Certainly, the consistent message of Western Media seems to suggest that this is the case. HAMAS represents the most popular wing of that Western bogeyman, Political Islam, in Palestine. It has been labeled by Western governments as a terrorist group, and is seen as an organization bent on the destruction of Israel. It is also a pragmatic organization that has captured a small majority of Palestinian support for its public refusal to accept the most heinous proposals offered by the Israeli occupation in the interminable peace process. There are no small numbers of Palestinians who bitterly oppose HAMAS’s policy domestically, but in this bloody summer of 2014, proffer their full support for HAMAS’s acts of resistance against the occupation and the siege in Gaza. Here, I hope to provide a critical analysis of the false pretense reproduced as Western media repeats phrases such as “HAMAS rejects Egypt’s cease fire proposal” and HAMAS “opposes terms for ceasefire”, and to explore the importance of HAMAS in the current political landscape.
I have made the siege of Gaza the focus of my research for the last 5 years, and have had the privilege of entering Gaza multiple times to see, first-hand, the effects of Israeli policy on the civilian population. What I have encountered could be considered nothing other than collective punishment, itself a crime against humanity. The strength of the resolve of HAMAS is that it draws upon the deep frustration Gazans have with Western-oriented FATAH leaders who excuse and accept the continued human rights catastrophe that is the Israeli siege.
It is easy to forget that HAMAS won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, largely the result of a protest vote against FATAH leadership who seemed disposed to negotiate Palestine into oblivion. FATAH insisted on using the terms of the 1993 Oslo interim agreement as a starting point with any negotiation with Israel, while Israel regularly violates the terms of these accords. The FATAH Palestinian Authority leadership is ossified, seen by many Gazans as trading the crumbs of VIP checkpoint passes for the politicians in the West Bank and access to international donors’ funds for any possible future peace with justice for the wrongs of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. The terms of Oslo were themselves an absurd step backwards for Palestinian liberation, splitting the West Bank into 3 zones (Areas A, B, and C) and fragmenting potential areas of a future Palestinian state into isolated Bantustans. Gaza itself was completely isolated by Israel, and though the Oslo accords treat Gaza and the West Bank as inseparable, Israel has done all in its power to subvert this collective identity. In effect, the very notion of “facts on the ground” was reified by the FATAH leadership, further empowering Israeli intransigence and an unwillingness to negotiate in good faith. The extent of this enabling was documented in the Palestine Papers, published by Al Jazeera, wherein PA negotiators allegedly went so far as to ask Israel to reoccupy the Philadelphi corridor along Gaza’s southern border in order to help topple HAMAS.
In contrast, HAMAS, once it came into power in the Gaza Strip followed another tack: HAMAS insisted that Israel honor UN resolution 242 that demands Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 boundaries, Israel must follow the norms of international law, and in return HAMAS would enforce a 99-year truce with Israel. The idea of this proposal is that while the parties to any current agreement are themselves the victims of countless atrocities, if a 99 year truce can be maintained, the progeny of the signatories would have no personal grudges, no personal experience of the pain of occupation, and would be willing to create a permanent solution. HAMAS has made this proposal numerous times, though these proposals are unsurprisingly missing from US media portrayals of the Islamist group.
To begin with the Oslo accords, and to accept further expansion of settlements and the ever greater limitation of Palestinian political aspirations was more than most Palestinians could accept. In the intervening years, Gazans suffered under the brutal regime of the Israeli siege, and many suffered from problematic policies put into place by the HAMAS government itself, which become more professionalized, bureaucratized, and seemed to be unable to settle on a coherent policy of resistance, the very reason they were voted into power in the first place. When I was most recently in Gaza, earlier this summer, I saw a population that was growing tired of HAMAS refusing to support popular positions, and one that spent the majority of its time quashing resistance and democratic movements among the youth and non-affiliated sectors of the population. This was a HAMAS that prevented groups from firing rockets into Israel and enforced the terms of ceasefire agreements with Israel, a far cry from the bastions of armed resistance that had made HAMAS a popular option in the elections. The HAMAS that signed on to the unity government was not in a position of strength, and as the West Bank PA leadership played games with the terms of the agreement, HAMAS struck back by closing the banks across Gaza, a move sure to further alienate it from a people already suffering from the artificial humanitarian crisis of the siege.
Once the Israeli attacks on Gaza began, it became clear that HAMAS was now in a struggle for its own existence, in addition to being the voice of the armed resistance in Gaza. Their popularity has skyrocketed since the invasion began, and they are seen once again as an alternative to the avarice and cowardice of Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership in the West Bank. All of this is in the context of the failure of Arab leaders across the Middle East to take meaningful stands against the occupation. Egypt, after the fall of Morsi, continues to actively aid the Israeli and international community’s enforcement of the siege, and to spread propaganda about the threat Gaza poses to the Egyptian homeland.
Israel has emphatically denied the targeting of civilians, and insists on the humanitarian nature of its operation. This claim, however, comes from the same military and civil organizations that for 2 years denied Gazans access to chickpeas for hummus, bath sponges, and unfertilized chicken eggs (GISHA). Instead, Israel has repeatedly targeted civilians and fundamental civilian infrastructure. This same infrastructure has been made all the more vulnerable by repeated Israeli invasions since 2000 and punitive siege measures that prevent the entry of materials that would allow vital repairs to keep the water flowing and the electricity running.
Many observers fail to understand the importance of this infrastructure. Gaza, as many have pointed out, includes refugee camps which are the most densely populated areas on earth. A lack of electricity is not an inconvenience, it is a calamity. All aspects of clean water provision require uninterrupted electric service, throughout the water chain. This includes the pumps at the wells, the reverse osmosis filters in the desalination plants, the distribution pumps, and even the small electrical pumps in the multistory apartment buildings in the camps, where water and electricity must be present at the same time in order to fill the rooftop tanks. The electricity supplies the refrigerators and the fans in the overcrowded rooms in the camps, often housing 15 people in two 3 by 3 meter rooms, in an area of high humidity and summer temperatures of up to 100 degrees. This same electric supply is all that keeps the lights and incubators on at the hospitals.
This is to say nothing of the sewage systems, again repeatedly targeted in this and all other Israeli bombing campaigns, which create sewage tsunamis, floods, and destruction of the marine ecosystem. This ecosystem sustains the few brave fishermen that return to the seas to face the violence of .50 caliber guns on the Israeli navy ships that patrol the ever decreasing fishing boundaries to augment the protein intake of Gazans and to promote the rich fish-based culinary culture.
Gazans are a resourceful group, by necessity. In the face of the international siege, Gazans moved underground, and created a tunnel economy that by some accounts included as many as 3000 tunnels. These tunnels were regulated by HAMAS, and the goods from the tunnels populated the markets, the convenience stores, and the home goods stores for the entire strip. These tunnels were dug by hand in the sandy soil along the Southern border, using hand-drawn maps. They represented a challenge to the international boundary, and were built in open defiance of the siege. Along with the products smuggled through the tunnels came the expected distortions of Gazan and Egyptian economies. Tunnel owners became relatively wealthy, while the workers were paid less and less as the tunnels became more common. Soon electrical goods flooded the market, from televisions to refrigerators to air conditioners, but what good were these items with no electricity to run them? In the end, this warren of tunnels under the border were ended by the US-supported Sisi regime, and flooded with sewage. The tunnels, for the most part, came to an end, and the largest source of employment disappeared. The economic impacts of the destruction of the tunnels were significant, as more and more Gazans became dependent on international food aid, reaching 80 percent of the population. Population densities in the camps actually increased, as young Gazan families were unable to afford rents on apartments, and moved back in with their extended families. This contributed to an increase in diseases such as scabies and lice, and a resurgence of mumps in the confined spaces of the camps.
Why is HAMAS so reluctant to accept a ceasefire? Because life before the invasion was intolerable. With the ascendence of Sisi to power in Egypt, Gazans are completely dependent on Israel, a hostile occupier, for all goods entering the strip, for electricity, for water, for safe passage. All the while, Israel denies its responsibilities under international law to maintain the wellbeing of the occupied population, and engages in wholesale transfer of populations, another violation of human rights. All the while, the world turns a blind eye to these violations, and Israel becomes ever more blatant in its disregard for common human decency. This is a scenario no country would accept.
It is important to ask at this time, why would HAMAS increase in popularity so dramatically, if, as Israeli and numerous US media pundits would have us believe, that they themselves are to blame for the massive civilian deaths throughout the Gaza Strip since the beginning of Operation “Protective Edge”? Herein lies the contradiction of collective punishment. Gaza’s siege has created unbearable hardship for Gazans throughout the strip, and across class, politics and geography. Gazans that I have met have been harsh critics of the HAMAS regime. Those critiques, by and large, have largely been focused on domestic policy, perceived local mismanagement and the lack of progress in bringing the siege to an end and softening the occupation. HAMAS’s support before the current invasion was far greater in the West Bank, where Palestinians suffer under Israeli colonialism and FATAH collaboration with the Israelis. In the end, this is the explanation for the significant expansion of public support for HAMAS in Gaza. They have come to represent resistance. Resistance in the context of the siege, of periodic invasions, the day to day humiliations and injustices, the lack of clean water, electricity, housing, and medical care, the constant firing on fishermen, farmers and rubble gatherers, is the embodiment for many of sumoud, the spirit of steadfastness that permeates popular Palestinian society. As one Gazan blogger recently posted, “People find it hard to understand, the youth, we hate Gaza, we only want to leave, but we love it and will fight for it. We will not be refugees again, it is our home.”
It is Israel that drops 1-ton bombs into overcrowded housing. It is Israel that attacks UN schools that it acknowledges are shelters. It is Israel that shuts off power and water supplies, and limits the entry of food through the Karm Abu Salem terminal. It is Israel that has killed 1900 Gazans, the overwhelming majority civilians. To blame Gazans or even HAMAS for this is unconscionable, and nonsensical. This was a war of choice, based on false premises. Ostensibly the original justification was the abduction of three teenagers on the West Bank, which all, even Israel, now acknowledges, was not the act of HAMAS. Israel has created and taken advantage of an opportunity to attempt to destroy HAMAS and to try to crush Palestinian resistance through bombs, bullets, and missiles. It will fail, but at an unacceptable human cost. With each Gazan child killed, the pain of international culpability in the siege and the invasion is further exacerbated.
HAMAS’s rocket fire and tunnel strategy, as impotent as it may very well appear, may be the only thing preventing a shift to genuine terrorism. The repeated calls in the US congress to denounce HAMAS activities as human rights violations are intolerable hypocrisy in the face of one of the most advanced militaries on the planet deliberately targeting civilians, their homes, and their infrastructure. Israel does this knowing that unless its siege is lifted, it will be almost impossible to rebuild. HAMAS is not the ideal, neither for Gazans, the West or for Israel. They are, however, a group which carries the support of large sectors of the population, and the democratically-elected leaders of Palestine. This is something Israelis, and the West need to fully comprehend: HAMAS is your partner for peace and for negotiations. Ignore them, or attempt to destroy them at your own peril. It is the very violations of international humanitarian law, the wanton destruction of civilians and UN hospitals, clinics, and schools, and the unwillingness of the world powers to condemn these actions, that makes violent armed resistance, including that aimed at civilian targets, an attractive option to a population that has been deserted by the world. Peace is not a ceasefire. For these reasons, alternatives to violence must be pursued. The most promising of these non-violent forms of resistance is the global grassroots solidarity movement encapsulated in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. BDS is not only practicable, it is also gaining more and more traction in light of the intransigence and complicity of the West in the violations of decency, humanity, and human rights law.