National Interest: Hamas isn’t the problem

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Unless Israel changes its occupation policy, it will expect more violent resistance regardless of whether Hamas is destroyed or not, according to an article by Paul Pillar, at the National Interests magazine.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and other Palestinian territories has been under way for more than half a century.

The fading of memories over time led to a lack of understanding of the roots and nature of the recent violence between Israel and the Palestinians that is now concentrated in the Gaza Strip.

In speeches over the past eight months, Biden has tried to erase memories more radically by pretending that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began on October 7, as if Hamas’s attack on southern Israel that day was a thunderbolt from the sky that was motivated only by some unjustified innate hatred of Israelis.

One need not go far into the history of conflict in search of a perspective that undermines this characterization.

For example, look at the period from September 2014 to September 2023, following the previous Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip and before the offensive that began last October, during that period, according to UN statistics, 1,632 Palestinians were killed by Israelis – mostly by Israeli security forces and some by settlers in the West Bank.

That’s more than the death toll of about 1,200 people, according to Israeli government estimates, who were victims of the Hamas attack in October.

The number of Israelis killed during the same period 2014-2023 at the hands of Palestinians was 155.

Going back much further, one can see that understanding the nature and causes of Palestinian violence perpetrated against Israel isn’t limited to analyzing Hamas’s motives; it often doesn’t include Hamas at all.

There is much to learn from that long and turbulent history, including how the Zionists realized early on that their project necessarily involved the use of force against the people already living in Palestine. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future prime minister, said in 1919: “There is a gap, and nothing can fill it… I don’t know any Arab who would agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews… We, as a nation, want this country to be ours, and the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs”.

Then there were the bloody events of the forties, including massacres and mass displacement that transcended the living memory of most Palestinians today, but were a painful collective experience of the Nakba as part of the Palestinian national consciousness.

The terrorism that was then part of the larger conflict over Palestine was largely the work of groups led by two other future Israeli prime ministers: Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

For most Americans today, who are over several decades old, the initial awareness of international terrorism linked this phenomenon primarily to the Palestinians.

International terrorism became a headline in the late sixties and early seventies to a much greater degree than it had been for many years before that.

Palestinian groups committed many of the most spectacular and grabbing attacks, such as the hijacking and subsequent destruction of multiple and simultaneous passenger planes at a desert airstrip in 1970, and the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The timing of this surge in terrorism and the fact that the Palestinians were leading the perpetrators was no coincidence.

The precipitating key event was the 1967 Six-Day War, initiated by Israel, which resulted in Israel’s seizure of Arab lands in Palestine, Egypt and Syria, and marked the beginning of Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory.

Palestinian groups that carried out the terrorist attacks included, among others, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Thunderbolt, Fatah, and splinter groups such as Black September (who planned and carried out the Munich massacre).

These groups represented a variety of ideologies and political orientations, united only by shared anger at Israel’s oppression of their fellow Palestinians.

However, they were mostly secular rather than Islamists (the founder and longtime leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, George Habash, grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church).

Hamas, which was not established before 1987, had no role in any of this.

The usual advice for someone who complains about a long series of bad relationships with others is to look inward at what the complainant might be doing that is causing the recurring problem instead of continuing to blame others.

The advice applies to countries as well as to individuals.

But Israel, with its long violent relations with the Palestinians and now accompanied by bad relations with international tribunals and much of the rest of the world, isn’t following this advice.

Its failure to do so continues the bloodshed and humanitarian catastrophe that has befallen the Gaza Strip over the past eight months.

The stated goal of the Israeli government in continuing its aggression against the Gaza Strip is to destroy Hamas.

If the Israeli leaders are to be believed, their determination to achieve this goal is the main obstacle to the ceasefire.

Even if Israeli policymakers are completely indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians and care only about the security and well-being of Israeli citizens, the goal of destroying Hamas is misguided on multiple levels.

Hamas isn’t a regular army whose destruction is calculated by the number of battalions eradicated.

It’s a movement, an ideology, a means of expressing dissatisfaction with Israel’s oppression.

It has the support of Palestinians who saw it as the most outspoken group in standing up to Israel – especially in contrast to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which they see as little more than a catalyst for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Israel’s behavior in Gaza has increased Hamas’s popularity among many Palestinians and, as such, is expected to be a boon for recruitment.

More importantly, as the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows, there is nothing special about Hamas that sets it apart from all other means of resistance against oppression by Israel.

Hamas emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, and if there no Israeli, it would have served as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, just as the Muslim Brotherhood wings in Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt (before Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s 2013 coup) functioned as peaceful wings.

No matter how much one thinks of what Hamas has become today, it hasn’t become so because of something in its genes that distinguishes it from other Palestinian entities.

This has become the case because of the circumstances to which Israel has subjected the Palestinian people.

If Hamas disappears tomorrow, other groups will use violence as a means of resistance against the Israeli occupation.

The suffering endured by the people of the Gaza Strip over the past eight months will revolve in the Palestinian consciousness alongside the Nakba of the forties and the Israeli invasions of 1967 to perpetuate Palestinian anger and stimulate those future groups.

This tragic story won’t end with the destruction of any particular group, but only with the self-determination of the Palestinians and the end of the occupation.

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