Tue 28 Nov 2023 3:58 pm - Jerusalem Time

“The strategic shift that ended Israel’s plans.” Why did Hamas have no other options until October 7?

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 marked the beginning of a series of unexpected events, and it is too early to determine how the attack may shape the future course of the struggle to liberate Palestine.

The massive destruction inflicted on the Gaza Strip and the horrific loss of civilian lives is a painful blow to the Palestinians, reminiscent of the Nakba of 1948. But at the same time the illusion that the Palestinian issue can be put aside while Israeli apartheid continues is shattered. The question of Palestine has returned to the top of the global agenda with a growing awareness of the necessity of addressing it, even if what happened on October 7 has polarized the discussion around it.

This is what Tariq Al Baconi, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Palestinian Policy Network and an expert at the International Crisis Group, wrote in a lengthy analysis published by the American magazine Foreign Policy, in which he talked about the strategic shift made by the Hamas movement on October 7, and how it ended the Israeli plans to eliminate and overcome the Palestinian cause.

Hamas changes the balance in Gaza

Al-Baconi says that after 2007, Hamas's presence in the occupied territories was limited to the Gaza Strip, where the movement was effectively contained through the use of a tight siege that led to the mass imprisonment of Gaza's Palestinians, who number 2.3 million people. In this containment process, Hamas remained stuck in what I called “violent equilibrium,” where military force emerged as a means to negotiate concessions between Hamas and Israel.

Hamas uses missiles and other tactics to force Israel to ease restrictions on the blockade, while Israel responds with overwhelming force to build deterrence and ensure “calm” in the areas surrounding the Gaza Strip. Through this violence, both entities worked within a framework through which Hamas could maintain its role as a ruling authority in Gaza, even in light of the siege that legitimizes the daily structural violence perpetrated by the occupation authorities against the Palestinians.

Starting in 2018, Hamas began experimenting with different means to change this balance, one of which was through its decision to allow popular protests against Israeli hegemony. The Great March of Return in 2018 was one of the most comprehensive examples of Palestinian popular mobilization.

The protest emerged as a civil society-led effort, and was ultimately supported and managed by a committee comprising Gaza's various political factions, including Hamas. As a ruling authority, Hamas provided much of the infrastructure necessary for mobilization, such as buses to transport young men, and this was a stark departure from the methods Hamas had traditionally used to challenge the siege.

Another shift in the balance occurred a few years later, in 2021, when Hamas used its military arsenal to respond to Israeli aggression in Jerusalem. In the period before Hamas launched the rockets, Israel was actively working to evict families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers to take their homes. This led to widespread mobilization of Palestinians throughout the land of historic Palestine. The State of Israel responded by using force and mass arrests against the protests, which were peaceful, and included prayers around Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israel's efforts to disrupt the protests and advance its colonization of East Jerusalem prompted Hamas to respond with rocket fire.

Hamas' demands go beyond lifting the siege to a force that defends the Palestinians

These examples demonstrate Hamas's efforts to continue the offensive and expand its resistance, to include demands that go beyond lifting the siege. Such a positioning implied a goal of acting as a military force to defend the Palestinians against Israeli colonial violence outside the Gaza Strip, and the basis of these tactics was a clear strategic shift on the part of the movement, to move from submission to containment to a more clear challenge to Israeli hegemony, thus upending the balance that had become Well established over 16 years.

This shift is consistent with Hamas's historical development as a movement that has relied on armed and unarmed resistance, in ebbs and flows, to challenge the Israeli occupation and press for the core demands of the Palestinian struggle, including the right of return, which was central to the 2018 protests. (Hamas's history is full of examples in which I read the political context surrounding it, and at the leadership level of the movement, I changed the strategic direction of the organization, with clear instructions to the military wing to either escalate or calm down.

Al-Baconi says the recent shift to all-out violence is also consistent with the movement's understanding of the role of armed resistance as a negotiating tactic, a tactic the movement has historically relied on to force Israel to make concessions.

The October 7 attack is the next logical step for Hamas

The October 7 attack can be seen as the next logical step for a movement seeking to contain this attack. Some analysts described Hamas' move as "suicidal," given Israel's reaction, or irresponsible, given the number of deaths among Palestinians it led to. Whether any of these descriptions are accurate or not, depends on an analysis of the options available to Hamas, and on how the dust settles. Yet there is no doubt that the attack itself marked a decisive break and, in retrospect, clearly the culmination of all the changes the movement was experimenting with.

The strategic shift necessitated a move from the limited use of missile launches to negotiate with Israel to a comprehensive military attack, specifically aimed at disrupting its containment and the Israeli assumption that it was capable of maintaining the apartheid regime with impunity.

There is no doubt that the October 7 attack exceeded Hamas' expectations, and that Israel initially succeeded in mobilizing Israeli and international public opinion in a way that Hamas may not have fully anticipated. Any major military operation carried out by Hamas with any degree of success - targeting military bases near the fence area between Gaza and Israel and securing a large number of Israeli fighters as prisoners - would similarly shatter the siege model, and provoke an equally devastating Israeli response.

Yet the scale of the deaths prompted a ferocious Israeli response in Gaza, made possible by the carte blanche given to the Israeli government by most Western leaders. Some genocide scholars have argued that the Israeli campaign amounts to ethnic cleansing and intent to commit genocide.

It is unrealistic to argue whether these responses would have occurred if civilians had not been killed or abducted. In both cases, the military attack launched by Hamas and the subsequent acts of mass violence irreversibly shaped the nature of the response against the Palestinians in Gaza, Al-Baconi says.

Hamas had no other options

From a purely strategic military perspective, the only option before the attack, other than using the force available to Hamas, was to remain restricted within the framework of the siege, while Israeli settlers expanded rampant violence in the West Bank and theft of land, and Israeli political leaders changed the status quo around Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Israel obtained Reward with US visa waiver programs and regional normalization agreements to do whatever it wants.

In this climate, the options available to Hamas were to acquiesce to the persistent assumption that the Palestinians had effectively been defeated, and to remain confined and suffocated within their various Bantustans, non-contiguous parcels of territory resembling the “homelands” of apartheid-era South Africa of the same name. Many disenfranchised blacks were relocated to urban areas and ruled by supposedly independent local client regimes, while a white supremacist government continued to exercise military control.

The choice, as Hamas saw it, was between slow death - as many in Gaza say - and fundamentally disrupting the entire equation. Certainly, tightening the noose on Hamas, and the Palestinians more broadly, is in a position where only a strong military attack of this form emerges as a preferred option for the movement. Even before containing Hamas, and specifically since the second intifada, there were many opportunities for diplomatic and political engagement with it.

Between 2005 and 2007, Hamas de facto aligned itself with a political program that, if properly exploited, might lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and the dismantling of the occupation. This is the position put forward by the movement as part of its election victory in 2006 and its subsequent entry into the Palestinian Authority. This position was later formalized in 2017 in the movement's revised charter, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, without providing formal recognition of the State of Israel.

America and the West have missed all diplomatic opportunities to deal with Hamas

The Israeli and American refusal to engage in any of the political concessions the movement has made since then, while Israel has consistently been given a free pass to continue its violent occupation and ongoing colonization of Palestinian territories, has undermined any confidence Hamas may have had regarding the international community’s interest in Palestine, or holding Israel accountable or enabling the Palestinians to establish their state on part of historic Palestine.

Much has been written about missed opportunities in engaging with Hamas diplomatically. The events that followed the movement's democratic elections in 2006 were based on a refusal to deal with Hamas's political program, as Israel and the American government preferred to pursue regime change and deal with Hamas militarily, and chose to limit their involvement in the Palestinian file with Israel.

Since then, Israel has portrayed the movement as a terrorist organization, a paradox that has enabled the state to justify the collective punishment inherent in the blockade of the Gaza Strip. This was clearly the strategy chosen by successive governments under Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke publicly about the benefits to Israel of pursuing a “policy of separation” between the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a means of undermining the prospects for establishing a Palestinian state.

In the absence of any real diplomatic prospects for Hamas, its options were either slow strangulation as the ruling authority in the Gaza Strip, while Israel became cozy with Arab regimes that had all but abandoned the Palestinian cause, or a decisive blow that could fundamentally disrupt the assumption that the Palestinians were defeated and subjugated. And that Israel is able to maintain its apartheid system at no cost.

Hamas acted strategically

Al-Baconi says that Hamas choosing the latter option indicates that it is acting strategically, and remains committed to the belief that it is playing a long-term game. By this logic, even if the military wing of Hamas is completely destroyed or expelled, the movement has already achieved a victory in exposing the weakness and fragility of the Israeli army, which can be exploited in the future by a reconstituted Hamas, or by another military formation in the future on an equal footing and committed to armed resistance as a means of liberation. In other words, disruption itself becomes a field for the emergence of alternative possibilities.

This belief in the long game means that no matter what happens in the short and medium term, and even with the horrific loss of civilian lives in Gaza, Hamas has not only disrupted the structure of its containment, but the idea that Palestinians cannot fight, and are isolated in Bantustans and forgetting them without incurring any cost to the Israelis. This obstruction is of great importance to Israel, and with the support of its Western allies, it believes that the only way to survive this strike is to completely eliminate Hamas.

Israel fails to eliminate Hamas

Israel will fail - and is already failing - in achieving this goal, and regardless of how the battles against Hamas in Gaza unfold now, the movement can already claim to have emerged victorious in the long run, because it has been irretrievably destroyed the false sense of security that Israelis have had since 1948, despite all attempts to present Israel as an invincible and impenetrable state in the region.

But even in the direct battle underway in Gaza now, Israel's chances of victory are slim. As in any asymmetric conflict, guerrilla fighters do not have to lose to emerge victorious, while a strong state will lose if it does not achieve its overall goals.

The goal of eliminating Hamas as a movement is as vague as it is unachievable, for one thing: the movement is much larger than its military wing. It is a movement with a broad and deep-rooted social infrastructure, connected to many Palestinians who do not belong to the movement's political or military programs.

At its core, Hamas is an Islamist movement with roots in regional branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, connected to healthcare infrastructure, educational facilities and charities. If, by eliminating Hamas, Western and Israeli leaders call for the killing of any Palestinian who embraces any form of Islamic ideology, then this is nothing less than a call for the annihilation of the Palestinian people, and we must understand the matter this way.

However, if the goal is to destroy the movement's military infrastructure, this goal is likely to fail in one key way: the disintegration of Hamas' military wing will pave the way for the emergence of other forms of organized resistance, both within Hamas's ideological uniform and otherwise, that adhere to the same ideals using armed force against Israel.

Resistance is continuous feasibility

History has already taught us a lot. Hamas emerged in 1987 on the embers of the historic concession made by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, the PLO shifted toward conceding the partition of Palestine by recognizing the State of Israel and rejecting the use of armed resistance in pursuit of establishing a Palestinian state. This transformation coincided with the establishment of Hamas as a party adhering to the same principles as the Palestine Liberation Organization before it, couched in an Islamic ideology rather than the secular nationalist ideology that dominated the 1960s and 1970s.

There is an ongoing series of Palestinian political demands dating back to 1948 and before. Whether Hamas is able to remain in its current form or not, it is just a red excuse. Palestinian resistance against Israeli apartheid, armed and unarmed, will continue as long as the system of racism and domination continues.

In essence, this is a system that provides more rights to Jews than Palestinians throughout the land of historic Palestine, divides Palestinians into different legal categories, and fragments them geographically in order to maintain an overall system of domination. At the same time, it prevents the internationally recognized right to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

The Israeli apartheid model is committed to Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea – a recently criticized phrase that the Israeli right has long used without apology – while the Palestinians remain a dominant people living within the borders of that state, governed in the occupied territories, through illegitimate authorities that are inherently cooperative with the State of Israel.

The October 7th attack was inevitable

To reverse this dynamic, and to back away from Israel's belief that by containing it, Hamas could be pacified as happened with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the movement took a calculated risk with its operation, given that it realistically expected that its military infrastructure would be damaged.

But in the absence of any willingness on the part of the international community to engage with the Palestinians outside such armed tactics, and given Israel's continuing and increasingly violent colonization, this shift toward an expanded military operation by Hamas was ultimately inevitable.

There is another reason that supports Hamas's calculations, which is its ambivalence towards governance, and Hamas was constrained by its role as the ruling authority in the Gaza Strip. When the party ran for elections in 2006, there was a significant degree of organizational conflict over assuming a governing role or even participating in the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas leaders made clear that rather than accepting restrictions on governance under occupation, as Fatah had done through the Oslo Accords, the movement was intent on using its electoral victory to revolutionize the Palestinian political establishment. It emphasized its ability to do so by pointing out that Israel, through its response to the Second Intifada, had destroyed the Palestinian political body, and rendered the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo Accords obsolete.

Hamas spoke of the need to build a resistance society, a resistance economy, and a resistance ideology, through the body of the Palestinian Authority itself, and to use this body as a springboard to the Palestine Liberation Organization, where it could lead, alongside others, to develop a vision for the liberation of Palestine, and to represent all Palestinians outside the occupied territories. 

Al-Baconi says that Hamas victory in the elections, as I claim in my book “Containing Hamas,” was intended to be revolutionary in the direction of the status quo, not to accept it. With no real prospects for establishing a state, Hamas realized that focusing on governance and administration meant beautifying the Bantustan within the Israeli apartheid regime, that there would be no real possibility of liberation or sovereignty, and that the only way forward was to improve the quality of life while remaining subject to occupation. This is indeed the model of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and it could have been a more extreme version of that in the Gaza Strip.

A revolution within Hamas

With the successful Western-backed coup against Hamas, which began shortly after Hamas won the elections and culminated in a war between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, it seemed for a time as if the movement's rule in Gaza had succeeded in pacifying it to the point that it was seizing power. The long period of containment suggests that the movement may have become captive to its electoral success, restricted by its responsibilities in governance, or in other words, quiet. The violent attack of October 7 clearly demonstrated that the movement was using precisely this time to revolutionize the political body, as it had always intended to do.

All this does not mean that Hamas's strategic transformation will be considered successful in the long term. The violent disruption of the status quo by Hamas may have provided Israel with the opportunity to carry out another Nakba, which could lead to a regional conflagration or a blow to the Palestinians that would take a generation to recover from.

What is certain, however, is that there is no going back to the way it was before, and yet this is precisely what Israeli, American and other Western leaders and diplomats are preparing for. The discussion had already shifted to the next day, even as a ceasefire had not been formalized.

All indications point to a US-Israeli decision to try to replicate in the Gaza Strip the successful model - from their point of view - of cooperative Palestinian governance that exists in the West Bank. Instead of engaging in a process whereby Palestinians have the opportunity to choose leaders who represent them and can govern them, Israel and the United States are rebooting an old approach of choosing obedient leaders who can do their bidding and subjugate Palestinians under Israeli control.

This is being done under the slogan of unifying the Palestinian territories, as both parties erase their complicity in facilitating this division until now. The goal of both is not reunification, but rather the pursuit of submissive rule: creating a governance structure in which a leadership governed by compliance with civilian needs, within an overall structure of Israeli military dominance.

Such a goal must deal with the historical reality that Gaza is experiencing as a stronghold of resistance to Israeli apartheid, given that the majority of Gaza’s population are refugees seeking to return to their homes, in what is now known as “Israel.” Facilitating the installation of the authority chosen by Israel and the United States requires nothing less than the destruction of Gaza and the killing of its residents, a policy that is now unfolding.

Hamas has dealt a fatal blow to the Israeli imagination

Apart from the ethical and legal implications there are practical implications. It is difficult to imagine any Palestinian leader or governance structure taking charge of the Gaza Strip after it is destroyed by Israel, as they would be seen as having been sent there on the backs of Israeli tanks. Such leaders will enjoy less legitimacy than the Palestinian Authority enjoys in the West Bank today, which is difficult to imagine.

Such an approach may buy some time, and may lead to something resembling the status quo and a degree of stability, but if any lesson is to be drawn from October 7, it is that this will not be permanent or sustainable, and no ruling entity will be able to ensure security for any Israeli, as long as apartheid exists, any Palestinian government installed in Gaza will rightly be viewed as illegitimate and traitor.

Whatever the “day after” plans are, they will fail, unless they come with Israel held accountable and the apartheid regime dismantled, and it will be clear to all Palestinians that this is just another Bantustan solution, cloaked in humanitarian cover or a renewed commitment to a two-state solution.

In this sense, Hamas has dealt a fatal blow to Israel's fantasy of being able to continue its occupation and siege indefinitely. However, it is not clear whether Israeli political leaders, along with retaliatory violence, have been able to heed this lesson, but grassroots organizers and Hamas' allies and other political and military formations did so.

Whatever comes next and whatever the “Hamas legacy” is written, it is clear that the movement is the one that exploded the illusion that Israel and its allies had held onto for a very long time.

Source: Arabic Post


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