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Like Israel, Hamas Isn’t Offering Palestinians a ‘Day After’ – Just More War and Suffering

Armed struggle has failed to stop the ongoing theft of Palestinian land. The destruction and death wrought by Israel in the Gaza Strip calls for a different kind of struggle – one that takes into account its people's right to live

In Israel, the slogan "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" is perceived as a call for the eradication of the Jewish state. As is the way of slogans, it doesn't specify what will happen to Jews in the newly freed Palestine.

If we asked every protester in the United States and Europe what they mean when they shout these words, we'd probably get a variety of answers, ranging from "the Jews should return to their countries of origin" to "a secular and democratic Palestinian state will be established (under the leadership of the Islamic Movement?), where people of all three faiths live in equality."

One thing that is certain is that the shock from seeing the carnage and destruction wreaked by Israel in Gaza has led many young people around the world to view Israel as a settler-colonial entity, and thus an illegitimate one. They see Hamas' attacks on October 7 – its targeting of the military, for sure, but also the massacre of civilians – as part of any people's legitimate struggle against a colonialist entity.

A vast chasm lies between those who see October 7 as the starting point or as evidence of Palestinians' innate murderous tendencies and those who are aware and understand that the main explanation for what happened lies in Israel's occupation and oppression.

There's also no common ground between those who believe that the atrocities committed by Hamas and its accomplices justify the horrific mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians and the starvation of two million people, and those who acknowledge the fact that the only solution is political and diplomatic – a recognition of the Palestinians' rights as a people. Another significant gap stretches between those who automatically approve of any use of arms and any killing in the name of liberation and those who disagree, while they understand the context.

But it's exactly those protesters calling out "From the river to the sea" and adopting the historiographic analysis behind the phrase who must consider the strategy of armed struggle by Hamas and other Palestinian groups in relation to its success or failure in stopping the dispossession of Palestinians and the looting of their land.

The question answers itself. Armed struggle has been and continues to be unsuccessful in impeding the Israeli project of dispossession and colonization. The best starting point for examining Israel's policy is the early 1990s, a time when the Soviet Bloc – then the main supporter of the Palestinians' demand for a state – had disintegrated; when political (but not economic) Apartheid approached its end in South Africa; and after the first intifada led to the multilateral Madrid Conference, with the participation of a Palestinian delegation that was formally not subject to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Amid the atmosphere of change brought by the end of the Cold War, the Palestinians and international community, as well as many Israeli peace advocates, expected that the settlements would be dismantled, that Israel would withdraw from all the territory it occupied in 1967 and that a Palestinian state would be established in an area comprising 22 percent of British Mandatory Palestine.

The multilateral talks in Madrid led to bilateral negotiations between Israel and the PLO in Oslo. The Palestinians' expectations remained the same: that Israel end its military occupation begun in 1967, that Israel respect their right to self-determination and that the parties continue the historic process of reconciliation between the two peoples.

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But Israel had no intention to stop building new settlements, let alone dismantle them. And, as has been proven by statements and speeches by its leaders (most of all former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres) and by the actions of every Israeli government, it also didn't consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Moreover, Israel further entrenched and expanded its settlements while cynically taking advantage of the PLO's willingness to postpone any discussion about their future to the of negotiations over permanent status. Using a mixture of bureaucratic/military regulations such as movement restrictions, bypass roads, zones closed to Palestinian development, checkpoints and closures, Israel cultivated and accelerated the fragmentation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, shredding it into isolated enclaves.

So, quite justifiably, supporters of the Hamas attacks on October 7 and armed struggle in general emphasize that the strategy of negotiation and diplomacy conducted by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority – as well as unarmed popular struggle – have failed and must be abandoned. But if failure to stop the dispossession and land grab is the correct criterion for choosing a tactic or strategy, the same must apply to armed struggle. Why, then, should it receive a sweeping exemption from the judgment of history?

After Hamas was formed in 1988, its military wing focused on armed attacks within the Palestinian territories Israel occupied in 1967. This deviation (shared later or simultaneously by other groups too) from the initial consciously unarmed character of the first intifada.

To this day, however, the impression that the uprising left on the world – and on the Palestinian collective memory – is that of a popular, democratic struggle seeking the concrete goal of Palestinian independence. This objective seemed within reach, as evidenced by the preparation of educational, economic and cultural foundations for the future state.

Hamas started to attack civilians within Israel after Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein massacred Muslim worshipers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in February 1994. What was initially perceived as revenge attacks turned into a deliberate policy to sabotage Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's negotiation tactics and diplomacy.

Hamas boasts that with its suicide attacks in the 1990s, it managed to stop the Oslo process, which it considers traitorous. This bragging plays into the hands of Israel, which had no intention of allowing the negotiations to result in two states.

The militarization of the second intifada wasn't caused only by Hamas, but the group continued to upgraded its armed capabilities. It deployed suicide bombers, killed soldiers and settlers in the Gaza Strip and launched rockets from there. Hamas attributes Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 to the group's armed struggle. From a political perspective, however, Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza allowed it to further develop the reality it had designed for 15 years: severing Gaza's population from the West Bank's.

In the West Bank, the suicide attacks let Israel build the separation barrier that stole tens of thousands of dunams from the Palestinians. Those claiming that Israel anyway intended to grab more and more land are correct.

But is the purpose of the Palestinians' armed struggle to make it easier for Israel to loot land and expedite that process? Within the Palestinian internal discourse, it is said the second intifada (whose armed nature kept it from becoming a general popular uprising) was a disaster. But this conclusion is somewhat played down, almost hushed out of respect for the dead, the many Palestinian prisoners held in Israel and their families.

"Lone wolf" attacks on Israelis that were committed in settlements and are deemed justified, even heroic, by Palestinians haven't deterred settlers, but on the contrary: they encouraged and expedited the land theft. To take one example, on July 21, 2017, a resident of the Palestinian village of Khobar, northwest of Ramallah, stabbed and killed three members of an Israeli family from the settlement of Neve Tzuf, established on land seized from the villages of Nabi Saleh and Deir Nidham.

Since the attack, Neve Tzuf has accelerated its takeover of more Palestinian land in the area. With the help of the Israeli military and authorities, it has established new outposts and blocked Palestinian access to the road that connects the area to neighboring villages south of it. The result is the same after any attack, whether committed with a knife or a gun and whether organized by a group or a lone individual.

People are correct when they say that even before October 7, organized, state-supported settlers' violence had led to the expulsion of Palestinian farming and herding communities from their land and to the seizure by ostensibly illicit outposts of hundreds of thousands of dunams in the West Bank.

Reports by Israeli rights organizations and independently researched articles detailing the process have consistently been published by ths paper over the past 30 years.

The land seizure has only accelerated since October 7 and the beginning of the war in Gaza. The only ones trying to stop it are groups of volunteers who accompany the Palestinian farmers and shepherds to their lands.

Destruction In Palestinian village, Wadi as-Seeq, whose residents were expelled during the war in Gaza

Destruction In Palestinian village, Wadi as-Seeq, whose residents were expelled during the war in GazaCredit: Tomer Applebaum

Most of them are Israeli, but some volunteers come from abroad (including many Jews) and there are the occasional Palestinian participants. The Palestinian organizations that advocate armed struggle, led by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, rarely join public resistance actions against settlers' and state's takeover of the land and make it clear it is not their preferred strategy.

The organizations' armed members in the refugee camps in Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus are willing to sacrifice their lives when they choose to take arms against Israeli tanks and drones. There's no question that these youths feel they have no future anyway. Each of these refugee camps has become a mini-Gaza in terms of the devastation Israel leaves behind after each of its invasions.

Unarmed civilians are killed in each of them. How is it that all the courage and strength demonstrated by armed young Palestinians against a sophisticated military, all the money invested in their weapons and the endurance of residents of neighborhoods that are destroyed time and again aren't channeled to a popular initiative to protect Palestinian land and the dozens of communities that are subject to constant terrorism by settlers? If the problem is indeed colonial dispossession and settlement, why don't Palestinians' efforts focus on its most prominent manifestations?

Those who favor armed struggle say its success shouldn't be measured by points, as in a boxing ring. They also say that ever since October 7, Hamas has shattered Israelis' sense of normality, dealt it defeat after defeat, exposed its government's indifference toward the fate of the hostages held in Gaza, further proved how pathetic Israel's politicians are and widened the country's internal social rift.

Hamas, which has proven itself to be an army that has a political wing and not the other way around, obviously didn't plan to have those achievements. But it did plan everything else very meticulously. It concentrated its efforts on augmenting its military strength, digging the sophisticated labyrinth of tunnels that continues to surprise and confuse the Israeli military and its intelligence, obtaining and producing arms and ammunition and training thousands of young men who are ready to die in combat.

All this is true. But as they say in Arabic, wa ba'adein? What next?

First, what's next is what's happening now: The death and grief in Gaza, whose residents have had nowhere to hide from Israeli bombardments, which do not distinguish between an armed man and his son, between a Hamas-run Gaza Health ministry official and a Hamas military commander.

The community we knew in the Gaza Strip has been wiped out. The dead have already been relieved of it all. The tens of thousands of wounded, disabled and children who are the most affected by starvation and malnutrition face many years of physical and mental rehabilitation, and it's hard to say how successful that will be.

The rich, those with connections and desirable professions, have already left Gaza, leaving behind their elderly parents and other less fortunate family members. Many more are expected to emigrate when the Rafah border terminal reopens. Gangs that take advantage of the calamity that has befallen Gazans have emerged. Alongside expressions of communal solidarity, the social fabric is showing signs that it is starting to disintegrate. It will take decades to rebuild the Gaza Strip. Do the achievements that Hamas supporters outside of Gaza admire outweigh this terrible suffering?

Open gallery view


The fire that broke out in the tent encampment in Rafah after the Israeli airstrike on Sunday.Credit: Reuters

This destruction and carnage are indeed a decision that Israel made. Israel could have reacted differently to October 7. It could have prevented the attack not only from a military and intelligence perspective, but from a political one. Israel could have chosen to respect international resolutions concerning the Palestinians' right to self-determination. Now we see, however, that Hamas has prepared itself for a prolonged military campaign, ignoring Israel's proven drive and ability to destroy, without considering the fate and wishes of the Palestinians.

It's not possible to debate the distant future . Will this Hamas strategy lead to the desired result expressed in the slogan "From the river to the sea" in 20, 50 or 200 years? We don't know. But we arent talking about clinical labratory procedures. The two million tortured, bombed and starved Gazans aren't mere extras in a forward-looking historiographical analysis. The right to armed struggle isn't more sacred than their lives.

Many Palestinians have indeed said, and continue to say, that death is better than life under oppression and occupation. But the fact is that every day, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank prove that actually, they want to live very much.

When the means of the liberation struggle may lead to mass slaughter and the erasure of the oppressed people – as is happening now – it is accurate to blame the oppressor, but its not enough. It is a must – and it is possible – to come up with and develop means of struggle that take into consideration one's own people's right to live.

Amira Hass is an Israeli journalist and author, mostly known for her columns in the daily newspaper Haaretz covering Palestinian affairs in Gaza and the West Bank, where she has lived for almost thirty years (Wikipedia). Follow.

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