Respectability Politics of Armed Resistance and the Fatah-Hamas Rivalry

By John Fleming

Respectability Politics of Armed Resistance and the Fatah-Hamas Rivalry

For decades, the contentious rivalry between Fatah and Hamas has caused confusion and compounded the problem of Palestinian unity in the face of continued Israeli occupation. Founded in the late 1950s, Fatah has been a more moderate voice among the Palestinians, accepting the recognition of Israel and imploring the use of nonviolence as a means to its goals.

Hamas, on the other hand, was founded in 1987 and brands itself as Sunni fundamentalist group. The unique histories of each group reflect their diverging ideologies that have come to shape them today. For example, Hamas was originally an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. The Brotherhood did not concern itself with politics, and, with tacit support from Israel, the group focused on “social and cultural Islamic activity,” such as social welfare and charity. Therefore, Israel actually encouraged the creation of what would become Hamas. In contrast to Fatah, Hamas has refused to recognize Israel’s statehood and has taken a more violent approach to achieving its goals of Palestinian liberation and the destruction of Israel. Hamas, since its founding in 1987, has been only one strand of armed resistance movements striving for liberation. In the 1980s, Islamist fundamentalism was an increasingly popular ideology, and Hamas aligned itself within the context of this global movement. However, armed resistance from Palestinians—including Christian and secular Palestinians—had already existed before 1987; thus, it is important to note that Hamas does not have a monopoly over the concept of armed resistance. Hamas’ failures and flaws cannot exclusively define Palestinian armed resistance. The creation of a group like Hamas that promoted armed struggle made more sense in a place like the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank; Gaza’s isolation—which has grown only worse since the blockade began in 2007—has created a greater sense of desperation in the Strip than anywhere else in Palestine. Gaza’s unique experience as a sort of open-air prison should be considered when analyzing the history of armed resistance in Gaza in contrast with the West Bank. Aside from its politics, Hamas, reflecting its origins as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been essential in providing social services to Gazans. The unique, desperate struggles in Gaza have necessitated a network of aid that only a group like Hamas has been able to provide. Lara Pham notes that “to ignore the significant network of services offered by Hamas would be a mistake.”

In the wake of a global outbreak of Islamist fundamentalist violence, Hamas has struggled to make itself a viable, accepted player in the Palestinian struggle. Many countries have branded it as a terrorist organization, and the control that Hamas wields in Gaza befuddles the Palestinian bloc’s ability to unify and put more pressure on Israel. Whether someone accepts or rejects the strategies of armed resistance, it has become clear that the international community has cultivated a sense of respectability around the use of violence or nonviolence in a struggle for self-liberation. The Palestinian people unfortunately approach the topic of self-liberation from a point of weakness; Israel clearly has the upper hand in terms of power, money, and support from the world’s great powers—especially the United States. The respectability around the use of nonviolence creates an idealized method of self-liberation and revolution. An oppressed people can protest but not start an outright rebellion; they can fight with words but cannot fight back physically as their family members are slaughtered. This power dynamic creates an ironic situation in which the oppressor—in this case, the state of Israel—continually uses physical force and violence to perpetuate the oppression of the oppressed—the Palestinians—but the oppressed people cannot use the same means to try to stop the oppression. As Stanley L. Cohen notes, there is “a price to be paid” for any and all forms of Palestinian resistance—whether violent or nonviolent. Under international law, the Palestinians have a reasonable right to utilize methods of armed resistance in order to protect themselves.

By appealing to the respectability of nonviolence, Fatah has been more well-liked by the international community. Its moderate approach is more easily digestible by the general public; Hamas, on the other hand, is labeled as evil and violent. Despite the fact that Hamas has been just one of many Palestinian organizations that have utilized armed resistance, Hamas is often singled out, ridiculed, and exiled by the international community. In fact, Israel uses this notion of respectability and the disagreements between Fatah and Hamas to help its own cause. By taking the more flagrant comments of Hamas leaders—such as those of Salah al-Bardawil regarding the Gaza protests of May 2018—and disseminating them, Israel attempts to make Hamas into the only representative of Palestinians. Since Israel’s understands the lack of international support for Hamas, it can utilize Hamas’s lack of respectability to its advantage. This aspect of Israeli propaganda becomes even more confusing once we consider the fact that Israel often uses similar language to describe Fatah as well as Hamas. Palestinian political division—mainly between the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by Fatah, and Hamas—ultimately benefits Israel; by playing Fatah and Hamas off of each other, Israel kills two birds with one stone: it further divides the Palestinian political narrative domestically while also lumping Fatah and Hamas together in front of an international audience by painting any and all Palestinian groups as violent terrorist organizations. Ironically, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah have largely been helpful to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; by managing security and squashing more radical movements, the PA has become largely complacent towards Israeli domination of its people. For example, Palestinians in the West Bank have shown great solidarity towards their Gazan compatriots—only to be stymied and reprimanded by the Abbas administration. Nothing like the organization of the past, the contemporary Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is dominated by Fatah and has proven much more reactionary than radical.

During the Great March of Return in May 2018, Fatah, citing inappropriate actions by Hamas, officially pulled out of the march. However, many Gazans continued to take part in the march, highlighting the lack of influence that Fatah has in Gaza. Fatah, which has much more influence in the West Bank than in Gaza, might be too moderate and complacent for its own good. Fatah’s attempt to be “respectable” in the eyes of the international community sacrifices its progressiveness and has cultivated an unrealistic approach to liberation that seems out of touch with the experiences of average Palestinians, particularly Gazans.

In actuality, the best approach for a unified Palestinian front might be somewhere in the middle of Fatah and Hamas. By breaking down the notion of respectability, the Palestinians can and should demand that their oppression be taken seriously. While Hamas’s occasional insistence on the utter destruction of Israel is not realistic and should be avoided, its popularity among some Palestinians—most notably in the legislative elections of 2006—shows that nonviolence as the one-and-only approach to self-liberation reflects the international community’s lack of understanding of the sheer distress of the Palestinians. Nonviolence is and should be the main thrust of the Palestinian struggle; however, the power imbalance between Israel and Palestine necessitates a more nuanced approach. Nonviolence works only when it changes opinions and galvanizes the rest of the world to help the oppressed people. If this does not happen, then we cannot expect Palestinians to avoid defensive violence forever. As most Palestinian protesters already practice nonviolence, the international community ignores Israel’s blatant use of actual violence. This double-edged sword for Palestinians is unacceptable and further perpetuates the oppression of Palestinian sovereignty and delays Palestinian liberation. Besides the necessary changes to the international practice of “gatekeeping” when it comes to defining legitimate armed struggles, we must recognize that Palestinians need a unified government structure in order to have a chance at liberation. For now, the grassroots movements within Palestine must continue to fill the void left by ineffective, disjointed government, and international campaigns like BDS are effective means for non-Palestinians to show their support for the cause.


John is a summer 2018 intern with the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. He is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, where he studies Middle Eastern studies and anthropology. Passionate about the Palestinian struggle, John hopes to continue working in Palestine activism in the future while pursuing a graduate degree.