“I didn’t see that coming!” has been the repeated refrain of the last two years. Political shocks and tremors have taken place in several countries, challenging expectations and surprising those who have taken their eye off the ball. Just now, another one seems to have happened that affects the Israel/Palestine conflict, and many activists who have following developments there much more closely than me are unsure how to react.
The most right-wing government in Israel’s history, whose tired mantras that it has no one to negotiate with, that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, that it is constantly faced with existential threats, has just suffered a body blow. But no one died or was injured. There was no rocket or suicide bomb. The weapon on this occasion was a piece of paper. A piece of paper that undercuts Israel’s position and holds out the promise of a more united struggle by the Palestinian people that the Israeli Government continues to oppress. For many years, the fiercely expressed internal political divisions between Palestinian parties and factions have suited Israel well, and historically it had a part in fomenting them. But perhaps the tables are starting to turn.
Israeli leaders always claim that their citizens are in fear of military attack, but they are actually much more frightened of peace than war. There real existential fear is having to account for and face up to the injustices they perpetuate. The most hopeful time for a breakthrough for the Palestinians in recent decades was towards the end of the 1980s at the time of the first intifada – an uprising by all of Palestinian society from the ground up – which engendered a build-up of sympathy and support around the world for a people suffering under a brutal and long-running military occupation. The exiled Palestinian leadership, based in Tunis, played a role, but in many ways this was a locally organised popular grassroots rebellion on the political principles the PLO had helped to establish.
The Israeli Defence Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, famously ordered his soldiers to “break their bones”. His internal opponents on the more explicitly right-wing of the Zionist movement, called Palestinians “cockroaches” who needed to be crushed. But the deep Israeli state had softer, more cynical methods too to disrupt the Palestinian resistance. As the PLO – a secular resistance movement with Muslims and Christians and less religious people in its leadership – grew in stature, despite operating from exile, the Israelis began covertly funding an Islamic religious organisation, led by Sheikh Yassin, to help establish a religious counterweight to the PLO; one that would undermine its ability to represent the vast bulk of Palestinians. Yassin’s organisation eventually developed into Hamas.
It was a risky strategy for the Israelis. As the PLO became more trapped in talks about talks about talks, that were going nowhere, but not wanting to miss out on gaining even a minimal and fragile autonomy within the Occupied Territories, Hamas became something of a Frankenstein’s monster for Israel, developing an increasingly militant and fundamentalist politics. It adopted a charter that did not distinguish between people and governments, or between Jews in the world and Israeli policy makers and military representatives. Indeed the charter, drawn up by one person within Hamas, borrowed from the infamous antisemitic document, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
As Hamas incorporated terrorism into its methods, the lives of ordinary Israelis and also Jews outside of Israel suddenly became more perilous. But for increasingly desperate Palestinians on the street, with the PLO’s main faction, Fatah, laying emphasis on diplomatic manoeuvres, Hamas’ militant stance became attractive. There was a sense they were actually fighting back, even if Israel greatly exaggerated the threat from their rockets. Israel’s establishment basked in the continued divide, knowing also that Hamas’ conception of the struggle as a religious struggle could not bring political successes against it, and it would be easy to cast it as antisemitic rather than simply anti-Zionist.
There have been several unsuccessful attempts over the years to broker some kind of pact between Hamas and Fatah, but until now there has been a gulf between the aspiration of Hamas to liberate all of Palestine in the name of Islam and the de facto acceptance of two states by Fatah in the name of realpolitik.
Now that Hamas has abandoned its charter, distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, described the struggle as an anti-colonial struggle against Zionism, not a fight against Jews, and now that it has spoken of an aspiration to create an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West bank on the pre-67 boundaries including East Jerusalem, and the return of refugees, both it and Fatah are increasingly working on the same page. Both movements remain strongly committed to the welfare of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The current hunger strike by more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israel, led by Marwan Barghouti, who maintains the traditional secular Fatah philosophy, is helping also to prepare the ground for greater political unity.
Hamas’ move will surely be regarded as constructive by many states around the world, and will increasingly isolate Israel’s apartheid rulers. The Israeli government, which thought that with Trump at the helm, it could get away with more land-grabbing and establishing more new settlements, now has to justify once again on the world stage why it should maintain the occupation, let alone build more settlements. That is a significant gain for the Palestinians. But it is also uncomfortable for large sections of the anti-Zionist Left in the world who are now wedded purely to a single state solution.
I suspect a number of them will denounce Hamas for “selling out”. I’m more relaxed about it. It is the principles of self-determination, equality, democracy, not the number of states, that counts for me. These principles can be fought for in either a one or two states arrangement. I would prefer one state, but a fight for two secular democratic states, to be states for all their citizens on an equal basis, instead of one state, would liberate a large chunk of Palestine, would challenge Israel as an ethnocracy, and still represent a progressive agenda in my book. We need to follow events closely and intervene in supportive ways, but in the coming period it is very important for the Palestinians themselves to determine their mode of united struggle. In a world where currently so many situations are stacked against progressive forces, this is a rare chink of light. There are dangers and traps but, at last, there are also some real opportunities.