It’s About Time Palestinians Started to Fight Back Again. But I Wish It Wasn’t Hamas That Was Doing It.

Peter Bolton
9 min readOct 9, 2023
Photo credit: rainwiz/Flickr (CC)

Palestine appears to be on the precipice of a Third Intifada. Hamas’ surprise attack combined extensive rocket attacks with a land incursion into Israel-proper — a stunning evasion of the Zionist state’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system and a shocking breach of its control of the Gaza border. The attack was quickly met with an Israeli aerial assault, which at the time of writing has led to over 400 deaths, including 20 children, and the destruction of dozens of buildings. The Associated Press has reported that the collective death toll on both sides has surpassed 1,100. By Sunday October 8, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu had formally declared war on Hamas. Some commentators, including The Jerusalem Post’s editor-in-chief Avi Mayer, have gone so far as to describe the situation as “Israel’s 9/11” — the implication, of course, being that it therefore justifies a response similar to the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” Indeed, given reports that Israel has already moved tens of thousands of troops toward Gaza, it seems likely that a full-blown Israeli ground invasion of the area will soon follow.

As would be expected, the Biden administration quickly issued a statement stating that the US “unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza.” Naturally, Biden also used it as an opportunity to reiterate the US’s unconditional support for Israel, stating that his government is “ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel.” Meanwhile, demonstrations against the continued Zionist occupation of Palestinian took place in cities across the country. In New York, the ANSWER coalition led an impressively well attended march from Time Square to the Israeli consulate, which predictably drew ire from New York State elected representatives including Governor Kathy Hochul. According to Politico, over a thousand people took part while pro-Israel counter-demonstrators numbered, at most, a few dozen. Similar demonstrations were held in cities including Washington, DC, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, and San Diego.

This entire situation puts Palestinian solidarity people such as myself in a difficult position. On the one hand, I affirm the right of the Palestinian people to resist the Zionist occupation of their country. This is not just a moral right but a legal right under international law given that the ‘Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions’ enshrines national liberation struggles as an essential protected right for people living under foreign occupation. This includes all means of resistance, up to and including the use of armed force. With respect to this latest attack, it has undoubtedly not just delivered a devastating blow to the Zionist occupation but also provided the Palestinian resistance with a powerful morale boost. The breaching of the Gaza border, in particular, has demolished the aura of Israeli invincibility by exposing its apparent security and intelligence weaknesses.

On the other hand, however, the fact that it has been Hamas that has led and largely carried out this uprising makes me deeply uneasy. For one thing, some of their members appear to have been careless in distinguishing between Israeli security force personnel and Israeli civilians. This is always to be regretted in moral terms, obviously, but also in tactical terms since the killing of civilians hands the oppressor propaganda fodder and brings the wider liberation struggle into disrepute. But moreover, the fact that Hamas’ politics are based in a sectarian Islamist ideology doesn’t sit well with me or, I assume, most Western-based solidarity activists given that we tend to lean heavily to the left.

To be sure, there are mitigating factors for the behavior of Hamas members. One of them is the fact that the Israeli security forces are much stronger and more powerful than Hamas and, indeed, are not just grounded in the structure of a state but supported by the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, the United States. After all, such asymmetric warfare naturally produces on the weaker side of the conflict a sense that they must stretch the bounds of acceptability in order to have any chance of succeeding in their military objectives. To be clear, this explains but does not excuse.

Another mitigating factor stems from the conditions in which the people of Gaza must live and the inequities to which they have been subjected to. Gaza has been described by no less a figure than former British prime minister David Cameron (a member of the Conservative Party, by the way) as “the largest open-air prison in the world today.” Its people suffer from chronic poverty, unemployment and regular electricity blackouts. It is also frequently on the receiving end of Israeli military attacks, which, in spite of Israel’s risible claims about “collateral damage,” are often targeted at civilians in order to terrorize the population into submission. In such dehumanizing conditions as these, it is hardly surprising that people lose their sense of humanity. As the late American writer James Baldwin put it: “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”

But this aside, in what follows I wish to argue that though the dominant position of Hamas in the Palestinian national liberation struggle is regrettable, this unfortunate reality is itself explicable in terms of the settler-colonial Zionist presence and continued occupation. For instance, as Israeli historian and activist Ilan Pappé has pointed out, people who are in very difficult circumstances such as foreign occupation often find comfort in religion. There is a deep layer of irony to this. Because Palestinians have historically not been particularly religious people, at least by the standards of the Middle East.

Indeed, Palestinians are far from a religiously homogenous group. Though admittedly the majority are Sunni Muslim, the Palestinian population both at home and throughout the diaspora is, and always has been, made up of several faiths. Christians have historically made up about 10% of the population. Other religious minorities include Druze Palestinians, who number roughly 150,000 and make up about 2% of Israel’s population. Before Zionist immigration from Europe in the late 19th century, there were even Jewish Palestinians. It is estimated that before the arrival of Zionist settlers the population of Palestine could have been as high as 7% Jewish. The question naturally arises: How could a comparatively secular and religiously diverse society have become dominated by an Islamist group like Hamas?

A large part of the answer is that Israel actually played a significant hand in Hamas’ rise from obscurity in the late 1980s. As The Washington Post pointed out in 2014: “To a certain degree, the Islamist organization whose militant wing has rained rockets on Israel the past few weeks has the Jewish state to thank for its existence.” It adds: “Hamas launched in 1988 in Gaza at the time of the first intifada… But for more than a decade prior, Israeli authorities actively enabled its rise.” Israel’s motivation was that it wished to weaken the (then far more dominant) secular Palestinian resistance movement — represented mainly by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — and sow division within Palestinian society more broadly. But as Palestinian-American activist and writer Mohammad Hammad points out: “Unfortunately, their plan worked, probably even better than Israel would’ve hoped. The downside is that they lost control over their pet-project of Hamas, and we have the organization we see today.”

But the rise of Hamas has not been an entirely negative thing for Israel, it should be noted. Because it has provided the Israeli political elite with a convenient propaganda weapon. For example, it uses Hamas’ 2006 election victory in Gaza as an excuse for committing massacres against its people since, so the logic goes, Gaza’s people “elected a terrorist organization”. Attacks targeting civilians, meanwhile, get explained away with claims that the civilians were “harboring Hamas terrorists.” Israel’s attempt to blame everything on Hamas is, of course, completely ridiculous. The organization’s rise is a comparatively recent development and, indeed, the major causes of the conflict — stealing of land, ethnic cleansing and the denial of rights — existed long before Hamas emerged as one of its major players.

At the same time, while it has admittedly grown to the point of usurping the PLO militarily and arguably politically as well, it would be going too far to claim that Hamas poses any serious threat to Israel — even in light of this most recent attack. After all, Israel is a regional superpower with the Middle East’s most powerful military and has been the largest cumulative recipient of US aid since the end of World War II.

The inevitable question then arises: If you don’t like Hamas, who would you prefer? My answer is: By eschewing the religious sectarianism of Hamas and by refusing to become collaborators like Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) stands as the least sullied of all the currently-existing Palestinian factions. The PFLP is a secular socialist political party that has long been the second-largest faction within the PLO. It has a proud tradition of both militant resistance to the Zionist occupation and inclusiveness toward all people who live in Palestine — including Israeli Jews. Indeed, its co-founder and to-date longest serving leader was George Habash — a Palestinian Christian — who once said: “We see in the distant future peace in Palestine where all sects — Jews, Arabs — will live in peace.” Habash’s political goal was, in the words of British activist Tony Greenstein (who is himself Jewish), “the establishment of a democratic state in Palestine in which Arabs and Jews would live as citizens with equal rights.”

But though the organization is the best placed to lead the Palestinian national liberation movement, it is unfortunately at present also one of its most marginal. As a nominally Marxist-Leninist organization, it lost its major international sponsor — the USSR — when the Soviet bloc collapsed. After Habash stepped down as leader in 2000, his successor, Abu Ali Mustafa, was assassinated via an Israeli airstrike the following year. The PFLP’s current leader, Ahmad Sa’adat, is currently languishing in an Israeli prison. Israeli authorities claim he was involved in the 2001 assassination of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi. According to Amnesty International, he is being held illegally on bogus charges. Either way, the result is the same — as Greenstein puts it, “very little remains of the PFLP.” The likelihood of it overtaking Hamas and Fatah is therefore, at this stage, highly remote.

Alas, we must face the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Given Hamas’ position, the only sensible conclusion is that — whatever its faults — it must be included in the peace process that will ultimately be necessary to resolve the conflict in Palestine. This view is becoming increasingly mainstream. In 2015, the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, called for “direct dialogue” with the Islamist group. Indeed, at that time Israel had already been engaged in indirect talks with Hamas via a Qatari mediator about the possibility of establishing a long-term ceasefire.

In May 2021, I interviewed Pappé and asked him specifically about the PFLP. He stated:

As someone on the left and a socialist… I’m very close to the PFLP vision not only of Palestine but also of the Arab world and I pray for it. But I think we have to be realistic and to look for a more consensual kind of Palestine where we do not sideline the political Islamic groups, which are an important part of our life. …

I think the left has to play a very important role in this because of its experience in organizations, its past fight for social justice, so that social justice is not forgotten in the fight for liberation, that the impact of neoliberalism on our society is not disregarded as part of the problem and that fighting against it is part of the solution. That’s why, like you, I feel that the PFLP, of course, as a leftist organization has these ideas. But they need to be adapted to the reality of 2021 and be relevant not just to hardcore leftists but relevant to large sections of Palestinians wherever they are.

In short, though the PFLP is marginal organizationally and militarily, it can still serve as a powerful incubator of ideas that can help guide the Palestinian people through to a peace process and through the remaining years of conflict that lie between then and now.

As for Hamas, the Palestinian solidarity movement’s relationship with the organization is, and will remain, a complex one. For my part, I continue to support the national liberation struggle, even if I regret that Hamas leads it, and as always I condemn failures to discriminate between enemy combatants and civilians. Above all, I believe that an important role of Palestinian solidarity activists is to consistently stress that it is not Hamas but rather Israel’s continued occupation that is the root cause of the conflict.

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Peter Bolton

Journalist covering global affairs from a decidedly left perspective.