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Hamas and the left

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I don't support the politics of Hamas, but I stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people up to and including engaging in armed struggle. As one of the principle political actors in the Palestinian fight for liberation and self-determination Hamas can't be brushed aside by the left for convenience sake. To stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine also requires us to formulate a clear understanding of Hamas in the Palestinian political landscape. 

Uncritical and conditional solidarity 

There are two linked dangers when the left does international solidarity work, one is to idolize political groupings that resist imperialism no matter what their actual politics are. Supporting terrible regimes such as North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Libya because they have an anti-imperialistic rhetorical streak in their otherwise regressive politics is problematic. Same goes for the bizarre support some North American anarchists voiced for the right wing protests against the Venezuelan regime.  

 The right also constantly engages in this type of alliance making, for instance Ronald Reagan et al. famously described the Mujahideen and the Contras as freedom fighters akin to the American revolutionaries of 1776.  

The opposite danger is to solely focus on the shortcomings and problems of the groups engaged in resistance. Solidarity in this scenario becomes contingent upon the political line walked by the groups fighting for liberation. 

What these approaches share in common is the inability to place the struggles in a proper political context. To the classic leftist formulation of providing critical but unconditional support for anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles, we must insist on adding the proper understanding of the political terrain and political actors.  

Understanding Hamas

Hamas was founded in 1987, but its roots extend back to the early 1970s when Ahmed Yassin and others founded the Islamic charity Mujama al-Islamiya. This and other Islamic organizations were actually tolerated and encouraged by the Israeli occupiers in Gaza as a counterweight to the strongest Palestinian resistance group at the time, Fatah. The much critiqued Hamas charter (it is often taken to task for its anti-Semitic framing and not recognizing Israel) was written and adopted in 1988 in the heat of the first intifada and it reflects a movement looking to stake out political territory. However, it would be a mistake to reduce Hamas to its 1988 charter. Its positions have changed as the struggle has changed. 

Hamas' politics are a blend of Islamic religiosity, charity and support for some social programs. Hamas is clearly not socialist, it and its Muslim Brotherhood cousin organization fully reject a class understanding of society. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, during its brief time in power, was a staunch supporter of neoliberal economic policies and refused to mobilize on a class basis to defend the Egyptian revolution.

It is absolutely key for the left to situate Hamas in the wider political terrain of Palestinian politics: why are they popular and what issues dominant the political landscape? Hamas is popular amongst Palestinians -- they won the 2006 election, even picking up support in Ramallah, the most liberally minded city in the West Bank -- not because of their religious policies, but because of their stance towards the occupation. While Fatah slowly devolved into the enforcers of the Israeli occupation during the Oslo years, Hamas's stance, that the peace negotiations were a farce, proved correct.  Beyond its core base, Hamas is only as popular as it is able to reflect and channel the prevailing Palestinian sentiment towards the occupation.

Israel's objective 

The Israeli ruling class is not uniform, but the dominant trend within it is expansionist. The goal is to formally colonize the largest amount of Palestinian land while pushing the Palestinian population into smaller and smaller enclaves. To do this it is necessary to keep the Palestinian political factions divided in order to claim they have no one to negotiate with. In making a Palestinian state impossible and life unbearable they hope to drive the Palestinian people away -- where to is hardly a concern for them.  

This strategy contains an obvious contradiction, by expanding the state of Israel and turfing all pretense of a two state solution the Israeli government makes the dreaded (from their point of view) bi-national one state solution more likely.  For contrary to Zionist dreams, the Palestinian people aren't going anywhere. 

The fight for Palestine

Hamas has shifted its position on Israel over time, it now has an active stance of recognizing the pre-1967 borders. It continues armed resistance to the occupation, but it is not without some strategic and tactical flexibility, for instance they and Islamic Jihad engaged in a unilateral ceasefire in 2009. This doesn't mean the tactics Hamas and other armed groups (most Palestinian political factions have an armed wing) engage in are the most effective or beyond critique. For instance the rockets fired into Israel seem to have diminishing political returns as Israel has developed fairly effective measures to render those tactics ineffective (this should be chalked up to an efficient early warning and bunker system in southern Israel, not the boondoggle know as the Iron Dome). But critiquing these tactical and strategic decisions should not lead to a blanket condemnation of Hamas or a false equivalence of IDF bombing and Palestinian rockets.

Because Hamas' base is mostly in Gaza it is much harder for them to take the Fatah road of cooptation. The structural reality of the siege of Gaza, the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Israel’s policy of undermining Palestinian political unity means if Hamas wants to remain popular it must place peace in the context of ending the siege and occupation. 

The idea that somehow Hamas is achieving political victory at the expense of the people of Gaza misreads the situation on the ground. The brutal siege has created wide support amongst the people of Gaza for a political stance that will not trade peace for a continuation of the siege.

Those who seek to reduce the Palestinian struggle in Gaza to the desires of Hamas -- as if Hamas were some monolithic force in Gaza -- make the same basic mistake of those who try to separate the good Palestinian civilians from the Hamas "terrorists."   

The NDP for instance clearly condemns Hamas and blames their aggression for the loss of life in Gaza. Their uncritical position towards Israeli policies goes hand in hand with their support for Gaza's children -- it in fact masterfully parrots Israeli propaganda: Love the children, hate Hamas. 

Gazans are not simply victims caught between the warring parties of Israel and Hamas. We must understand Hamas as a political vehicle for the Palestinian people to resist Israel's siege on Gaza. Hamas arose out of a particular historical context: the continued annexation of the West Bank and the failure of the PLO/Fatah led Oslo agreements. Whether you agree with them or not (and I certainly don't on most issues) Hamas expresses Palestinian defiance and states clearly there cannot be peace with occupation. Which is why when we stand in solidarity with the people of Gaza we cannot do so by demonizing Hamas.   

Photo by Boaz Guttman 

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