The eleven-day Israeli air bombardment of the Gaza Strip and retaliatory Hamas rockets fired into Israel, ended with a shaky ceasefire and both sides claiming victory. Although suffering large numbers of casualties, Hamas, the Islamist organisation which controls Gaza, emerged strengthened in popularity among Palestinians, while Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas, the ‘acceptable face’ of Palestine for Western governments, has little support in the West Bank.

In our ongoing series on Palestinian self-determination, Niall Mulholland addresses the question: what do these contending Palestinian forces represent? And, can either of them lead Palestinians to win genuine independent statehood?

Israel Palestine wall, photo Justin McIntosh/CC

Israel Palestine wall, photo Justin McIntosh/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

In a vastly unequal military struggle, Hamas fired over 4,000 largely ‘homemade’ rockets at Israeli cities and towns in the recent conflict, while the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) responded with devastating modern missile attacks. At least 248 Palestinians were killed in the short war, nearly half of them women and children.

Although the vast majority of Hamas’s rockets that could have hit urban areas were repelled by Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ defence system, by hitting deep inside Israel and killing a dozen people Hamas was able to shift ‘the balance of fear’.

This was the fourth war between Israel and Hamas since 2009. While Hamas reportedly lost many of its fighters in the May conflict, and much of its system of tunnels in Gaza used to ferry arms and launch attacks, its standing among Palestinians has been bolstered. Many Palestinians credit Hamas and other Palestinian militias for fighting back against brutal Israeli oppression and attacks, in sharp contrast to the craven, corrupt PA leaders who provided no resistance.

Hamas and the PA

Hamas presented itself as the defender of the Palestinians facing expulsion from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and as the protector of al-Aqsa Mosque, which was under siege from Israeli forces.

While this raised Hamas’s prestige among Palestinians, in sharp contrast, the Palestinian Authority looked impotent in the face of Israeli attacks.

“If a group like Hamas, with simple rockets and maybe 20,000 fighters, can stand up to Israel, with its advanced weaponry and its F-35 rockets, and inflict suffering upon Israel, that’s a symbolic victory, at least”, Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of politics at Gaza’s al-Azhur university told the Financial Times.

Hamas is designated a ‘terrorist group’ by Israel, the US and the EU. Following its election win over the West’s favoured Palestinian leadership, Fatah, in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Gaza and its two million people have been subject to a cruel Israeli and Egyptian blockade for 14 years.

Until this May’s conflict, Hamas’s support was declining, but it is now in the ascendant among Palestinians. Yet Hamas still has many critics among Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere due to its years of mismanagement and authoritarian rule. In fact, Hamas was only ever able to gain wider support for its form of radical Islam due to the historic failures of the secular, nationalist Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Foundation of Israel

The creation of Israel in 1948 saw the forced mass expulsions of Palestinians and military victories by Israel over neighbouring Arab states. Millions of Palestinians were left in refugee camps across the region or under oppressive Israeli rule. The Palestinian’s plight became a running sore throughout the Middle East, and an issue no Arab ruler could ignore.

The PLO was created in 1964 at an Arab Summit, with the aim of the ‘liberation of Palestine’ from Israeli rule. From the start, the Arab regimes sought to control the movement, balancing between the demands of the Arab street for the Palestinians’ right to a homeland, with the strategic and economic interests of the ruling elites in the Middle East.

The growing loss of confidence in the ability and willingness of Arab governments to win back Palestinian land was confirmed in the humiliating Arab military defeat in the ‘Six-Day War’ in June 1967. This left an expanded Israel in control of the Golan Heights and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

In the aftermath, many of the Palestinian guerrilla groups – Fedayeen – including the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), founded in 1957-8 by Yasser Arafat (who came to dominate the PLO from 1968 onwards), followed a strategy of ‘armed struggle’. This mainly saw guerrilla attacks on Israeli-held territory.

Apart from highlighting the ongoing oppression of Palestinians, these Fedayeen operations had little effect on its much more powerful military adversary, and allowed Israeli governments to rally the Jewish population around the country’s ‘defence’.

The PLO leadership’s reliance on the capitalist Arab states was rewarded with betrayal and suppression. When the PLO was seen to become too powerful in Jordan, in 1970, King Hussein ordered the army to attack the ‘state within a state’. Several thousand PLO fighters were killed and expelled from Jordan in the conflict known as ‘Black September’.

Each Arab ruling elite pursued its own cynical strategy and tactics toward Israel, and regarded the PLO as so much ‘small change’ in their calculations. Declared a ‘terrorist organisation’ by the Israeli government, the PLO was peripheral or excluded from various failed ‘peace initiatives’ in the 1970s and 1980s.

With the background of profound changes in the world balance of forces following the collapse of the USSR and other Stalinist states, the Arafat leadership, like other national liberation movements, shifted to the right and entered a negotiated ‘peace process’ in the hope of being able to collaborate with one or more of the western imperialist powers.

Oslo Accords

Under pressure from US imperialism, the PLO leadership recognised the right of the state of Israel to exist and renounced all forms of terrorism. A tortuous talks process eventually lead to the 1993 agreement, the ‘Oslo peace accords’, between Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, which entailed ‘limited autonomy’ for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza.

At the time, hopes were raised among Palestinians that an independent state could emerge from this process.

However, the Israeli ruling class never had any intention of allowing a viable independent Palestinian state on its borders. Since the 1993 agreement, the territory on which to base a Palestinian state has been reduced to a patchwork, carved up by illegal settlements and other methods by the Israeli state.

On the basis of capitalism, the PA elite grew rich while the mass of Palestinians are only offered inequality, poverty and oppression.

The Oslo Accords were no solution for Israelis either. The Israeli population is stuck in a ‘bloody trap’, (as revolutionary socialist Leon Trotsky warned would be the case in the 1930s), of seemingly endless wars, surrounded by hostile Arab states, and facing huge social and economic inequalities at home.

From this desperate situation facing Palestinians, Hamas was able to win wider support. Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) was founded in 1987, soon after the First Intifada – a mass uprising by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – broke out.

Hamas was an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Its brand of radical Islamic resistance was able to gain wider appeal among Palestinians desperate at their plight, and because of the failed polices over decades of the secular, nationalist PLO, and its main faction, Fatah. Hamas won further support by creating a welfare network and by being prepared to militarily resist Israeli aggression.

To begin with, Israeli governments tolerated Hamas’s growing support as a counterweight to the secular, nationalist PLO. This ‘divide and rule’ policy helped keep Palestinian resistance weakened and fragmented.

Conflict within Israel

Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election and became the ruling party in the Gaza Strip in 2007 following a short ‘civil war’ with the Palestinian Authority forces.

There have been no new elections since then. President Abbas indefinitely postponed a legislative election scheduled for 22 May 2021, probably because he feared Hamas would win.

However, during the May conflict, for the first time in its history, the Israeli state was simultaneously facing multiple fronts: Gaza, East Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and in Israel’s ‘mixed cities’, where the clashes included Jewish militias attacking Palestinians, with reprisals against Jews and the burning of synagogues.

Palestinians make up around one-fifth of the Israeli population, mostly living in Arab-majority towns and cities but there are also mixed cities where Palestinians live alongside Jews. The arrival of ideologically driven Jews who want to ‘judaise’ mixed urban areas has turned some of these areas into intercommunal flashpoints.

Increasingly, Palestinians are resisting on different fronts for equal rights, dignity, freedom and a transformation of their living conditions. The general strike called for Palestinian areas on 18 May was an impressive expression of solidarity.

Such mass mobilisations, with democratic structures, are the way forward to end the oppression of Palestinians.

The sclerotic, corrupt Palestinian Authority, and authoritarian Hamas, which also bases itself on capitalism and whose Islamic appeal means its support will wax and wane, cannot offer a lasting solution to the Palestinians.

Through mass revolutionary struggles in all Palestinian areas, linked to their own party with a socialist programme, the working class and poor can successfully resist Israeli oppression. This will have a profound effect on Israeli society, provoking splits along class lines, and rally support among the masses of the Middle East to the Palestinian cause and for socialist change.

A genuinely independent socialist Palestinian state, alongside a socialist Israel, as part of a wider socialist federation on a free and equal basis, would end the nightmare of oppression, war and poverty.