Essays

Hamas and the Israeli Ruling Coalition Are Not Collaborators

A response to Jeffrey Goldfarb

Jeffrey Goldfarb argues that if we criticize the behavior of one group, we should not turn a blind eye to the behavior of another. He complains that the contributions of Yossi Gurvitz, Omri Boehm, and Nahed Habiballah to this seminar, while effective in their criticisms of the policies and practices of Israel, ignore the terroristic tactics of Hamas. The truth is, he suggests using a phrase of Omri Boehm, that both Israel (or at least its ruling coalition) and Hamas are “collaborators” in terrorism. Insofar as they both seek “military solutions to problems that ultimately must be addressed politically … they share responsibility for the escalating inhumane death and destruction.”

Jeff’s initial point is a good one. There are good moral as well as political reasons for Palestinians and their supporters to look critically at the tactics of their political leaders — not only of Hamas but also of Fatah. But to move from this to the idea that Hamas and Israel are “collaborators in terrorism” and that they “share responsibility” is absurd. When we are discussing political conflicts, we need to bear in mind what the conflict is about. In South Africa in the apartheid era, both the security forces and the ANC were guilty of torture and murder. But it remains the case that the security forces were fighting to maintain a grotesquely unjust system and the ANC was struggling to overthrow that system. To speak of them as “collaborators in terrorism,” or as “sharing responsibility,” would be patently absurd. So too in the case of Palestine and Israel.

Talk of “collaboration” and “sharing” also obscures the fundamental inequality in the relationship between Hamas and Israel. Israel is by far the most powerful country in the region; it has a technologically advanced army and murderously efficient security forces. It obscures the ill treatment, oppression, and humiliation that Israel inflicts on the people of Gaza on a daily basis. It turns a blind eye on the Israeli blockade and the fact that nearly two million people are literally imprisoned in Gaza. There is nothing remotely comparable on the other side. We must take into account the nature and extent of this inequality if we are to understand the different modalities of violence in play in the struggle between Palestinians and Israel. The term “terrorism” here, and elsewhere, stands in the way, not merely of a understanding the nature of struggles between unequals, but also of coming to terms with what is morally at issue in these struggles.

Despite Boehm’s brilliant demonstration of the “terrorism” of Israeli law, my suggestion is that it would be a good idea to avoid the use of the term “terrorism” for the time being. This should not diminish our horror at murdered children, families destroyed (whether by poorly aimed rockets or “surgical” interventions), the torture of suspects, and so on. But it would be a step towards placing these in a wider and more pervasive spectrum of horrors. And it might lessen the temptation towards a moral absolutism that precludes an understanding of and negotiation with groups that are labeled “terrorist.”

Goldfarb speaks mostly of Hamas. He ignores the Unity Pact between Fatah and Hamas, now only two months old. No doubt the weakness of Hamas was one of the main motivations, but it was undoubtedly a step towards a less intransigent attitude towards Israel. This pact was rejected both by Israel and the USA. As usual, the term “terrorist” was made to do a lot of work. Netanyahu responded by tightening controls on the Hamas border and announcing without evidence that the Hamas leadership was responsible for the murder of the three Yeshiva students and that Hamas would be made to pay. It was clear that his policy has been to destroy the alliance between the PLO and Hamas, even though some measure of political unity is necessary if there is to be negotiation, let alone a political settlement, between Israel and Palestine.

Until I read Benoit Challand’s contribution to this forum, I did not know of the negotiating position put forward by Hamas, which was ignored both by Netanyahu and the mainstream media. Much of the content is familiar to those who have followed the situation in Gaza. Nevertheless, for Netanyahu and his supporters to have tried to explain why it is not possible to allow farmers and fishing communities to pursue their livelihoods and for internationally supervised entry to and exit from Gaza, would have meant going beyond the language of terror. But as Benoit emphasizes, what was even more important was the suggestion of a long-term truce enabling a period of negotiation, and thus a movement beyond the cyclical violence of retribution and revenge. That this was not rejected but in fact ignored is further evidence of Netanyahu’s commitment to a morally untenable status quo.

Also for you:

Ross Poole

  • chiara

    thanks ross for your analysis. i think you raise an important point when you say that we should stop using the word terrorism for the time being: it is a term that has all too often been used (and abused) as a conversation stopper rather than an analytical tool to understand things better.

    • On the issue of using the word terrorism, I agree with Ross and Chiara, that we should use the word carefully, and probably not use it with reference to the actions of the Israelis and the Palestinians in the present conflict in Gaza. My point is not really about terrorism, but about the theoretical confusion of military force with politics by presently dominant factions of the Palestinians and Israelis. I think we are tempted to use the word because it is an easy epithet. We expand the usage to state terror, for the same reason that lead Talal Asad to wonder why we are so outraged by suicide bombings and not “collateral damage.” Better if we consistently follow Asad’s lead on this point, I think.

  • As I indicated in my response to Chiara’s comment, I agree with Ross, that we should suspend the easy use of the word terrorism. On this, Ross and I agree. I also agree that it is important to recognize the inequality in the present conflict, and respond accordingly. Thus, I express appreciation for the contributions by Challand, Gurvitz, Boehm, and especially, Habiballah in my post.

    Yet, I believe, and I think that Ross doesn’t recognize this, that just
    resistance is as responsible for its actions, both concerning means and ends, as is a state responsible for its actions in its pursuit of of self defense. I wonder why is it so hard for critics of Israeli militarized domination to criticize the means of resistance, both on moral and practical grounds.

    Righteous resistance can and does commit atrocity. The mode of resistance has a way of infecting those involved both for the moment and even after the resistance movement is successful. (I believe a tough look at South Africa today does include this, by the way.) Means have a way of becoming ends. Recognizing this would enable us to go beyond Hollywood like understandings of men in black and white hats.

    And here is where we as scholars, intellectuals and citizens have responsibility. We know that there are limits, both moral and practical, to the use of violence, but we don’t adequately use our understanding of this to our diagnosis of the present conflict. And we also underestimate the power of non-violent resistance, what Vaclav Havel called the power of the powerless, what I analyze as the politics of small things, the power of politics, as Hannah Arendt understood it. Effective primarily non-violent political resistance and defense, I believe, would not only avoid atrocity, but also is much more likely to yield a just peace, however remotely this appears at the present moment.

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