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Hamas’ Bid for Revolutionary Legitimacy
By focusing on the gruesomeness of the violence, we miss the political dimension of what's going on.
One of the difficult subtexts Shadi and I have been kicking around on the pod (and offline) is the question of Hamas’ legitimacy.
On a recent episode, recorded the week after Hamas’ bloody rampage through southern Israel, I argued that the most committed supporters of the Palestinian cause ought not to have any qualms about condemning Hamas. Following Shadi’s own logic around democratic legitimacy, it holds that Hamas’ actions were in no way representative of the Palestinians’ own wishes. After all, there have been no elections since 2006, and Hamas was particularly brutal in entrenching itself since then. Notably, under the cover of the 2008 war with Israel, Hamas executed and maimed scores of its political opponents from Fatah for supposedly collaborating with the enemy.
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I bracketed the question of Israel’s responsibility for civilian casualties, saying that of course Israel is an actor with agency and can choose how it will react. But that’s a separate moral question. I said that, like Osama Bin Laden, Hamas knew what it was doing. It calibrated its attack in such a way as to provoke a maximally violent reaction — perhaps even an overreaction — in order to serve itself. After all, I argued, Hamas knew that the Israelis and Saudis were getting closer and closer to a U.S.-sponsored accord that would in all likelihood lead to their eventual downfall. Iranian and Qatari funding would be shut off, and Hamas’ political rivals would be empowered. The sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives of their fellow Palestinians would be a worthy price to pay to remain in power. Creating a catastrophe, I said, was an act of breathtaking cynicism. It was a hijacking of the Palestinian cause.
(In case you missed it, it’s worth watching this exchange between an Al-Arabiya journalist and Hamas’ political head. She levels some of these same criticisms against him.)
But by the time we recorded our latest episode with, I started contemplating a different perspective. A lot of people who feel deeply committed to the Palestinian cause are rushing to insert context into what has happened. “Of course we detest what Hamas did, but…” But the history. But the injustice of Israeli occupation. But the dispossession. But the violence doled out by the Israelis for decades.
What struck me is that this “decent” view, prevalent among mainstream advocates and activists, was far less coherent than the view of the students and street protesters who have since flooded into the discussion — the people cheering Hamas’ daring murderous exploits, the people posting memes with paragliders, the people ominously chanting “from the river to the sea”. The mainstream wrung its hands about Hamas’ brutality, but at the end of the day felt a kind of understanding for what it had done, though they’d never say so in polite company. “What do you expect the oppressed Palestinians to do once all other roads have been closed to them?”
The young street protesters and students, however, have no such qualms. They are openly and knowingly espousing the language of bloody, violent revolution. They consider what Hamas pulled off to be an act of revolutionary justice. Yes, many of the activists at elite universities are indulging in easy revolutionary talk from positions of extreme comfort. Nevertheless they are much more honest and coherent than those who want it both ways — those who want to distance themselves from Hamas’ most gruesome acts, but still recoil from declaring that Hamas has completely delegitimized itself by spilling innocent blood.
Indeed, in spending all our time on the question of victimhood, bloodshed, and tragic historical causes, we fail to fully appreciate that for revolutionary movements, violence is a political act. Like any number of revolutionary movements, Hamas knew exactly what it was doing. But in my initial read of its cynical calculation, I didn’t give them their due. They weren’t merely trying to torpedo a deal that could be their undoing. They were making a bid for full political legitimacy among Palestinians.
Violence as politics, if done correctly, not only triggers a predictable cascade of moves in the adversary that are then exploited by the revolutionaries. It also asphyxiates any political program that is less extreme than the revolutionary agenda.
That’s what was on display in a recent Washington Post dispatch from the West Bank, which described Hamas-aligned militants readying themselves to overthrow Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority as soon as the opportunity presents itself. “When the people go out [to the streets], the PA will have no control,” one the militants reportedly said. “They are not taking the lead. So, if they don’t back the resistance, it will be their end.”
And that’s what our most recent episode captured: both Shadi and Peter Beinart gasping for air, looking for anything at all to hold on to.
As we try to wrap our heads around what is happening, it’s important to keep this revolutionary context firmly in mind — and the several things it implies.
First, revolutions are zero-sum. And by most accounts, that logic now dominates both sides of the conflict. By its actions, Hamas has openly shown itself to be implacably hostile to Israel’s very existence, and the Israeli public in return now broadly demands that Hamas be itself eradicated by any means necessary. It’s conceivable that at the end of a very costly Israeli ground invasion that manages to maul but not destroy Hamas, some kind of negotiated “new normal” is arrived at. Compromise can be built on mutual exhaustion. But as things stand, that exhaustion is going to have to be truly debilitating for diplomacy of any shape to have any chance.
Second, revolutions can spread. Hamas is counting on a bloody Gaza invasion to galvanize Muslim opinion across the Middle East, and across the world. In Europe, governments are cracking down on free speech out of a palpable fear of their Muslim minorities erupting in potentially violent discontent (which has been simmering for years for unrelated reasons). European secret services are no doubt in a frantic search for Iranian and Palestinian agents provocateurs that could trigger wider unrest. And where there is revolution, there is counter-revolution. Marine LePen in France and the AfD in Germany stand to gain handsomely if things get further out of hand.
Finally, revolutions can succeed, with truly unexpected knock-on effects. The French Revolution was a nasty affair, and it engulfed the European continent in decades of war. But it also ultimately transformed it. Narrow success for Hamas would entail surviving, and in doing so becoming the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian cause. But although this all started as a war over the Palestinian question, it’s also very much a war against the American-led order in the Middle East. Iran’s proxies Hamas and Hezballah are facing off against Israel, but they know that in doing so they are also standing against the Great Satan. Western revolutionary supporters of Hamas understand this. Those who feel torn about Hamas should think carefully about where all this is leading.
For the record, let me end by saying that I am emphatically not a revolutionary. On balance, I rue the French Revolution, and I see nothing but horrors emerging from the one that may soon kick off in the Middle East.
But my preferences are besides the point. As are those of other moderates hoping for a different way out of this mess.