Gaza escalation reflects new phase of Palestinian armed resistance

A member of Al-Quds Brigade, the military wing of Islamic Jihad (Ashraf Amra - APA Images)

Faris Giacaman

Mondoweiss  /  August 14, 2022

Israel has not been able to defeat armed Palestinian resistance over the past two decades, and there are now signs it is witnessing a resurgence.

The following is an excerpted transcript from the latest episode of the Mondoweiss podcast. In it, Mondoweiss Managing Editor Faris Giacaman shares the evolution of Palestinian armed resistance over the past 25 years, and how it set the stage for the latest Israeli attack on Gaza.

I want to provide a brief background on what led us here by talking about how Palestinian confrontation with Zionism has evolved over the past two decades. This basically takes us back to the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, which was a full-scale military confrontation between armed Palestinian resistance factions and the Israeli military.

The Intifada lasted for about roughly five years, and it was notable for inflicting considerable casualties in Israeli ranks, more than ever before in the history of Palestinian armed struggle. So despite the power imbalance, and the heavy toll paid by Palestinians, the armed resistance still posed a formidable military challenge to the most powerful army in the Middle East. And even Martin Van Creveld, a leading Zionist military historian, all but admitted in the preface to his history of the Israeli army that Israel was losing in the early months of the uprising.

Israel’s response to this was to mount a massive counterinsurgency campaign. It began as a series of military operations against bastions of armed resistance in the West Bank and Gaza — most notably Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 — the objective of which was to root out Palestinian guerilla groups, but more importantly, to separate them from their social base.

And what’s notable about this period is that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority were a significant part of the armed struggle.

The Israeli counterinsurgency campaign largely succeeded, but its success was partial. It reached a permanent ceasefire with Fatah and the PA in 2005, and then began the next and most important phase of its campaign — what you might call soft counterinsurgency — which was to pacify and de-fang Fatah and the PA. We know this period as Salam Fayyad and Netanyahu’s “economic peace” plan, and US General Keith Dayton’s effort to create what he called “a new Palestinian breed,” referring to the massive resources that were put into restructuring the Palestinian Police force and the PA security apparatus, to create a generation of obedient soldiers disconnected from their social environments. Alongside all of that, Palestinian consumerism skyrocketed as entire generations became saddled with debt and bank loans. All of this was happening exclusively in the West Bank.

The other side of the coin is Gaza. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad never gave in to the pressures that Fatah buckled under in 2005, and for a number of reasons, the factions within Hamas that supported the continuation of armed resistance were and remained dominant — this is what is meant by an only partially successful counterinsurgency strategy — whereas in Fatah, the militants were marginalized, their arms were confiscated, and they were basically relegated to the sidelines.

With the West Bank effectively pacified for the time being, Israel’s counterinsurgency strategy towards Gaza became the blockade — to try to starve out the Palestinian population and levy a high price for continuing to resist, and with the hope that this would be enough to turn the population against the resistance. Of course, Hamas as a ruling party left much to be desired in terms of governance, corruption, cronyism, and repression, especially being in an already starved and besieged strip, but it still managed to hold onto its seat in Gaza, and it managed to adhere to a resistance line at a time when the rest of Palestinian political officialdom had virtually abandoned it.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) movement is somewhat different. It was never interested in the business of ruling, and its sole commitment has and continues to be armed resistance against Zionism in Palestine. That being said, Hamas-Jihad relations have been relatively close throughout the blockade, and in previous wars on Gaza they participated in joint military operations in what has become known as the resistance’s “joint room of operation.”

This recent war was different. Hamas didn’t engage in battle, and the PIJ was left to fight on its own. Hamas as a ruling party has been feeling the crushing weight of the blockade, which has lasted for more than 15 years. This year was not the year it was prepared to engage in another round of fighting with Israel, still reeling from last year’s war in May 2021. At the same time, some analysts have been too quick to point out that Hamas’s lack of participation signals a sea-change in its willingness to continue pushing a resistance line. These judgements are likely premature.

Here is the crux of the matter. For the first time in the history of Gaza’s wars, this war was not started in order to eradicate the resistance in the Gaza Strip per se — but to eradicate it in the West Bank.

This bears repeating: Israel launched its recent offensive in order to root out resistance in the West Bank. This brings us back to the Fatah militants who were marginalized during the post-Intifada period. While they were sidelined, they weren’t wiped out, and indeed they have witnessed a resurgence.

The West Bank seems to be witnessing the emergence of more and more armed groups that are disaffected, many of them tied either to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (Fatah’s military wing) or are tied to or influenced by the PIJ, the main leadership of which is based in Gaza. Moreover, it appears that the PIJ has been putting efforts into creating more networks in the West Bank, which explains Israel’s so-called preemptive strike against the PIJ in Gaza. Its objective is to deal a blow to the PIJ and take out some of its main leaders, aiming to neutralize whatever role it may have had in funding, agitating for, or planning armed resistance in the West Bank.

Gaza represents a thorn in Israel’s side, as it is effectively the last territorial haven of armed resistance in Palestine that also exercises a modicum of exclusive control over that part of Palestine. What Israel cannot stomach is for something similar to happen in the West Bank — to witness semi-liberated areas sprouting across the West Bank, whether in Jenin refugee camp, the Old City of Nablus, or elsewhere. This also explains the campaign of repression and assassinations in the West Bank, most notably the recent assassination of resistance fighter Ibrahim Nabulsi and his comrades.

Faris Giacaman is the Managing Editor for Mondoweiss

Listen to the full discussion from Episode 41 of the Mondoweiss Podcast “Israel attacks Gaza again; Palestinian resistance remains” here.