By Somdeep Sen
Abstract: Is Hamas really the issue? Considering the nature and impact of its operation on October 7th, it is not surprising the organization has dominated the headlines. But if we are to imagine a ‘day after’ the bombardment of Gaza we need to recount and contend with a political context and history of oppression, as well as the systematic denial of Palestinian rights by Israel, that far exceeds the role or actions of Hamas. It is only then that we can hope for sustainable peace in Palestine/Israel.
Writing for Tikkun in the midst of the 2014 Gaza War, Donna Nevel noted that even the most thoughtful people, who rued the loss of Palestinian lives as a result of the Israeli military campaign at the time, would say “But Hamas…”; as if to say that Hamas was at “the heart of the problem” of Palestine/Israel. She went on to argue that a discussion of Hamas or Israel’s military onslaught at the time would necessarily have to begin with a deliberation of a wider “context and historical perspective.”
A few years ago, while conducting fieldwork in Israel for my book Decolonizing Palestine, many of my interlocutors were also quick to say “But Hamas…”. In Tel Aviv, when a Swedish employee of an international NGO heard me call the siege of Gaza unlawful, she responded, “But wasn’t it because of Hamas? They took over Gaza in a coup, and that’s why there is a siege. Hamas is the problem.” During a dinner conversation, a self-described Israeli leftist in Jerusalem admitted, “We are doing horrible things in Jerusalem and the West Bank…These right-wing people have gotten us here”. Yet when I then mentioned Palestinians suffering in Gaza he said, “No. But Gaza and Hamas are a different question. We gave them freedom. Our army pulled out and we got rid of settlements. And what did Hamas do? Rockets and tunnels.”
Considering the scale of Hamas’s October 7th attack that resulted in the killing of 1139 people including 373 security forces, it is not surprising the event has dominated headlines. But a humanitarian crisis of an unimaginable scale has emerged since because of Israel’s brutal military campaign in Gaza. A campaign that – at the time of writing – has already killed over 21,000 Palestinians. Experts have argued that the “pace of death during Israel’s campaign [in Gaza] has few precedents in this century.” Israel, however, has deemed Palestinian deaths an unavoidable “tragedy of war” as they seek to destroy Hamas.
But just as Nevel urged us to do back in 2014, today it is more important than ever to recount the political context and history of Palestine/Israel if we are to imagine a ‘day after’ the bombardment of Gaza. And it may come as a surprise to many that we can do this without any mention of Hamas.
First, present-day public discourse tends to ignore the fact that the politics of Palestine/Israel precedes the establishment of Hamas by four decades. To understand what is happening today, we must track back to the Nakba, or the catastrophe of 1948, when an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their national home. Oral histories of the Nakba and declassified Israeli government documents on the violence surrounding the State of Israel’s establishment reveals this did not just happen in the “fog of war." The erasure of Palestinians was systematic, involving “large-scale intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centers; setting fire to homes, properties and goods; expulsion; demolition; and, finally, planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning.” The Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan confirmed this effort to erase the signature of Palestinian existence when he said, “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist—not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either."
This memory and trauma of dispossession as well as the Palestinian right of return to their homeland remain central to the Palestinian struggle for liberation. This is especially critical to Gaza’s own history because, after the Nakba, it was transformed into a place where the majority of its population were Palestinian refugees from cities and villages inside the “green line.” After 1948 it became a microcosm of this experience of trauma and a center of struggle for liberation. As Edward Said wrote back in 1994, “Gaza is the essential core of the Palestinian problem, an overcrowded hell on earth largely made up of destitute refugees, abused, oppressed, and difficult, always a center of resistance and struggle. Gaza is where the intifada began. It is also the place about which Israeli leaders have expressed nothing but dislike and contempt.”
Said’s words rang true to me in 2013, when a Palestinian interlocutor said, “You know…one I will be back in Jaffa. That is where I’m from, and that is my destiny. Life here in Gaza is meaningless.” But neither he nor his parents had ever been to Jaffa. It was his grandparents who had last set foot in their ancestral home before Jaffa was overrun by Zionist paramilitary forces during the Nakba. Yet there was a certain resolve in his voice, symbolizing the indomitability of collective Palestinian resolve to reclaim their national home.
The indomitability of the Palestinian struggle in Gaza was equally evident during the 2018 “Great March of Return,” when protestors marched to the “border” with Israel to highlight the plight of Palestinians in the besieged enclave, to call for an end to the blockade and insist on the Palestinian “right of return”. This reminder of the persistence of the Palestinian quest for liberation and the call for return was met with a hail of Israeli bullets. Israeli authorities justified their response as simply an effort to protect Israeli citizens from a murderous terrorist organization.
Today, Israel is using similar rationale for its onslaught on Gaza. Yet it is important to remember that, beyond Hamas, what we are witnessing is part of a longer legacy of oppression and history of suffering – one that cannot be disentangled from our understanding of the current crisis.
Second, the question of land is central to the politics of Palestine/Israel. Indeed, it is no surprise that as Israel bombed Gaza, the occupied West Bank witnessed an intensification of Israeli settler violence. This comes hot on the heels of years of Israeli military-backed settler violence and systematic practices to dispossess Palestinians and erase all spatial evidence of their existence. This politics of spatial erasure was written into the very founding of the State of Israel, with the destruction of over 500 villages during the Nakba. Geographers, planners, and cartographers played an important role as they helped transform the Israeli state’s symbolic claim to the landscape into material possession. As Salman Abu-Sitta wrote in his epilogue to the Atlas of Palestine, the “systematic destruction of human and physical Palestinian landscape was carried out in order to build Israel on its ruins.”
Then there is the highly securitized architecture of Israeli occupation that facilitates Israeli settler presence in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, designed to displace and alienate Palestinians from the landscape. The towering military watchtowers, security barriers, and checkpoints are fundamentally antagonistic to Palestinian presence. Equally, we can look to the spatial design of Israeli settlements. They tend to be built on hilltops, and there may be a Palestinian village located in the valley below. Yet in my work I have demonstrated that settlements are often designed and planned in a way that these communities are entirely invisible from the hilltop views. Commenting on this spatial design trope of settlements, a settler interviewee said, “This place is not peaceful. We have Arabs here. But you can’t see them from here. We like to maintain peaceful views.” But these “peaceful views” are not just a matter of aesthetics or simply a manner of performing Palestinian absence. They also help furbish the settler sense of ownership over the landscape, unencumbered by the Palestinian presence; as another settler interviewee said to me, “I don’t think about the Palestinians down there. They want to live here, that’s okay. But they have to remember, us Jews are the owners of this land.”
Landscape then becomes a canvas displaying the continuous subjugation of Palestinians and the shrinking spatial scope of Palestinian liberation.
Finally, it is important to critically reflect on the way major donors like the European Union engage with the Palestinian political landscape and how this impacts the present and future of the Palestinian national struggle. Here the ghost of the Oslo Accords looms large. It was “sold” as a groundbreaking interim agreement between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) that would eventually result in Palestinian statehood. The Accords established the Palestinian Authority (PA) as an interim administration for self-governance. But the Oslo process did little to facilitate the arrival of a sovereign Palestinian state. The confiscation of Palestinian land, the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the subsequent fragmentation of the occupied Palestinian territory continued unhindered.
Since the failure of the Camp David Summit and the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2004, Israel has further consolidated its military control over Palestinian lands. The PA’s governance mandate is limited to providing social services and maintaining public order in fragmented urban population areas (Area A). The PA’s security forces are allocated the largest share of the national budget and is the largest employer of public sector personnel. The PA also maintains a robust security cooperation with Israel, including intelligence sharing, wherein its security forces actively suppress its critics, hindering Palestinian activism against the Israeli military presence and settlements in the occupied West Bank. There is also a “revolving door” arrest policy whereby Palestinians are arrested by the Israeli military immediately after their release from PA prisons, or vice versa. This system of arrest and detention—that often involves prisoners being tortured in custody—is designed to deter Palestinian activism against the Israel occupation. About this cooperation, a Palestinian told me, “It’s just frustrating … We are fighting the Israelis, but the PA…work[s] with them and help[s] them. Ironically, my activism is against Israel, but I have gotten beaten up more times by the PA.”
Despite the PA undermining the Palestinian national struggle in this way, it remains a central institutional framework for the international community’s engagement in the area. In fact, contrary to the realities on the ground, international donors are persistent in their claim that state-building through the PA is a means to peacebuilding. They are of course aware that the PA remains beholden to the whims of the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank. Yet donors such as the European Union contribute millions of euros annually towards public sector salaries, institution-building efforts, and the security sector, giving the PA the financial wherewithal to act like a state. At the least, they argue, this disincentives a military confrontation and guarantees Israel’s security and stability.
The main point I am making is that it doesn’t take the direct involvement of Hamas for Israel to use the argument “But Hamas…” We saw this in 2021 as Palestinians protested the forced expulsions in East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities blamed Hamas for the escalation. But Hamas had little to do with the demonstrations. Palestinians were demonstrating against the Israeli state’s efforts to further Judaize the city. When Hamas fired rockets into Israel, ostensibly in response to Israeli police attacks on Palestinian worshipers in al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the fundamental issues of Palestinian land, sovereignty, and statehood that led to the protests in the first place was eclipsed in the public discourse.
As the Israeli military continues its campaign in Gaza, “But Hamas…” remains the official reasoning for its brutality. But Hamas is not the real issue here. For 75 years the Palestinian right to self-determination has been denied by Israel regardless of Hamas. This is not to say that Hamas has no role to play in the politics of Palestine/Israel. In fact, its operation on October 7th helped reiterate Hamas’s role and impact on the regional and global political landscape. But we need to recognize a history that precedes October 7th and insist on a context that exceeds the politics of one Palestinian faction. Only then can we work towards sustained peace in Palestine/Israel.
Somdeep Sen is an associate professor at Roskilde University in Denmark. He is the author of Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas Between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial (Cornell University Press, 2020) and co-author of The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank: The Theatrics of Woeful Statecraft (Routledge, 2019). He is also the co-editor of Globalizing Collateral Language: From 9/11 to Endless War (University of Georgia Press, 2021). Alongside academic outlets, Sen’s writings have appeared in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera English, Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, Open Democracy, Jacobin and The London Review of Books.