Palestinian Hamas supporters march in support of the people of the Gaza Strip in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 2012. Photo by AP Palestinian Hamas supporters march in support of the people of the Gaza Strip in the West Bank city of Ramallah, November 2012. Photo by AP

Sean Ledwith looks at the origins of Hamas and its role as an expression of popular Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation

There have been two particularly notable aspects of Israel’s pitiless attack on Gaza this summer. One has been the ferocity with which the Israeli Defence Force has slaughtered innocent civilians in what it calls with grim irony,Operation Protective Edge. This flagrant contempt for accepted military guidelines of proportionality is the source of the appalling rate of fatalities on the Palestinian side. The statistical analysis of this savagery almost defies belief. Since beginning its offensive in early July, the IDF has wiped out 50 entire Gazan families, killing children at the rate of one an hour, with the overall death toll upwards of 2000 in just over  one month.

Despite their flimsy protestations to the contrary, the Israeli army intentionally sets out to achieve this level of devastation in accordance with their military doctrine of dahiya. This is the conscious use of disproportionate force against civilian areas they devised during the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. This is the rawest example imaginable of state terrorism.

However, the other remarkable feature of the current situation is the utter failure of the IDF’s deployment of this inhuman tactic to dent the indomitable courage of the Gazan people or their allegiance to Hamas, the principal political expression of their quest for freedom and justice. In fact, popular support for the organisation has intensified throughout this latest phase of the Palestinian fight for statehood. The editor of a Gazan newspaper has noted the correlation between the savagery of the Israeli offensive and the depth of support for Hamas

In the past, we used to put the responsibility of the siege that we are suffering from on Hamas due to their policies in governing Gaza… But during the Israeli aggression, we think highly of Hamas and I feel they start to get more popular among the population.

Hamas’ resilience in the face of an onslaught waged by the fifth most powerful army in the world (which is funded by the world’s most powerful economy) has rightly earned it the solidarity and respect of anti-imperialists around the world. The unprecedented mobilisation of global support for the Palestinian cause we are now witnessing,however,also means this is a crucial opportunity to examine whether Hamas has a long-term political strategy that can liberate Palestine.

Before Hamas

To assess this question, it is useful to look at the evolution of Fatah, Hamas’ predecessor and rival for the support of the Palestinians. For the first few decades following the Nakba of 1948, the Palestine Liberation Organisation played the leading role in the attempt to liberate the territory stolen by the Zionist land grab that had been condoned by the great powers. The PLO was formally established in 1964, modelled on the secular and nationalist movements that became the norm in the postwar era in the underdeveloped world. The initial leadership was middle class and liberal in its political perspective. The inadequacy of its reliance on diplomatic lobbying among the Arab states became increasingly apparent throughout the 1960s as the US was stepping up its economic and military sponsorship of the Zionist state. A more militant current developed within the organisation, inspired by the guerilla activities of Che Guevara, the Vietcong and others. This group, known as Fatah and centred on the charismatic figure of Yasir Arafat, became even more appealing after the decisive defeat of the Arab states by Israel in the 1967 war and the consequent expansion of the Zionist state to include the rest of historic Palestine.

Fatah deployed a more direct strategy based on conducting attacks within Israeli territory and acquired considerable prestige as a result. By 1969, Arafat and his followers had supplanted the original leadership and inspired new hope among the Palestinian diaspora. Unfortunately, despite the courage of their combatants, there was a political flaw in the Fatah strategy, which entailed this new hope, would not be fulfilled. Like his predecessors, Arafat adopted an uncritical attitude to the governments of the Arab states that hosted the refugees around the Middle East. The elites in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere were happy to pay lip service to the liberation of Palestine but their rhetoric was worthless. As they were increasingly tied into the US-dominated global economy, these countries were also co-opted into de facto acceptance of the Israeli state. The leftward drift of Fatah also troubled the ruling class in each of these regimes. The Palestinian diaspora instinctively empathised with the oppressed of the region, rather than parasitical elites who were supposedly their allies. Arafat’s attempt to contain the radicalisation of the PLO did not prevent Arab elites in Jordan and Syria using military force in the 1970s to suppress the growing links between their own working classes and the Palestinian movement. 

The climax of Arafat’s attempt to perform a balancing act between the Arab states and the radicalised elements of Fatah came in 1982 when the PLO force was forcibly expelled from Lebanon by the IDF, with the connivance of the Arab states. With its leadership exiled thousands of miles away in Tunis, it appeared to the Palestinian movement that its aspirations to statehood had been dealt a fatal blow. No doubt the Zionist state at that point probably believed it could consign the Palestinian opposition to the history books.

However, five years later, both the PLO and the Israeli state were both astonished to witness a fresh wave of resistance; this time delivered not by guerrillas smuggled in to the Occupied Territories from neighbouring states but by the Palestinians who had endured decades of occupation since the Nakba. The Intifada of 1987 represented not just the failure of the IDF to crush Palestinian resistance but also a loss of faith among the dispossessed with Fatah’s reliance on corrupt Arab elites. Just as Arafat’s movement had represented a wave of radicalisation that swept aside inadequate leadership in the 1960s, the PLO in turn found itself supplanted among the rioting youth of Gaza and the West Bank by a new force-Hamas.

The First Intifada

When the Israelis took control of Sinai in 1967, the inhabitants of Gaza had spent the previous decades in the political orbit of Egypt. The dominant opposition in that country to despotic cronyism had been the Muslim Brotherhood. Although officially banned the organisation was, in reality, tolerated by the ruling class as long as it restricted its activity to welfare support and avoided explicit attempts to undermine the regime. Despite persistent crackdowns by the Egyptian state the MB flourished among the subaltern classes due to its espousal of dawah, the Islamic doctrine of the importance of charity and assistance to the needy.

This practice enabled the Brotherhood to cultivate a political base without openly challenging the Egyptian regime. In a country devoid of any state-funded welfare network, the MB’s emphasis on poverty relief earned it the appreciation of the powerless and implicitly created the possibility of transmitting social influence onto the political stage at a point in the future. A version of this approach had been initiated in Palestine through the creation of the Al-Mujamma al-Islam Centre in 1973. As the founders of this institution appeared to reject the secular nationalism of the PLO, the Israeli secret service, Mossad, decided it was worthy of financial and political support. The dominant political party in Israel in the 1970s, Likud, agreed and in 1978 the Mujamma was formally recognised and licensed by Tel Aviv. Mossad and Likud looked on with smug satisfaction as clashes developed between supporters of the PLO and the Mujamma in that period.

Israeli blowback

The outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, however, swiftly wiped the smug smile off the face of the Israeli state. Since its inception in 1973, the Mujamma had permeated the social infrastructure of the Occupied Territories and acquired the respect and appreciation of the downtrodden population. Its young supporters had also been radicalised by the iron heel of Israeli occupation; hence when the uprising exploded, the organisation was ready to relaunch itself as the Islamic Resistance Movement-Hamas. The leaders of the new movement shrewdly perceived the political bankruptcy of Arafat following the Lebanon debacle had created a space for them to assume hegemony of the Palestinian resistance.  The Israelis found themselves confronted by an opponent of their own making,in a fashion not dissimilar to how the US was stunned by the impact of the Intifada transformed the dynamic of the Israel-Palestine conflict and forced the Zionist state, at the behest of its primary sponsor in Washington, to adopt a new strategy to contain the upsurge of anti-imperialist sentiment across the region. The militants of Gaza and the West Bank had also outflanked Arafat, so when the Israelis invited him to a new round of negotiations he was grateful for the opportunity to try to restore his influence. The resulting Oslo peace process of the early 1990s was primarily designed by Israel, the US and Fatah to divert the radicalisation of the Intifada into a blind alley of diplomatic manoeuvring. In return for formal abandonment of armed struggle and official recognition of the Zionist state, Arafat was awarded authority over the Palestinian Authority, a body that would supposedly oversee Gaza and the West Bank with reduced Israeli control. The deal enabled Arafat to pose as an international statesman on the White House lawn but its limitations soon became apparent.

The Oslo Con

The Israelis’ key objective in the deal was to co-opt Fatah into de-escalating  the Intifada, as they shrewdly perceived Arafat would be a useful tool for this purpose. Despite the promise of IDF withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, they only evacuated 3% of the area and used the subsequent pacification to actually build an additional 62 military and settler roads, making a mockery of the prospect of a viable Palestinian state. Radical journalist, Alexander Cockburn summed up how Arafat had been conned by his Israeli counterparts:

Thirteen thousand Palestinian political prisoners unmentioned, still in chains, land stolen, hundreds of thousands expelled and in exile, and a deal forged only because Rabin and Peres, confronted by a new generation of Palestinian leadership in the territories—not just Hamas—plucked Arafat and his P.L.O. from the grave and guided his hand through the articles of surrender, to which supposed advocates of Palestinian rights have been, both here and in Israel, a party.

Hamas shared this critique of the capitulation of 1993 and as the deal unravelled throughout the next few years their popularity increased among the Palestinians, as Fatah became perceived as Israeli quislings. Illegal Zionist settlements of Gaza and the West Bank increased by 50% and by 2000 the deal had been utterly discredited in the eyes of Hamas and its burgeoning number of supporters. The visit of Ariel Sharon, the infamous Israeli war criminal of the 1982 war, to the holy Islamic shrine of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was the last straw. The Second Intifada, which erupted in 2000, marked the death knell of the Oslo deal and also the point at which Hamas began to outflank Fatah as the most credible voice of the dispossessed. The latter had become associated with corruption and cronyism in its brief time in control of the PA, while Hamas was able to bask in the glow of its principled opposition to the 1993 deal. As in other parts of the region, the failure of secular nationalism and the organised left to provide a viable vehicle for the aspirations of the oppressed had left a political vacuum that would be filled by Islamism.


The spirit of militant resistance associated with the second uprising was translated into electoral success for Hamas when they won 60% of the seats in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

The West’s bluster about democracy in the Middle East was soon exposed as a fraud by the refusal of the US and the EU to recognise the result, and to impose a blockade and sanctions on the new Hamas administration. The imperialist sponsors   of Israel and its stooges in Fatah took their duplicity a step further the next year by backing a staged civil war in Gaza between the latter and Hamas. The attempt to de-legitimate Hamas was a failure as its solid support ensured Fatah was driven out. Since acceding to power, however, Hamas has not fully resolved the contradictions of authority that blighted the rule of Fatah.  The latter remains the hegemonic force on the West Bank and,although Hamas enjoys the solidarity of the Palestinians there,the organisation lacks a policy framework which addresses the specific concerns of that territory.

Hamas has also reproduced the dependency on Arab rulers pursued by Fatah.  As an ideological offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas welcomed the ascent to power of Mohammed Morsi in Cairo in 2012. The MB government led by Morsi provided a valuable diplomatic ally for its besieged neighbour in Gaza. Inevitably, the fall of Morsi last year has reversed that relief of pressure. In its place, the military regime of General Sisi has sealed shut the critical Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, symbolically expressing his tacit approval of the Israeli assault on Hamas. Many Gazans have blamed the consequent fuel shortages of the loss of aid from Cairo on Hamas.  Just like Fatah in the 1970s, Hamas have discovered the capricious nature of support from other parts of the Arab world.

Hamas’ other key political weakness is its implicit acceptance of a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict. The failure of Clinton’s Oslo initiative in the 1990s and, in this century, George Bush Jnr’s ‘road map’ to secure such an outcome is evidence that the Israelis are not interested in any deal that gives significant power to a putative Palestinian state. Hamas’ ambiguity on a solution to the fundamental question means it risks sharing the fate of Arafat and being supplanted by a more radical alternative.   The one-state solution has now become the only viable answer to the deep-rooted regional conflict. Despite the heroism of its combatants, Hamas’ de facto consent to the Israeli apartheid state means it ultimately does not offer a long-term solution for the Palestinians.

In the immediate crisis confronting the region, however,the duty of supporters of Gaza around the world is to offer total support for the Palestinians as they seek to defend themselves from the hammer blows of the Zionist war machine. The specious accusation that such support  automatically carries with it the poison of anti-Semitism has been eloquently countered by numerous sources, including the 6000 courageous Israelis who are are prepared to demonstrate against Operation Protective Edge.  

Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, has also addressed this calumny manufactured by the apologists of mass infanticide:

We are not fanatics, we are not fundamentalists. We are not actually fighting the Jews because they are Jews per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers…I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians and the Arabs and non-Arabs….However, I do not coexist with the occupiers.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters