Now that the situation in Gaza has calmed down, and nothing has been resolved, I think it's time to discuss that episode to explore what can be learned from it. During the Israeli attacks it was almost impossible to say anything meaningful, with both sides trying to outdo each other in the 'propaganda' war, and more specifically in the victimhood game. To be very clear from the onset, the Israeli war on Gaza was barbaric and unacceptable in this day and age, but that sentiment is not enough to understand the situation or learn how to proceed from there. This is not the only war being waged in the world today, and we are still a long way away from a world where wars would be unnecessary.
Condemning aggression alone is not enough as a political act, for that we must understand the dynamics of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict and the fate of the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination. Unfortunately, very few commentators and people involved in the struggle offered any real insights into the nature of the conflict. I will attempt to do that in what follows.
A few months ago I spoke at the Battle of Ideas in a session entitled 'Israel at 60: What happened to the Zionist dream?' (Watch here.) I made the point that because of Israel's lack of a political project to replace the declining Zionist project, the frequency of its violent confrontations with the Palestinians and its other neighbors will increase. Most Arabs still do not recognize that Israel is no longer being driven by the expansionist Zionist agenda, and still attempt to understand its actions based on old models of analysis that are no longer useful. This doesn't mean that Israel has become a benign society or state, on the contrary with the loss of the project that brought it into being, it seemed to have lost any capacity to control its actions and give them a political framework.
I will not repeat the detailed analysis that I introduced in the discussion, but I will pick up on one aspect of it. Israeli political elites from all shades are pursuing pragmatic solutions to their troubled relationship with the Palestinians and the other Arabs. In specific, the withdrawal from Gaza, and before that from Lebanon, and the building of the wall are all signs that Israel is seeking a de-facto two state solution that will keep the Palestinians out and give Israel the borders that it still lacks 60 years after its birth. This is driven by the fear of the anticipated Palestinian demographic superiority, but is an extremely deluded notion. By running away from a political solution, Israel will never have the peace that it claims it wants. And this will not stop it from initiating those attacks that have no specific purpose more than illustrating that the elites have a clear agenda of defending Israel. Ironically, with the decline of Zionism and the lack of a political platform that can describe a rational way of dealing with the Palestinians, the intensity of the conflict is likely to increase, as well of the senseless violence.
But what about the Palestinian side? I want to argue that there is an equal sense of disorientation and lack of a political sense of purpose that intensified after the death of Yasser Arafat, whose force of character and single-mindedness in pursuing Palestinian liberation for long gave the Palestinian cause a clear sense of direction, although by no means one that was universally agreed upon or one that made the struggle easier for the Palestinians. For those that will rush to blame the current Palestinian situation on Oslo and the PLO, bear in mind that the Palestinians did not negotiation out of a position of strength and they had to do that at a very low point in their struggle which was clearly a moment of defeat. The tactical move at that point was the success in moving the struggle back to Palestine rather than conducting it out of Beirut or Amman. But no one said it was going to be easy.
The death of Arafat alone does not explain the disorientation on the Palestinian political scene. The Palestinian people cannot be reduced to one figure, even though he had become a symbol of the cause. In many respects, the Palestinian people showed that they are more politically aware than any of the other Arabs, most of whom still live in authoritarian systems that they do little to challenge. After years of the intifada and the devastation of their society, they managed to hold democratic elections, an achievement by any standard. For comparisons, the Lebanese suspended elections for the duration of the civil war, and they are still far from transparent almost two decades after the end of the war.
The key to understanding the Palestinian political disorientation is to bear in mind that it is above all a historic struggle for self-determination, a fact that neither the PLO nor Hamas seem to realize today, and they certainly don't act as if they are pursuing that aim. To start with the PLO, or more accurately, Fatah, has been extremely weakened in power, and it did not show a capability for producing leaders that could continue the struggle or rule the territories under their control successfully. This was not easy to achieve under Israeli occupation and harassment, but was made even more difficult by the transformation of the political mentality from one that pursues the aim of national self-determination to one that seems to be seeking to invite outside intervention, especially from the west. The Vietcong did not seek to attract the sympathy of the world with pictures of their dead, they fought single-mindedly to achieve their political aims.
By contrast, the Palestinians today seem to rely more on attracting the sympathy of the outside world to support their cause than on their own efforts, that for example would seek to find sections of Israeli society with which they could find common cause. This is not such an alien idea, in fact Arafat himself had nurtured connections within Israel itself. But today, we live in a different world where the cultural and identity politics have replaced progressive politics making it very hard for Palestinians and Israelis to find political commonalities. To put it differently, the decline of class-based politics makes the idea of one-state secular state a fantasy notion today, but it wasn’t that long ago when that was a legitimate political aim for the PLO and even Israeli progressives.
A few months ago, I attended a discussion between Palestinian and Israeli politicians in London, about the long-term prospects for peace. What ensued was a pathetic spectacle of both sides trying to show that they are the real victims in this struggle and trying to convince the audience with that. At the end I asked the panel about the possibility of a one-state solution, and it was dismissed outright. Mustafa Barghouthi, a Palestinian politician who’s well-respected as an ‘independent’ replied that this was the original aim of the Palestinians, but that they were ‘told’ that to abandon it for the sake of a two-state solution. On one hand, this is an accurate representation of how western intervention had a big impact in enshrining the divisions between the Palestinians and the Israelis by insisting on separating them physically, but also on the ease with which a Palestinian politician would not argue with the demands of foreign powers on a matter of self-determination.
Sadly, this is a much more prevalent attitude among Palestinian elites. Rather than seeking self-determination according to their own terms, they are today willing to gamble on the west being able to hand them their state. This is above all an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of politics as above all an exercise in self-determination and shaping one’s destiny. Yet it is important to note that this is a wider problem that politics is suffering from around the world. In a sense, the decline of the PLO is a symptom of a world in which progressive politics based on the capacity of human beings to shape their own world has declined severely and has even been under attack by various thinkers. Instead of the universalist progressive politics of the past, identity and cultural politics have come to the fore to the detriment of politics in general, in Palestine the rise of Hamas conforms to that trend.
Many leftists in the west (and around the world) see Hezbollah and Hamas as radical movements that are fighting imperialism. In reality, this characterization is not straight-forward. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have the legitimate right to fight Israel, which after all is occupying their land. But I want to question the political aims of Hamas in conducting its struggle with Israel and the particular way in which it does that. To start with, the main difference between Hamas of today and the PLO of the past is not that one is secular and the other religious, this is only a superficial distinction. Much of the PLO’s efforts in the past went more often against Arab regimes than against Israel itself. In a sense, under the leadership of the Arafat, the Palestinians had to fight the Arab governments in order to get the freedom to fight Israel. Conversely, Hamas seems to be doing the exact opposite today: instead of leading the Palestinian people towards liberation, having a democratic mandate from them, it is surrendering whatever left of Palestinian sovereignty to external powers by linking its fate to Syria and Iran. Both countries do not necessarily have the interests of the Palestinian people as a priority: Damascus has for long tried to use the Palestinian cause as a means of legitimization and as a negotiating card with Israel, while Iran is more concerned with extending its regional influence and, unlike what some fantasists may think, is not going to challenge Israel militarily.
In terms of what Hamas represents, it is a mistake to think of it as a religiously motivated organization. It is primarily a movement born out of the failures of progressive politics in the Arab world, and the demise of the aspirations for modernity and radicalism. In that sense, Hamas is a post-modernist organization, concerned more with identity and culture rather than with progress. Religion in this case is only the vehicle, not the aim. Much like Hezbollah, the discourse of Hamas is founded on grievances and a sense of victimhood, not on political aspirations. The ultimate symbol of that is the suicide bomb, it is not meant to achieve a specific political aim, but has become an end in itself.
Equally, launching rocket attacks on Israel will never liberate the Palestinian people, and any act that attracts such a disproportionate response shows a complete disregard for the lives of Palestinian people. Hamas have fetishized the instruments of resistance at the expense of a genuine political struggle. They are in the process of surrendering the hard-won right to self-determination that the Palestinians fought for and handing it to outside powers. Their attacks on Fatah and the murder of hundreds of Fatah supporters are unforgivable, and show the extent to which they can go in their attempt to replace Fatah. Bearing in the mind that they have in the past offered Israel a 100-year truce, effectively recognizing Israel, one wonders if all they are seeking to replace Fatah at is the negotiating chair?
With this set of dynamics in place, the conflict is bound to erupt again sooner or later, and once again people will be at the mercy of events that they cannot control. And no doubt that we will hear the same rhetoric about Israel’s right to exist, Israel as an expansionist state, and above all the repeated pleas to be recognized as the victims. This can only stop when Israelis and Palestinians stop thinking of themselves as victims, and understand that it is within their own power to solve their own problems.