Stop Using Hamas as a Bogeyman to Silence Palestinians

Enthusiasts for Israeli militarism often claim that Gaza needs “freeing from Hamas.” Such a claim is steeped in the logic of collective guilt, refusing Palestinians the right to both armed struggle and the ballot box.

Palestinians gather during a protest against US president Joe Biden's support for Israel at Unknown Soldier Memorial Park in Gaza City, July 14, 2022. (Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This spring, Britain’s right-wing press had the chance to return to the heady days of the Jeremy Corbyn era and one of its favorite pastimes of that period: associating the former Labour leader with Hamas.

The accusations concerned a webinar about Palestinian liberation involving a representative from the party. We were told that Corbyn was due to attend the online meeting, or may simply have been invited to attend. In any case, he did not do so.

The headlines damning Corbyn’s supposed “Hamas ties” felt like a blast from a tedious and recent past. But they did provide an opportunity for a more valuable discussion on a question deliberately kept absent from Western media discourse: What is Hamas, and what does it want?

First, it’s important to understand how the word “Hamas” has been repurposed as an Islamophobic dog whistle, which needs to be unlearned before any sane analysis of the group can be done. There are only so many times the brain can be exposed to industrial propaganda portraying angry bearded men with dark eyes who use Palestinians as human shields and seek to kill all Israelis before parts of that stereotype — however crude and intentionally distorting — begin to take hold.

There is, furthermore, a crucial danger to Westerners being programmed to respond to any meaningful political resistance in Palestine as “terrorism”: an insinuation now every bit as direct in its racism as profiles of black men as aggressive, or East Asians as bereft of individual identities. It warps the parameters of discussion if Palestinians joining or simply voting for a given political party is interpreted as inherently threatening. Palestinians end up denied the right to armed struggle, but also to democratic political action. At this point, Westerners are either requesting — or, in at least one Israeli diplomat’s case, genocidally demanding — the “suicide” of all Palestinian identity as a precondition of peace. Such a position inherently denies Palestinians the justice on which true peace must rest.

These sort of preconditions, whether accidental or plain hateful, reveal a further truth. Even many in the West who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause become conditioned into the more benevolently racist notion that Palestinian liberty should be “granted” to them through acts of decency or forbearance that show the redeeming moral face either of the West or of Zionism, rather than as a freedom that is demanded and won by empowered human beings. In this respect, Hamas represents a twofold threat to the West, challenging Zionist militarism but so, too, the Western saviorism that sees itself as the only and ultimate source of liberation, expecting the oppressed in Palestine and elsewhere simply to wait patiently on its arrival.

Without doubt, there is a growing trend of Palestinians and their struggle being normalized and humanized, including in such liberal organs as the New York Times, the Guardian, and Haaretz. Palestinian cookbooks tell the story of the occupation, and Palestinian cyclists give Westerners insight on how Zionist occupation brutally reshapes even the innocence of a bike ride. People like Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd use their vast social media followings to explain life and politics in Palestine to the outside world.

All of this is invaluable in a media ecosystem that has long dehumanized Palestinians. But their freedom doesn’t stop at bikes and cuisine. That Palestine has always created inspiring individuals also shows the truth that an individual is never enough. Only broad-based movements are capable of changing forces, given the strength and the allies that Zionism has. Occasional warmhearted coverage will ultimately perform a hostile function if it also imposes a glass ceiling on Palestinians who — in return for being humanized at all — are condemned by the same outlets to live without political agency, representation, or meaningful redress. Above all else, Palestinians have the right — cherished and practiced keenly by Westerners — to have sometimes imperfect, and even bad, leadership, Hamas or otherwise, and not be thrown in front of Israeli bullets and bombs for the shortcoming.

Hamas and Democracy

Hamas — so the conventional history runs — came to power, in 2007, after a brief but bitter civil war it won against the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, run by Fatah.

This version of events, however, crucially (and deliberately) distorts two incontrovertible features in this backstory to Hamas’s political influence. First of all, “coming to power” is — in this case and as so often — only the scare term utilized by establishment outlets when describing those with whom they disagree winning an election, as Hamas had just done in 2006.

Second, and every bit as important, is how it came about that an election victory for Hamas, with external observers present, could be seen as justification for Fatah moving militarily against Hamas rather than beginning the peaceful transfer of powers that elections demand.

Despite this anomaly, among Westerners, Fatah remains the chosen party of Palestinian influence, something that runs contrary to stated Western commitments to democracy. Fatah canceled the more recent 2021 West Bank elections, partly out of fear that Palestinian voters — understandably angry at a lack of progress on their freedoms, and the perceived closeness of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to Israeli occupiers — would vote in increasing numbers for Hamas. It is, of course, also important to recognize Fatah’s stated reasoning for the cancellation, namely that Israeli refusal to allow campaigning, polling stations, or Palestinian political participation in occupied East Jerusalem would have meant ceding Palestinian democratic sovereignty there.

Whatever the finer points of differing perspectives, a clear pattern emerges in which the West’s approach to Fatah and Hamas is consistent with its view of democracy at home; Palestinians are free to choose, so long as they choose correctly.

Hamas and Antisemitism

As with most vilification of meaningful Palestinian resistance, there is the near-constant suggestion (arguably stronger even in the West than in Israeli territories themselves) that Hamas as an organization is not only inherently dangerous but also inherently antisemitic. Despite electoral outcomes showing that Israel is an extremely right-wing society, where even political “centrists” can gloat about killing Palestinians, there is a mammoth external effort to stress the breadth of Israeli opinion — from Kahanist Jewish supremacists to urban liberal Haaretz subscribers. No such nuance is afforded to Hamas or any meaningful resistance in Palestine, which must be cast as a monolith of homogenized and unjustified hate.

We might also note an asymmetry to Western allegations of this nature; people very willing to judge Hamas for even implied hate speech are entirely unwilling to judge the Israeli state for acts of killing, house demolitions, or ritual humiliation that confirm the degree of Israeli hatred. Nor is the same judgment of speech forthcoming even when figures like ambassador to London Tzipi Hotovely confirm this hate through acts of revisionism and denialism like labeling the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba an “Arab lie.”

There are countless examples of this asymmetry of sympathy. It seems that the right to not feel threatened by the liberating call of a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” is more sacred than the lives of Palestinian children — whether Faris Odeh, shot dead in 2000 for throwing a stone at an Israeli tank, or Mohammed Shehadeh, fourteen years old and shot dead in February 2022, along with other Palestinian children.

In fact, the call “from the river to the sea” predates the founding of Hamas by two decades or more. Yet a deep historical revisionism has now crept as high up as the British government: Tory minister Nadhim Zahawi preposterously suggested having the phrase criminalized as a Hamas slogan.

That even highlighting the routine killing of Palestinian children by the Israeli state and settlers is reframed in some quarters as an (obscure) antisemitic trope concerning Jews and children is an admission of the deranged thought and political flat-earthism that now walks tall in Western debate about Palestine.

It is further unfortunate and self-defeating that such a litany of tropes must be constantly deployed, and in many cases, introduced or reintroduced to public prominence, rather than confined to the dustbin of history, or rather than simply recognizing that many in the West care deeply about, and are increasingly concerned for, Palestinian lives and liberty. Political elites’ concerted indifference to extreme Palestinian suffering and the social acceptance granted to many extremist views and figures in Israel — from Tzipi Hotovely to Naftali Bennett — are tantamount to open confessions of Islamophobia, yet carry no public sanction.

Is there evidence of Hamas antisemitism? Yes. Such characterizations most often rely on its 1988 founding covenant. The document foregrounds Jews and Muslims in battle, and reciprocates Israeli ideas and imagery of a religious war (ideas themselves implicit in Israeli demands of a Jewish state, and the use of Jewish iconography across its uniforms and weapons). Among other things, the 1988 document describes Jews hiding behind trees and stones that, loyal to the Muslims, speak to reveal where the Jews are hiding. Also included are more factual accusations that Zionism would seek to spread across to Sinai and Egypt (Israelis had occupied Sinai just a decade prior, and still occupied much of Lebanon and Syria). Nonetheless, there is no mistaking its echoes of Western antisemitism, particularly ideas from the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion and portrayals of Jewish-controlled media.

It would be foolish and inaccurate to argue that today’s Hamas — as with wider society — is without antisemitism or other racisms. But putting aside the fact that the 1988 document was written by people who had been cast out of their homes and off their lands, bore witness to murder, deportation, and acts of ethnic cleansing by Israel, it is also important to reckon with the fact that Hamas has since annulled its founding document. In 2017, Hamas issued a new covenant on which the organization would be henceforth governed. Thrown out was much of the language of religious warfare, and the eternal and sacred distinction between Jews as a people and Zionism as an entity was clearly stated. Article 16 of the new covenant states clearly:

Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine.

Article 16 — reasonably enough — then goes on to add:

Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project.

Hamas also severed long-standing affiliation to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a relationship the West, and particularly its Gulf clients, had often condemned as a sort of transnational alliance, despite Egypt being literally meters away from Gaza, the other side of an artificial border enforced by the Israeli-led blockade.

Most vital, and despite maintaining the right of Palestinians to strive for and achieve their liberation, Article 20 then asserts:

Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.

Hamas thus consents to recognize an Israel along its 1967 lines, before Israel annexed territory in two successive wars and pursued further violent land grabs in Syria’s Golan. Ironically, this leaves Hamas policy closer to international law than the relentless Israeli projects of border and settlement expansion.

In light of this change, efforts to center the 1988 Hamas founding document should be considered a deliberate attempt to keep discourse in the past and on a religious footing, from which Zionism and its enablers are always quick to invoke the accusation of antisemitism. Article 16 clearly rejects antisemitism, while Article 20 acknowledges the existence of an Israeli state that does not come at the expense of Palestinian rights. Hamas policy is now that of the United States, European Union, and most Western states — the problem is more that Hamas means it.

Engaging Hamas

Quite apart from the documents of a political party, it is asking enormous good grace on the part of Palestinians to frame their life-and-death struggle in terms amenable to the ears of Westerners increasingly trained to hear antisemitism, even where all that is being demanded is an end to injustice.

The conflict in Ukraine has shown Westerners adept in recognizing the imperative of resistance against military occupation, though the same standards are yet to be applied to Palestinian struggle for democracy and the observation of international law.

Neither is Hamas so antagonistic toward Western and even Israeli interests as is often represented. In 2015, Hamas was integral to the quick putting down of Islamic State cells within Gaza and Palestine, thus maintaining its commitment to a primarily political process rather than religious war. (Hezbollah did likewise in Lebanon, when the US-trained-and-supported Lebanon Armed Forces failed.) This sort of utility is not wasted on Israel, which — despite their mutual animosity — coordinates closely with Hamas to ensure that more militant cells in Gaza do not grow.

Despite this, and despite the opportunity it presented for working toward progress in Palestine, when Turkey hosted Hamas and Fatah together in Ankara in 2020, with the goal of creating a unified Palestinian position for negotiations, Ankara’s stance was quickly vilified. This vilification took place even though such talks should be seen — almost by definition — as a constructive step for those with even the most mainstream, two-state understanding of justice and peace in Palestine.

There is no doubt that Hamas has practiced and will practice its clearly stated right under international law for an occupied or attacked people to struggle by any means for their liberation. Their broad mislabeling by the West as a terrorist group — most recently by Australia, perhaps reciprocating after the long-sought extradition from Israel of a fugitive sex offender — is out of keeping with the realities on the ground, which even many inside the Israeli state apparatus recognize.

At the heart of the need to engage Hamas is the obvious impossibility of building a robust movement in support of Palestine without meaningful political representation in Palestine too. While Western exposure to consumerism and individualism, both boosted by the social media dynamic through which many engage on Palestine, make it all too easy to discard partners, a liberation struggle can never be successful on such terms.

None of this is to gloss over reactionary ideas within Hamas that can be at odds with the values shared by many in the overwhelmingly progressive international movement for Palestine. Palestinian women, leftists, and LGBTQ groups like alQaws, however, all recognize the necessity of a struggle against Zionism, and are tired of having their minority status invoked to demonize Hamas, only to be condemned to suffer indiscriminate brutality and deprivation as Palestinians under Israeli violence.

Nonnegotiable social freedoms, moreover, will be far easier to attain once Palestinians do not also have to live under foreign military occupiers of any stripe. As it happens, the criminal code by which homosexuality is restricted in Gaza, dating back to 1936, was written by the British. Meanwhile, Palestinian youth initiatives that center political participation, some of which overlap with Hamas youth groups, seldom receive any Western coverage, because to do so would betray the function of the Hamas label. Summer camps run by the group, among other things aiming to help children cope with the realities of life in the Israeli-besieged war zone of Gaza, are famously depicted as a sort of “terrorist” training, while the lavishly funded militarization of Israeli youth and its sympathizers abroad raises not an eyebrow.

Democratic procedure and simple reality in Palestine already dictate that Hamas is a central part of the resistance movement. Anybody seeking to exclude the group cannot be regarded a credible partner in peace. In its 2017 reconfiguration, Hamas has shown itself amenable to change, and done much that was expected of it. It’s time for Westerners to follow suit.