It’s time to change liberal discourse about Hamas

Members of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas (Nidal Alwaheidi - SOPA Images)

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  June 10, 2021

Representative Ilhan Omar may have thought she was doing Palestinians a favor when she challenged Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a congressional hearing on Monday.

But her comments about Hamas only reinforce Israeli propaganda delegitimizing Palestinian resistance.

Sadly Omar’s both-sidesism is a common feature of discourse even among ostensibly pro-Palestinian liberals.

Omar posted this video clip of her exchange with Blinken. In her tweet she wrote that “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity.”

She claimed, “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan and the Taliban.”

Omar rightly challenges Blinken over US opposition to the International Criminal Court investigation of these alleged “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

“I would emphasize that in Israel and Palestine, this includes crimes committed by both the Israeli security forces and Hamas,” she says. “In Afghanistan it includes crimes committed by the Afghan national government and the Taliban.”

In her spoken comments, Omar notably omits crimes committed by the United States.

Blinken’s response – as many have correctly noted – is as hypocritical and dishonest as expected. He falsely claims that Palestinians can seek justice in Israel.

No equivalence

But it is deeply troubling that Omar – who has been raising election campaign money off her rhetorical support for Palestinians – describes Palestinian resistance and self-defense as “crimes against humanity” and equates it with Israel’s colonial violence.

This is a cheap and easy way to demonstrate a false evenhandedness, just as criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu has become the politically acceptable way for US politicians to appear to be tough on Israel without actually challenging its fundamental racism.

The politically harder case to make, but the correct one, is that there is no moral equivalence between a colonized people exercising its internationally recognized right to resist with the means it has, and a nuclear-armed state using advanced weaponry to murder and terrorize those people into submission.

Israel’s list of atrocities is too long and well-known to repeat here. In addition to expelling 800,000 Palestinians during its founding, Israel has killed some 100,000 Palestinians and Arabs since 1948 – beginning decades before Hamas was established in 1988.

Israel’s attack on Gaza last month involved the deliberate targeting of civilian homes – wiping out whole families – and the large-scale destruction of businesses, media offices and infrastructure.

The horror was so stark that even The New York Times – Israel’s unofficial American image consultancy – could no longer just brush it under the carpet.

If it is ridiculous to compare Hamas’ violence – both in context and quantity – to that of Israel, it is even more absurd to place the Palestinian group in the company of the United States.

Since World War II, the US has left an unparalleled toll of death and destruction around the world.

Millions have been killed by US wars, coups and interventions from Southeast Asia to Guatemala to Iraq and many countries in between.

But what are the “atrocities” Hamas is accused of by Ilhan Omar?

“Indiscriminate” rockets

We are often told that Hamas is guilty of targeting civilians because it “indiscriminately” fired thousands of rockets towards Israeli cities and strategic assets.

The main purpose of these rockets is to deter Israel and to impose a cost on it for its ethnic cleansing and attacks on Palestinians – whether in Gaza or Jerusalem.

Their development was a response to Israel’s attempt to physically isolate Gaza from the rest of Palestine, in order to fragment and weaken Palestinians and facilitate the colonial theft of their land.

As Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, explained in a recent interview with Vice News, Palestinians do not use unguided rockets by choice.

“Israel, which possesses a complete arsenal of weaponry, state-of-the-art equipment and aircraft, intentionally bombs our children and women, on purpose,” Sinwar said.

“You can’t compare that to those who resist and defend themselves with weapons that look primitive by comparison. If we had the capabilities to launch precision missiles that targeted military targets, we wouldn’t have used the rockets that we did.”

“We are forced to defend our people with what we have, and this is what we have,” he added.

Indeed, it is rare to hear any of those complaining that Palestinian rockets are “indiscriminate” urging, say, the United States or the European Union to arm Palestinians with precision weapons, as they arm Israel.

It is true, nonetheless, that the rockets are not harmless to civilian life.

During 11 days of intensified violence last month, 11 people were killed in Israel due to rocket fire and a soldier was killed near the Gaza-Israel boundary by an anti-tank weapon.

According to Sinwar, Hamas did not use its full capabilities in the recent escalation.

This assertion, if true, would indicate that the group’s goal was not to cause maximum death and destruction, but to use the minimum force necessary to achieve the resistance goals of deterrence and self-defense.

Contrast that with the 250 Palestinians including at least 67 children killed in Gaza, as Israel bombarded the territory night and day with its “precision” weapons for the purpose of crushing resistance to an apartheid regime.

Every life is precious, but equating Israeli colonial violence with Palestinian resistance as Omar does obscures these facts.

Violence starts with the oppressor

For the sake of completeness, we must consider whether the Hamas “atrocities” Omar mentioned possibly refers to the suicide bombings previously carried out by Palestinians from the mid-1990s, as a desperate asymmetrical response to the violence of Israeli occupation.

Palestinian organizations abandoned the widely condemned tactic after 2008.

Similar violence has however always been part and parcel of anti-colonial struggle, with Indigenous groups seeking to impose on their colonizers a taste of the terror the colonizers first imposed on them.

Nelson Mandela – now treated as a saint by Western political leaders who support Israel’s massacres of Palestinians and condemn Palestinian resistance – explains this in his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom.

“It is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle,” Mandela writes. “If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently. In our case, it was a legitimate form of self-defense.”

“It is up to you, not us, to renounce violence,” Mandela recalls telling the apartheid regime.

During the early days of the armed struggle, Mandela affirms that his African National Congress preferred tactics that would not kill people.

But he makes clear that “if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism.”

In Palestine, the bombing of marketplaces, hotels and other civilian areas began not as part of an anti-colonial struggle but as a colonial tactic introduced by Zionist settlers in the 1930s to terrorize the indigenous Palestinians and prevent them from exercising their right to self-determination.

Even if Palestinians were only emulating the Zionists, it seems unlikely that the suicide bombings of the 1990s and early 2000s are the “atrocities” Omar was referring to.

First, as noted, the tactic has been long abandoned.

Second, suicide bombings were not only carried out by Hamas, but by other Palestinian groups as well, including the Fatah faction of Mahmoud Abbas, the US-backed leader of the Palestinian Authority who remains a close ally of Israel and with whom Blinken is eager to re-establish warm ties.

Third, it can hardly be said that victims of such bombings had no access to “justice” – or what might properly be called revenge.

Israel carried out numerous extrajudicial executions supposedly in response to the attacks, including of Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, the Hamas founder who was blind and had used a wheelchair since childhood.

In 2003, the year before it assassinated Yasin, Israel killed more “bystanders” in such revenge attacks than “terrorists or suspected terrorists,” according to the US government.

That, however, is not considered “terrorism” by the United States.

Israel has also jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti since 2002. It accuses him of being one of the leaders of “the Palestinian terror campaign of suicide bombings and shooting attacks on Israeli citizens” during the second intifada of the early 2000s.

In a trial in which Barghouti refused to participate or defend himself, Israel convicted him of a role in attacks that killed five people and sentenced him to five life terms.

Notably, even the Israeli judges – whom Barghouti likened to “pilots who fly planes and drop bombs” on Palestinians – acquitted him of involvement in dozens of other of violent acts for lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, the US has passed countless “anti-terrorism” laws that collectively punish Palestinians and Palestinian Americans in US courts for acts of which Hamas is accused.

By contrast, Palestinians have no recourse in US courts for Israel’s US-sponsored crimes against them.

As Ilhan Omar rightly highlights, the US now seeks to deny Palestinians access to justice at the International Criminal Court as well.

At the same time, every form of resistance Palestinians engage in – from armed struggle to nonviolent boycotts – is routinely condemned by the so-called international community.

“Well-behaved victims”

One of the easiest political ploys in the West is to demonize Hamas – among other Palestinian groups – as wild-eyed religious fanatics bent on death and destruction for its own sake, or due to irrational hatred of Jews.

That’s always been Israel’s propaganda message, and sadly it is one that Omar’s comments play into whether she intends to or not.

Since its establishment, and especially in the last two decades, Hamas has moved to the mainstream of Palestinian national politics.

It has asserted its independence from the Muslim Brotherhood, the transnational organization founded in Egypt a century ago, and accepted the 1967 border as the basis for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

It also explicitly repudiated language in some of its earlier documents that borrowed from classical European anti-Semitic tropes.

These changes were confirmed in a document outlining its guiding principles, released in 2017.

“Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion,” the document states. “Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.”

The document also affirms the right of Palestinians to resist Israel militarily but articulates that military action is a means to achieve political and national goals and not an end in itself.

And nor is it the preferred means, as Hamas leader Sinwar explained in his Vice News interview.

“We know that we don’t want war or fighting because it costs lives and our people deserve peace,” Sinwar said.

In a likely reference to the 2018 Great March of Return – to which Israel responded by ordering snipers to shoot children – Sinwar added, “For long periods of time, we’ve tried peaceful resistance and popular resistance.”

But instead of acting to stop Israel’s crimes and massacres, “the world stood by and watched as the occupation war machine killed our young people,” Sinwar said.

“Does the world expect us to be well-behaved victims while we are being killed, for us to be slaughtered without making a noise?”

A fact-based assessment of Hamas policies belies the racist propaganda and lies that it is merely a bloodthirsty organization so intent on violence that it will even use Palestinian children as human shields.

US and Israeli rejectionism

For many years, Hamas’ political and military strategy has been to emulate the path to politics followed by other national liberation and anti-colonial movements, particularly Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army.

Those Irish groups, long demonized as “terrorists” by the British, were nonetheless part of the negotiations that brought about the 1998 Belfast Agreement, ending decades of violence in Ireland’s north.

That agreement also set out the political terms by which Irish nationalists could achieve their goal of abolishing Northern Ireland, the partitioned statelet created by the British to protect the power and privileges of the predominantly Protestant settler-colonial community.

If Hamas and other Palestinian factions continue their military resistance, it is because Israel and its American and European sponsors have rejected all of the generous and far-reaching Palestinian offers of accommodation with the Israelis.

Even Hamas eventually acquiesced to the so-called two-state solution, in which Palestinians accepted a state on just 22 percent of their country.

Israel’s response has always been total rejectionism, insisting that Israel should retain permanent possession, control and Jewish supremacy in all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Indeed, so extreme is this rejectionism, that while the US negotiates directly with the Taliban – with which it is fighting a war – it refuses any contact with Hamas, which has never been at war with the United States.

The US-brokered normalization deals various Arab regimes signed with Israel during the last year gave Israel a further green light to escalate its ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem.

This forced Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza to respond militarily in defense of the Palestinians in Jerusalem abandoned to their fate by the rest of the world.

To place violence by Palestinian resistance groups in the same category as that of the colonial occupier or of the United States is to engage in reprehensible moral equivalence. It’s no different to those who cry “All Lives Matter” when confronted with the reality of systematic racism and police violence against Black people in the United States.

Yes, the lives of all human beings matter, but the responsibility for the violence that takes those lives is not equally shared.

Without a clear diagnosis of where the responsibility lies – and in Palestine, the root cause of all political violence is Zionist colonization – there can be no hope for a just peace that brings it to an end.

Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada