The Palestinian national narrative is one of calamity and victimhood at the hands of the Jews. But their politics are largely driven by those who insist that they possess an innate, unstoppable strength, that Israel, for all its tanks and jet fighters, is a paper tiger that will wither in the face of sheer Palestinian willpower.
This rhetoric is rooted in the grand strategy of the Palestinian national movement since the days of Yasser Arafat, a strategy upheld today mainly by Hamas.
This strategy is a classically anti-colonial one: A colonial power invades a territory in order to exploit its resources, and in response, the anticolonialist attempts to make the cost of staying exceed the benefit. The brutality of anti-colonial warfare in the 20th century flows from this logic. As scholars of suicide terrorism have pointed out, the perpetrators’ very willingness to die is a key part of the strategic logic behind the operation, since it signals to the enemy not only that its own civilians are not safe, but that the attackers cannot be deterred, not even by death, and therefore that each attack foreshadows worse to come. (It is in response to this aspect of suicide terrorism that Israel sometimes pursues the much-criticized strategy of destroying the homes of terrorists’ families — a kind of third-party deterrence against those too eager for self-sacrifice to be deterrable on their own terms.)
In nearly every case throughout the 20th century, when a colonialist has faced such escalating brutality, the benefits obtained from the occupied territory lost their luster, and the would-be exploiter soon returned home.
That, at least, was what happened to French Algeria, the most obvious and oft-repeated historical parallel among Palestinians.
The Algerian anticolonial struggle cost that country dearly, but ultimately resulted in liberation from the colonial oppressor. To Israelis, Hamas is a terror group engaged in wanton and pointless killing. But in Hamas’s vision of itself, it is the Algerian resistance, braving the horrific costs of the struggle in order to bring about the inevitable outcome: the expulsion of the occupier.
The anticolonial strategy depends on its ability to influence the psychology of the colonialist. So it only works if the colonialist believes he is one, if he has a separate “home country” to which he can return, if the only thing being weighed against the violence is the economic benefit of exploiting the occupied territory a little longer.
It is in these features that the strategic error (for the purposes of this argument, let’s momentarily ignore the moral problems) at the root of Hamas’s anticolonial struggle can be discerned. Israel is not the French occupation of Algeria. Again, that’s not a moral judgment, but a sociological fact. Israel’s Jews have a shared sense of national history and identity, a narrative of ancient belonging in the land and a language spoken nowhere else. More prosaically, Israel has eight million citizens, two million of them schoolchildren, living in 76 cities connected by 18,000 kilometers of road. It is no mere political system or settlement; it is a civilization. And, of course, unlike the French in Algeria, Israelis have nowhere else to go.
So we must ask: What happens when the anticolonial strategy of terrorism is employed against an indigenous national identity? Or more bluntly, what happens when you send a suicide bomber to murder the innocent children of a tribe that does not believe it has anywhere else to go? The response to such violence is the very opposite of the colonialist’s: instead of flight, war.
Needless to say, the historical truth of either the Israeli or Palestinian national narrative is irrelevant to the argument being made here. Hamas’s anticolonial strategy depends not so much on what Israel is as on what it believes itself to be.
Haviv Rettig Gur, “The Tragic Self-Delusion Behind the Hamas War”, The Times of Israel (17 July 2014) [http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-tragic-self-delusion-behind-the-hamas-war/]