikh Yassin had carefully built up a power base in the Islamic Centre of Gaza, new mosques and the university, now admitting more rural and conservative students . ‘Majd’, a militia-like offshoot of the Islamic Centre, emerged, fighting the left and violently bullying people into religious observance . 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 the Islamic Resistance Movement was officially formed . 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 Palestinian’s claim to all of their homeland, including that part of which became Israel in 1948. It also included a fair number of what Lenin called ‘outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices’ . 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 . Such usage has now been mostly abandoned by Hamas leaders – its persistence in the organisation’s charter is a symptom of the highly unwelcome, but not incomprehensible, political confusion amongst those Palestinians who have only encountered Jews as agents of an oppressive colonial project .
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 . 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 . Hamas denounced the maneouvres of the PLO leadership in attempting to participate in (ultimately fruitless) negotiations at Madrid. Nonetheless, they remained financially and politically weaker than Fatah/ 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 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 thus declared was that the Palestinians ‘recognise’ Israel – which means recognising their ethnic cleansing from their own homeland – in 78% of the land of historic Palestine. The PLO believed that this meant Israel would withdraw gradually from the remaining 22% 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 . Although Arafat and the PLO recognized Israel’s ‘right to exist in peace and security’, the Israeli reply merely recognized the PLO’s competence to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians . 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% in the period of the Oslo negotiations between 1993 and 2000 . A Palestinian Authority 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 . Furthermore, authority would have the task of policing the Palestinian population. The Israeli objective of ruling the land without the people was close to realization.
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 figures who returned to run the PA and crassly enrich themselves in the manner of other Arab rulers . Hamas refused to participate in elections at this time, not because they rejected democractic procedures but because they refused to legitimate Oslo . It was a shrewd decision. As the Oslo process faltered and 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 (hudna) with Israel, provided that Israel withdraws its troops and settlers behind the 1967 border . The supreme malleability of religious language allows Hamas to preserve the image of fighting for all of historic Palestine, but in practice the hudna means recognition. 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 Israel settler reservist killed 40 Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque .
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 . 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 continuous 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 . 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 . 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 the ‘road map’, Hamas achieved the only withdrawal of Israel settlements from Palestinian land. 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 ’. This strategy - what one might call the ‘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 who raised those costs. For nearly thirty 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 Gaza withdrawal opened the way to the ‘earthquake’ of Hamas’s electoral victory in the Palestinian legislative council elections in January 2006. Hamas decided to drop its boycott of this ‘Oslo’ institution because the Oslo accords were now plainly dead. Hamas also thought it could do very well in the elections. Their joint platform, the ‘Change and Reform list’ won 60% of the popular vote . ‘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, they were identified with corruption and mismanagement at every level . Their campaign was heavily supported by Israel and the US .
Fatah and its Israeli and Western backers were incredulous at the election result. They have been trying to change it ever since. Israel refused to recognise the new legislature and immediately imposed the (ongoing) blockade on Gaza. The US and EU – who balk at any idea of sanctions on Israel for its serial violations of international law – followed. Fatah stripped ministries of equipment and refused to co-operate with the new cabinet. 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 . 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. ’ Were two jeeps insufficient to ensure damnation, Dahlan could count on the support of the US. A senior US diplomat stated, in private of course, ‘I like this violence’ .
The notion, then, that Hamas ‘seized power’ in Gaza in the summer of 2007 is a deliberate myth. In the words of Dick Wurmser, then Vice President 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.’ 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 . 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. Operation Cast Lead represented another attempt at finishing the work of Dahlan in 2007 and dislodging Hamas from Gaza. It failed, leaving only the familiar impasse of Palestinian politics. But will Hamas, much as they have shown the strength to resist occupation, be able to overcome that impasse?
Where is Hamas going?
Cast Lead was a setback for Israel and its backers because 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 Gaza war constitutes another blow to the project of renewed US domination in the region, already hobbled by humiliation in Iraq, the loss of a proxy war in Lebanon in 2007 and the unfolding prospect of defeat in Afghanistan. Yet, the very weakening of its position has led to some rhetorical change from the US. Western liberal commentators, having convinced themselves that Arab anger derives from religion rather than occupation and oppression, were euphoric at Barack Obama’s ability to quote the Qur’an in his keynote speech at Cairo university on June the 4th 2009. The period since the speech has seen a flurry of US diplomatic activity. Hamas has, since before the election of the Obama administration, been desperate to join in . Hamas’s politics – limited to the liberation of Palestine without challenging the networks of imperialist alliances in the region as a whole – will tend toward this conclusion and towards reaching an accommodation of sorts with Israel. The question is whether Israel will accept such an arrangement.
At the time of writing, this seems unlikely. Tzvi Lipni’s murderous gamble failed. Not even Cast Lead could out-tough Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud in the Israeli elections of February 2009. Netanyahu’s coalition is committed to further settlement expansion for reasons of ideological commitment and political manoeuvre. The choice between Labor and Liukud in Israel was always been 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 and extreme right-wing Zionism. This is unlikely to change unless, as the apartheid South African state experienced in Mozambique and Angola, the military guarantee of racial supremacy collapses in the face of effective resistance of the kind offered by Hizbollah and Hamas.
The source of Israel’s military guarantee is the US, also the primary backer of the Arab regimes. Since the 1960s, Israel has closely aligned itself with the US as the watchdog of imperial interest in the region. US political and financial support is indispensable to the state. 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 after the death of Nasser) and moderate ones radical (Iran after the revolution of 1979 ). Such dramatic political swings reflect waves of what Tony Cliff called ‘deflected permanent revolution’ itself an outcome of the uneven and combined development of capitalism in the Middle East. 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 in the region, then to accept it, then to be superseded by a new movement.
Leon Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development, allied to the strategy of permanent revolution best allows us to understand the politics of resistance in the Middle East. Trotsky’s main insight was that pre-capitalist societies attempted to respond to the threat posed by capitalist states by attempting to mimic them – ‘ a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.’ Whereas in Western Europe, the bourgeoisie may have played a revolutionary, democratic role in Russia (and by extension other late developing countries) The only class with the agency and interest to carry out a thoroughgoing democratic revolution was, Trotsky argued, the working class generated by capitalist penetration. Even if few in number, the workers’ role in the most advanced sectors of production empowered them to lead the revolution . Yet the workers could not be expected to stop at a merely national democratic revolution – rather the revolution would be permanent in two senses. The democratic revolution would pass over into the socialist revolution, and over the national boundaries of Russia to the more advanced capitalist states.
The 21st century Middle East differs greatly from Tsarist Russia, but the process of uneven and combined development continues to structure its politics and therefore to open up the horizon of permanent revolution . Imperialist intervention and the occupation and dictatorship that accompany it continue to dominate the region. Capitalist penetration has produced a large working class but also an equally large collection of urban petit 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 most keenly their continued subjugation . They have sought to end that subjugation – embodied most of all in the Israeli occupation – but in order to take what they imagine to be their rightful place within the system of capitalist states. Thus generations of Arab nationalists and Islamists, mostly hailing from the middle to lower ranks of state employment (including army officers) or the professions, have sought to expel imperialist influence from the region. Each has eventually come accept that influence 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.
The idea of working class revolution, and the passing over of national liberation into social struggles, is no mere slogan in the Middle East. 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.’ What is certain is that the renewed imperialist adventures of the past decade have solidified Arab opinion against ‘moderate (i.e. pro-Western) and led to an increasing identification with the resistance forces of Hamas and Hizbollah, emboldened by their ability to stand firm against Israel . In Egypt, in particular, resistance has begun to take a working class character, involving an enormous strike wave and increasingly sharp confrontation with the Mubarak regime .
Hamas’s politics, linked to the intermediary role of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighbouring countries, is likely to cut it off from this potentially powerful resistance. Like the PLO before it, Hamas avoids any challenge to the Arab regimes . 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. One tangible example of the pitfalls of this strategy came when Hamas engineers exploded charges beneath the wall that separates Rafah camp in Gaza from Egypt in January 2008. Palestinian women and children physically obliterated the wall that separates Gaza from Egypt . 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 . The Mubarak regime panicked, at first claiming they authorized the movement and then repressing it viciously . 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 co-operation with Egypt’ . 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.
Further confrontations, and possibly concessions, lie ahead between Hamas, Israel and the US. An imperial power on the back foot can ill afford to lose its one unshakably firm ally in a region of vital importance to world capitalism. 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’ . The Palestinians will still have something to resist. Hamas has proven its capacity to lead that resistance but, limited to guerilla 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 that resistance continues, each attempt to crush it will result in horrors of the kind witnessed in Gaza – and a glimpse of the possibilities for real change seen in British lecture halls and Arab streets.