Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial by Somdeep Sen, Cornell University Press (2020)
“But what about Hamas?”
This question ran rampant through social media exchanges last May as Israel pummeled Gaza with bombs that took down whole buildings while Hamas and other armed resistance groups fired unguided rockets into Israel, most of which were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system.
The question was rarely asked in earnest but rather to deflect attention from the daily violence of a settler-colonial occupier intent on erasing the indigenous Palestinian presence, especially in occupied East Jerusalem during the period in question.
The rhetorical intent behind “doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself” against an Islamic political organization is usually meant to tap into anti-Muslim bigotry while simultaneously seeking to recast the Palestinian victim as the victimizer. It’s a concerted effort to paint the situation as a symmetrical conflict to obscure the asymmetry of power.
For a long time now the response to this charade from Palestine solidarity activists in the US has featured its own kind of deflection. Most will correctly argue that oppressed people have the right to armed resistance. Indeed, this right is even codified in international law written in the aftermath of national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia, which ushered in the so-called postcolonial period.
Others will answer indirectly by noting that Israel originally encouraged the growth of Hamas in order to undermine the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The existence of Hamas by implication is that it’s Israel’s own fault.
In both responses, however, the logic is that activists must avoid the trap of talking about the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas.
But what if the question – what about Hamas – was answered directly? What accounts for the fact that Hamas retains steadfast popular support among many Palestinians after all these years? What explains the jubilant celebrations in Gaza extolling the ceasefire and the “Unity Intifada” when Hamas demonstrated the ability to respond to Israel’s provocations at al-Aqsa mosque?
And why have elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council been consistently postponed ever since Hamas won those elections in an upset victory in 2005? Apparently the PA and its bankrollers realize that Hamas would still make a good showing?
Resistance as self-defense
Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas Between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial by Somdeep Sen offers some insights into these questions. The book apparently irked Israel apologists so much that some recently tried to force the University of Glasgow to vet a scheduled talk by Sen, who is a professor at Roskilde University in Denmark. Sen ultimately pulled out of the book talk.
In his book, Sen allows Hamas spokespersons to explain why they rejected the Oslo accords, revealing that the Hamas critique differs little from that offered by secular Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said.
Hamas cofounder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin observed as early as 1999: “Nowhere in the world do resistance movements surrender their arms until they have regained their rights … But we gave up our arms at the beginning of the road and then sat waiting for handouts and rewards from the enemy.”
The reader learns that as early as 1997, Hamas leaders saw armed resistance as a kind of self-defense. “You can’t characterize what the Palestinians are doing against the occupation as violence,” Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook told a journalist. “In reality, it is a form of resistance. If there was no occupation, there would be no resistance.”
An examination of the origins of that resistance reveals that Israel has instigated all four of the major attacks on Gaza since 2008 while Hamas responded in self-defense. That Hamas’ resistance has resulted in numerous ceasefire agreements is a reflection of the self-defense nature of its armed struggle.
It also recalls the history of many anti-colonial struggles in which the goal of nonconventional warfare was never to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield but simply to avoid complete defeat and gradually wear down the colonizer, as occurred in Algeria, the Portuguese-ruled African colonies, South Vietnam and apartheid South Africa, among others.
Has Hamas’ armed resistance changed since it defeated an attempted coup in Gaza in 2007, carried out by Fatah forces and supported by Israel and the US?
The author asks a Hamas-affiliated photojournalist about Hamas’ “dual role as resistance and government.”
Her response: “We need a mixture [of government and resistance], but the military wing is the most important part.” There can be no balance between the two, she asserts, “because of Israeli attacks. They have destroyed our infrastructure and prevent us from conducting proper governance.”
This qualification of “proper governance,” however, seems to escape the author, who insists on referencing “Hamas’ postcolonial governance.” Sen writes that this governance “evokes the image of an era after the withdrawal of the colonizer” (emphasis in original). According to Sen, it’s not just Hamas but also the Palestinian Authority, created under the Oslo accords, exhibiting “the pathologies of the postcolonial state.”
This assertion, in effect, echoes the mainstream media’s boilerplate description of Hamas as the political organization that “controls the Gaza Strip.” The description flips reality on its head.
Israel, after all, controls Gaza, using military force to rule its boundaries, coastal waters and airspace – what comes in and what goes out. Gaza lacks sovereignty in any meaningful sense of the term and is more correctly described as an open-air prison. If not for its resistance, Hamas would be nothing more than a trustee helping to run a prison while exercising no power over it whatsoever.
What’s more, the Oslo accords and the PA in no way reflect the advent of postcolonial governance. Both are more properly seen as a deliberate strategy of maintaining a settler-colonial regime by engaging the colonized themselves to act as security subcontractors to the occupation and farming out the costs of the occupation to the international community.
In 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon openly described the settlement project as the implementation of his “Bantustan model,” the same strategy employed by the settler-colonialists in apartheid South Africa to retain their rule.
Sen is an ethnographer who conducted field work in Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt and Israel between 2013 and 2016 with the goal, he writes, of presenting “an ethnography of anticolonial violence and postcolonial statecraft in a settler colonial condition.”
Readers may be forgiven if they stumble over much of the academic jargon, while questioning whether the text might have benefited more from a study of settler-colonial histories and the resistance movements to them. Unfortunately, the book is also marred by a relatively incoherent thesis and a muddled narrative.
To return to the original question – but what about Hamas? – the answer may ultimately rest in what decolonization will look like, given that the vestiges of colonialism are likely to persist for a long time.
The liberation struggle may have only begun.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is active in the Demilitarize Portland2Palestine campaign.