Aftermath of Israeli airstrike in Gaza Aftermath of Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Photo: RafahKid Kid / CC BY-SA 2.0

Kevin Ovenden charts the history of Hamas and Israel’s current attempt to relaunch the War on Terror

The extreme right-wing government of Israel is incapable of generating global public sympathy on its own terms. Its killing of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, and its ministers being on record in favour of mass ethnic cleansing see to that.

So it is claiming instead that it is fighting a new War on Terror. A battle for Western civilisation against barbarism. Israel’s defence minister was clear at the start of this war that it is about levelling Gaza – not only Hamas. That requires dehumanising the Palestinian people.

A second War on Terror – with demands from the Israeli right and its backers in the US to extend it across the Middle East including to Iran – ignores that we are where we are in part because of the first one launched 22 years ago.

We were told the 9/11 attacks were the product of pure evil and barbarism. There was no history accounting for them. Any attempt to understand and thus to adopt a path to peace was met with cries of appeasing terrorism.

The resulting wars killed millions and fuelled the very terrorism they were purportedly meant to end. They also meant that the condition of the Palestinian people worsened in all parts of Palestine. Despite the Oslo Accords in 1993 promising a Palestinian state. Despite the then US and British governments in 2001 promoting a ‘Road Map’ for settling the Palestine-Israel conflict as sugar-coating for Arab regimes acquiescing to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, we are told that Hamas is the new Al Qaeda or ISIS, something that did not exist until it emerged out of the torture cells of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq and then grew during the civil war in Syria fomented by interventions of the great powers.

Hamas is not Al Qaeda or ISIS, and scholars of the Middle East laugh at the Israeli government’s propaganda. Hamas is a product of Palestinian society and its decades of oppression on the one hand, and of the wider politics of the Middle East, scarred by imperialism, on the other. 

Far from being equivalent to the nihilists of ISIS, to whom Western governments turned a blind eye at one point, in order to undermine the Asad regime in Syria and pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, Hamas eliminated attempts by them to organise in Gaza.

ISIS murdered Christians as Christians. There are Christians in Gaza and churches. The Israeli military bombed the oldest one of them, the Church of St Porphyrios in October. 

Hamas – the Islamic Resistance Movement – was formed in 1987 at the start of the First Intifada. That started as a civil, unarmed uprising across the West Bank and Gaza Strip against occupation and the atrocities inflicted by Israel.

As Israel’s violence increased, people fought back. The physical struggle was led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Hamas had emerged out of a branch of the pan-Arab and pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood. It was not part of the Intifada, and the Israeli government initially held it up as a quietist alternative to the militant secular Arab nationalism of the PLO. That had often been the approach of Western colonial powers to Islamic-political movements.

But things were changing in the 1980s in the wake of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the growth of militant Islamic politics, out of the failure of post-independence Arab national states to make good on radical promises. Things changed in Hamas with a turn by its leadership to armed struggle as a rival to the fighters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Despite today pretending that Hamas is identical to ISIS, successive Israeli governments have dealt with it for over three decades, alternating between repeated wars, assassinations and extreme repression, and de facto accommodation. This was a violent equilibrium, as has existed with other Palestinian factions, with a view to divide and rule, punctuated by bombing campaigns that have been horrific but, until now, relatively contained.

Hamas rejected the Oslo process signed up to by Arafat. It was in the company of much wider Palestinian and Arab opinion, including secular socialists who opposed the obscurantism and religious sectarianism of Hamas’s founding charter.

It is the failure of Oslo over the last thirty years which explains the rise of Hamas and the shift towards the desperate tactics we see today, even though for sustained periods Hamas sought to make the process work. It was only after the growing massacres of civilians by fascistic Israeli settler groups in the mid-1990s that Hamas shifted towards attacking civilians as well as military targets.

Forgotten now in so much Western media coverage is that, at that time, the Palestinians as a whole, not only Hamas, were denounced as terrorists when desperate people fought back at an Israeli occupation that continued with all its brutality, despite the promises of a peace settlement and statehood.

There was a nominal Palestinian Authority. Nothing changed on the ground except more Israeli landgrabs and a tightening apartheid regime extending to within Israel. Arafat himself was besieged by Israeli forces in his compound. Although he had signed a peace agreement, a rightwards moving Israeli state considered even him a terrorist, as it had done since the 1960s and as it had regarded every leading Palestinian, from poets to painters to philosophers. His death meant an opening up of the political schisms that his great prestige among all Palestinians had suppressed.

Hamas’s victory in the legislative elections of 2006 shocked the world and revealed the extent of opposition to a Palestinian Authority marked by impotence and corruption. Israel and its allies immediately tried to overturn the election by backing a particularly corrupt and brutal militia in Gaza. Hamas won a brief civil war and came under the total blockade of the last sixteen years.

During that time, the Hamas leadership, while formally holding to a declared aim of an Islamic Palestine, offered Israel a forty-year truce within which there could be peaceful co-existence. Its 2017 revised charter in effect accepted for the foreseeable future a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders next to an Israeli one, not of the whole of Palestine.

Throughout all this, Israel launched four major wars on Gaza and, in between, sought to maintain a situation in which Hamas and 2.3 million Palestinians were caged in the Strip, the PA reduced to being a puppet on the West Bank, and ongoing settlements and ethnic cleansing destroyed any notion of a two-state solution.

The most dangerous moments for Israeli policy have been three-fold. First, when advances have been made towards establishing a national-unity administration between Gaza and the West Bank. Second, when there have been, as in 2021, widespread upheavals involving Palestinians in the territories and within Israel itself. These were often youth-led and beyond all of the political factions.

Third, and above all, when the ongoing struggle of the Palestinian people has meshed with the discontents in the wider region leading to the kind of revolts we saw with the Arab Spring of 2011. 

It is at those moments that Israel has deployed the most ferocious repression and efforts to splinter Palestinian and Arab unity. 

It is not as simple as saying it has consistently built up Hamas as a counterweight to the PA. It has also done the opposite. It has also encouraged Qatar as an alternative to Iranian patronage in Gaza and Hamas as a foil to Iranian influence in Syria. It is not true that Hamas and Netanyahu are in some secret league, even though Israel has been adept at exploiting Palestinian division.

This is not a simplistic story, but one in which are entwined the struggle of the Palestinians, the clash of successive political strands in the Middle East for 75 years, the expansionist nature of Israel, running up against even modest attempts at a settlement, and the cynical interests of the great and local powers. 

The breakout by Hamas fighters from Gaza, the humiliation of the Israeli military enforcing the siege, and the atrocities committed against civilians on 7 October were shocking because they shattered what had become a working assumption. But they should not have been surprising.

For years now, many voices, perhaps especially in Israel, have warned that you could not without consequence keep 2.3 million people in a cage. That you could not continue with periodic wars followed by a return to supposed normality. And that all of this could go on and on, along with the rampaging settler violence in the West Bank and the daily eviction of Palestinians from their homes. 

It was an illusion that barbarity could be inflicted daily on the oppressed and that a portion of it would not be weaponised by some among them and hurled back, even in ways that killed innocent people.

That illusion is now shattered. So must be the idea that declaring some new, crazed war on terror will bring us any step closer to peace. Hamas is not capable of answering the fundamental reasons for this conflict or of bringing liberation. 

But it is a product of those reasons and of the wider refusal of the Palestinian people to accept erasure from history. That’s why millions of Palestinians and others across the Middle East who oppose Hamas’s ideology and methods nevertheless see how this is about Palestine.  It is why the crisis-wracked government in Israel and its allies from Washington, through London to Kiev, pretend this is not about Palestine but about ‘terror’.

The masses in the Middle East and most of public opinion globally know that it is Palestine that is the issue.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

Tagged under: