June 19, 2012: the Palestinian skies lit up again with an exchange of rockets and air strikes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, breaking the uneasy calm that had prevailed since March when Islamic Jihad had engaged in hostilities with Israel following the assassination of Zuhir al-Qaisi, the Secretary General of the Popular Resistance Committees. For critics of Hamas, its continued commitment to violence is the proverbial “red-line” inhibiting the possibility of any further progress in the Middle East Peace Process. Moreover, any attempts at finding rationality behind Hamas’s armed operations is either accorded by detractors to a radical ideological orientation or by sympathizers to violence being the (status quo) language and currency of the relationship with Israel. But while these claims could be based on the conflict’s observable realities, only a better understanding of Hamas as a social entity can truly contextualize and explain the inalienability of violence as part of the Palestinian groups’ operational arsenal.
Hamas and the Palestinians
German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin once encouraged us to illuminate the “image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own.” The story of the Palestine is similar. Their history denied, their identity undermined, and their culture trivialized, Palestinians would steep themselves in a memory of systematic marginalization perpetrated not only by the Israeli state but a hegemonic international system. If we then try to follow the intellectual traditions encouraged by the likes of Benjamin, Hamas could be seen as the birth of the consciousness of the “silenced.” They struggle to “reclaim” Palestinian destiny and reverse the forces that they perceive as marginalizing. While Hamas is not the only tangible manifestation of the “silenced,” they do represent the rise of political religiosity in Gaza and, rhetorically, the “cultural” response to the oppressor. Nevertheless, Hamas at its core would mould itself within an anti-imperial struggle that, when faced with hegemonic forces, is engaged in a “cosmic” tussle between good and evil.
Hamas and Violence
Of late, being Hamas has been anything but easy. Its regional allies, namely Iran and Syria, seem to be imploding under domestic and global pressures. New “well-wishers” such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have attempted to moderate the Palestinian group’s stance in order to maintain the stability of the neighborhood. Salafists seem to be gaining legitimacy among discontented and disillusioned Palestinians; they are continually attempting to undermine Hamas’s sovereignty over Gaza and its monopoly over violence, especially when directed against Israel. The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process seems to be all but a distant memory, and a unified Palestinian nowhere in sight.
In the midst of this, proponents of a peaceful means of contention saw a “victory”. On March 14, 2012, Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef noted in an NPR interview that “because of the Arab revolution…we shouldn’t give the Israelis any excuse to continue their incursion or aggression against us…that’s why we resort to this nonviolent approach or the popular peaceful resistance; we hope the world community will respond positively to what we are doing.” For some this admission was groundbreaking. It signified Hamas’s alignment with the status-quo parameters of the Western-sponsored peace process. The premonition of such a historic transformation was simply wishful thinking. In the same report, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas founder, insisted on the importance of violence and asserted, “Hamas is still committed to its principles as a liberating movement [and] freedom fighters.” Even though Hamas showed restraint in the March 2012 skirmish between Islamic Jihad and Israel over the death of al-Qaisi, its official commitment to violence was once again confirmed when, in June 2012, it reengaged Israel in hostilities following air strikes on the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah. Ever since then, violence has intermittently featured in Hamas’s dealings with Israel and domestic detractors (most recently the Salafists).
While many are dismayed by Hamas’s lost opportunity, its intransigence is predictable for three interrelated reasons that inform the core “genetic” fiber of the group.
First, founded as a resistance organization, Hamas’s incorporation of violence in its operation arsenal at the time of inception is what has informed and characterized its identity since 1987. Removing it would mean a redefinition of the group’s character, which would be a difficult task as Palestinians continue to crave security in the face of a gargantuan Israeli military arsenal.
Secondly, as noted earlier, violence is an essential facet of the Palestinian relationship with Israel. More significantly for Hamas, being sidelined from any “official” peace negotiations, its military operations are a means of being heard as a central stakeholder in the face of Israeli, Western, and Fatah-led efforts to silence it as an irrational voice in Palestinian politics.
Finally, violence, while proclaiming the group’s ability to fight and defend itself, is also a reassurance of the same to its constituency. It relays to the Palestinian populace that Hamas is committed to an “iron dome” of sovereignty within which Palestinians are protected from hegemonic forces, epitomized by the State of Israel.
In total, this is one view of the world which Palestinians, Hamas, and their use of violence inhabit. It is critical to recognize that Palestinians, and Hamas as their representative, view themselves as being marginalized. Such self-perception drives the group to adopt violence as a protective tool. It is most definitely not the only tool, but it is nevertheless fundamental to Palestinian and Hamas’s dealings with Israel. The current infallibility of this fact was recently confirmed by a Palestinian Public Opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) on March 15-17, 2012. It concluded the Hamas government in Gaza and their Fatah counterparts in the West Bank were suffering from a significant crisis of legitimacy among ordinary Palestinians. The poll showed that only 36 percent of Palestinians viewed the Haniyeh government (Hamas) positively, compared to 41 percent three months ago. While a multitude of factors played a role, a key element among the Palestinians was “Hamas’s behavior, standing on the side-line, during Gaza’s rocket war with Israel.” For Palestinians, then, it would be Malcolm X’s words that ring true: “I don’t call it violence when it's self defense, I call it intelligence.”
Somdeep Sen is a PhD fellow in the COMER (Copenhagen Middle East Research) project, at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's November/December 2012 print edition.