Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Wafa (Q2915969) / Wikimedia Commons

Violent resistance is the result of violent oppression, so socialists do not blame the oppressed for situations created and sustained by the oppressor, argues Chris Bambery

What attitude should we take towards the violence of Hamas and other, similar groups? For those of us who defend Palestinian rights, we instantly face demands that we must join attacks on their hostage taking or their killing of civilians, in most cases from people who do not criticise Israeli bombings of civilians, hospitals, places of worship and so on.

These defenders of Israeli collective reprisals to Hamas attacks on southern Israel – including the Labour front bench – take a position of uncritical and unconditional support. Nothing Israel does merits criticism.

When it comes to Hamas, we, as revolutionary Marxists, share neither their ideology, strategy nor tactics. We seek a democratic, secular, single Palestine; we do not believe this can be achieved through killing innocent civilians; nor do we believe that the Palestinian population imprisoned in Gaza and the West Bank (where their guards include the American and Israeli-backed security apparatus of the Palestinian Authority) can defeat an Israeli state armed to the teeth with the most sophisticated weaponry, up to nuclear weapons. Rather, since 1948, we have argued that the key to freeing Palestine lies with the Arab masses in Cairo, Riyadh and Damascus.

But we do defend the right of the imprisoned Palestinian people to fight back, pointing out that, as ever, occupation will create resistance, including armed resistance. The history of Europe’s colonies or of the American-backed war on terror shows that, as does the resistance movements which grew during the Second World War against German and Japanese occupation.

Accordingly, when terrible events occur, we do not join in the chorus attacking groups formed among the oppressed, but we blame the forces of oppression which created the conditions in which resistance grew. So, after 9/11, we pointed out this was the bitter fruit of US imperialism’s bloody record in the Arab and Islamic world.

We did not applaud flying planes into the World Trade Centre, but did point out it was an inevitable reaction to things like the First Gulf War, and Washington’s uncritical and unconditional support for Israel. In other words, our position is one of critical but unconditional support for the resistance of the Palestinian and other oppressed people.

Hamas only exists because of the brutal reality of occupation and the dispossession of Palestinians on a mass scale (and in response to the corruption and collaborationism of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority). When Netanyahu, Biden and Sunak defend the right of Israel to resist – which then immediately equates to support for the mass bombing of civilians in Gaza, their denial of electricity, water, medicine and food – our response is to say, ‘you created Hamas, this is your bitter legacy come home to roost.’

Northern Ireland parallel

Can I illustrate my point further by looking at the position those of us who stand in the revolutionary Marxist tradition took to the Northern Ireland Troubles? The common narrative we faced from politicians (including the Labour leadership), the media and academics was that the British army was ‘piggy in the middle’, trying to keep warring Catholics and Protestants apart. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (formed in 1970 after British troops arrived) was simply a terrorist murder gang with little support, which must be denounced and repressed.

That narrative blamed the victims of a sectarian, repressive Tory state, run by a single party, the Unionists, and controlled by an armed police force recruited from Unionist supporters, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), for their own oppression: the discrimination, economic deprivation and denial of basic civil rights that blighted their lives. All of this was, in fact, the product of a state carved out by the British in 1921, when they partitioned Ireland (and would do so in India at even greater human cost).

In 1968 and 1969, mainly Catholic sections of the population had taken to the streets demanding elementary civil rights within the Northern Ireland state. These included scrapping extra votes for business people, ending gerrymandering, which meant that the Unionists ran Derry Council, despite a majority of voters there being nationalists, and fair allocation of council housing. Few raised the demand for an end to partition.

The Unionist government and the state forces re-acted as they always had, with the crudest repression. Matters reached a climax in August 1969 with all-out attacks on Catholic areas such as the Bogside in Derry and the Falls Road in Belfast. In the latter case, Orange mobs burnt out 1500 people from their homes in Bombay Street.

Eight people were killed, and hundreds wounded, five of them Catholic civilians shot by police (one a British soldier on leave). The gun was re-introduced to Northern Ireland not by the IRA but by the RUC.

The failure of the RUC to contain what became an insurrection in Derry led the Unionist government to ask for British troops to be sent in to re-impose order. That is what the Labour government of Harold Wilson in London agreed to. This is important. The British army was not sent to ‘keep the peace’, as was later claimed, but to re-impose order; in other words, to prop up the Unionist regime.

The Wilson government did want reforms to what they saw as an outdated, repressive and sectarian state, which no longer suited their needs. Yet, faced with a revolt by the Catholic population, they could not contemplate the dismantling of those same state structures, fearing that this would undermine the very existence of Northern Ireland and the credibility of the British state.

By the summer of 1971, it was clear to the Catholic population that the main function of the troops was to aid the Unionist state against themselves: above all with internment in the summer of 1971. The shooting down of fourteen anti-internment demonstrators in Derry in January 1972 created a wave of anger across all of Ireland, with protesters burning down the British embassy in Dublin.

It was both the failure of reform and this repression which gave birth to the Provisional IRA. The old IRA was an insignificant force up until the assault the Falls Road in August 1969. Local people were bitter that it had not protected their homes and lives. As a consequence, the Provisional IRA was born, and was committed to armed struggle to create a united Ireland. Their argument that the partitionist state was the source of the oppression of the nationalist population fitted with the reality now facing people.

As in Palestine today, there was the David and Goliath element as ill-armed IRA volunteers attempted to take on one of the most sophisticated security apparatuses in the world. Of course, things started to go wrong as the Provos began a campaign of car bombing in both Northern Ireland and Britain.

A litany of horrifying bomb attacks occurred. Each time, we were asked to join in the official narrative denouncing the IRA for being murderers and terrorists. Instead, we pointed out endlessly that British imperialism had created this problem and its bloody consequences. The British army were buttressing the existence of the Northern Ireland state; not keeping the peace. They needed to go with immediate effect.

As with Ireland, so with Palestine

We were not simply cheerleaders for the IRA. We did not justify horrific events such as the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, or the 1987 bombing of the Enniskillen Remembrance Day service. But we added to our rejection of such actions that the blame ultimately lay with the British government.

Our strategy for a united Irish Workers Republic did not lie through guerrilla war – we argued that isolated within the six counties of Northern Ireland, the IRA could not defeat the Brits – it lay in mobilising the power of the growing working class in the Irish Republic.

But in 1981, when ten Republicans died on hunger strike demanding political status, the choice was between supporting them or Margaret Thatcher; the champion of British imperialism and Toryism versus young men who had been drawn into an armed struggle which had grown out of occupation and repression. There could only be one answer for any Marxist worth their salt.

So, in Palestine today, we do not need to defend Hamas taking hostages or killing civilians, but we blame such actions on the long record of Israeli occupation and repression. Put simply, such actions will result if you trap two million people in an open-air prison in Gaza, bomb them regularly, and ensure they live under a blockade which creates a dire situation, whereby the United Nations Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that:

‘As of July 2022, the food insecurity rate in Gaza was 65 per cent, up from 62.2 per cent in June 2021, and the poverty rate stood at 65 per cent, up from 59 per cent in 2021.’

If you can look across the heavily fortified border and see Israeli settlers sitting on a hill holding a barbecue while they applaud war planes bombing your homes, and you can recall that in your great grandparents’ time that was your family’s land, how would you react?

We don’t attack the victims of oppression. We criticise the oppressors who create such a dreadful situation that ordinary people turn to armed struggle.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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