Words matter, they help us better understand our world and ourselves, especially at complex times such as this latest round of military attacks by Israelis and Palestinians. The prevalent global description and analysis of the fighting is inadequate for anyone who seeks seriously to grasp the three critical dimensions of the fighting — its causes, nature, and consequences.
None of those three dimensions is addressed by the facile nature of politicians’ statements or mainstream media analyses, which tend to emphasize rockets fired by Palestinians from Gaza, Israel’s right to defend itself against such attacks, and speculation about a possible cease-fire or an imminent Israeli ground attack into Gaza.
Words can help, and in this case it is worthwhile examining the words that Palestinians use to describe themselves, if we are seriously interested in understanding the core issues that define this conflict which has manifested itself since the 1930s in so many different ways, all of which lead back to the basic issue at hand: the battle between Zionism and Arabism in Palestine, more particularly the battle between the rights of a Jewish-majority state of Israel and a dismembered and exiled Palestinian community that continues to struggle for its national rights.
The two leading Palestinian political and military groups that have mobilized their public opinion over the past 45 years are Fateh and Hamas. Fateh was founded and for decades headed by Yasser Arafat, and now controls the Palestine National Authority that manages the West Bank under Israeli tutelage; Hamas came into being in the early 1980s and has dominated the Gaza Strip for some years now.
Fateh is a peculiar acronym that comprises, in reverse order, the first three letters of the movement’s name in Arabic, which is Haraket Tahrir Filistin, or the Palestine Liberation Movement. Hamas is an acronym in Arabic for its full name, which is Haraket el-Muqawama el-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. The two most important action words in their names are “tahrir” and “muqawama”, or “liberation” and “resistance.” In the etymology of Palestinian nationalist, “liberation” and “resistance” are central emotional and political dynamics, because they largely define the nature of Palestinian identity and goals. They are the most important things to understand about how Palestinians feel and behave.
The once-dominant and -vital Fateh movement has become a sad shell of its former self, with some very bright and patriotic leaders who have totally lost touch with their people in Palestine and abroad. Hamas has risen to the fore in recent decades mainly because it has more faithfully reflected the will of Palestinians to resist their occupation and subjugation, and to seek liberation and a normal life in their own sovereign state. Hamas’ core mission is “resistance,” whether through military actions that have little impact on Israel or through trying to organize Palestinians politically to improve their living conditions while they await eventual liberation.
Hamas is a heroic tragedy, simultaneously admirable and sorrowful. It is heroic for many Palestinians because it persists in resisting Zionism’s desire to eliminate Palestinian nationalism and identity as real forces that demand respect, and can be manifested in some kind of national sovereignty in Palestine. “Resistance” to Hamas supporters and others means many things at once. It means consistently asserting Palestinian national rights, and the need to end refugeehood. It means constantly challenging the oppressive status quo that Palestinians suffer, especially in Gaza. It means consistently increasing its technical capabilities in rockets, drones and communications, which allow it to pester and inconvenience Israel more effectively with every new round of fighting.
Yet Hamas is also tragic because its strategy and tactics both result in repeated mass suffering by Palestinian civilians. The state of Israel, being the sovereign manifestation of Zionism, has repeatedly shown that it will viciously attack, assassinate, imprison and imperil all Palestinians, in Palestine, Lebanon or elsewhere, to maintain its hold on the land of Palestine. It is possible that Hamas’ long-term strategy of steadfastness and resistance will succeed one day in forcing Israel to accept its terms, but that remains only a slim possibility; the reality meanwhile is that millions of Palestinians suffer the burden of repeated Israeli attacks on their homes and communities.
Every time Israel savagely attacks Gaza and then accepts a cease-fire, the Palestinian resistance movements soon re-emerge and prepare for the next fight. The lesson they offer is that their will to resist is indomitable, however costly the price.
Exiled and subjugated communities like the Palestinians today usually behave in ways that seem strange to middle class consumers in faraway lands, including fighting apparently futile battles and subjecting their populations to prolonged suffering and death — and then doing the same thing again a few years later. This can only be understood by appreciating the nature of “resistance” and the allure of “liberation” — which means analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian issue accurately as an existential battle between Zionist power and Palestinian national rights that has gone on for almost a century.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global