Whose Resistance?

The plight of the Palestinian people fuels Muslim ire, boosting the popularity of non-state militants and non-militant religious groups alike. As a result, the Palestinians are sometimes seen as more symbol than humanity. Amr Hamzawy, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points to a decline of humanitarianism in the region, on the part of a brutal occupying force and on the part of political representatives who neglect civilians. Democratic victories do not give winners “unrestrained moral or political licence to mount any operations it likes without considering the possible costs of its actions and balancing these against potential gains,” the writer notes. “As all experiences in successful national liberation movements testify, what is needed is a painstaking search for intelligent accommodations between right and reality, and what is legitimate and what is possible.” Resistance and change can be accomplished in rational and moral ways. – YaleGlobal

Whose Resistance?

Democratically elected or not, no one asked the Palestinian people if they wanted to confront Israel in the name of resistance
Amr Hamzawy
Monday, February 2, 2009

As always in times of regional crisis and conflict in the Arab world, resistance narratives have dominated the rhetoric surrounding the Israeli war on Gaza and its appalling impact on the lives of people there. And again, the narratives, regardless of whether they emanate from official circles in Arab ruling regimes long accustomed to paying lip-service to the resistance, from non- state militant resistance movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah, or from non-militant religious and secular opposition groups that have rallied to the resistance banner in order to be perceived as identifying with the preferences of broad segments of popular opinion, are characterised by fundamental flaws that expose a decline of humanitarianism in our midst and a disinclination to exercise rational and objective analysis when it comes to considering such antitheses as historical right versus political reality and the legitimate versus the possible.

The decline of humanitarianism becomes shockingly apparent in the way in which the producers of resistance narratives deal with the bloodshed among civilians and the devastation wrought upon their moral and physical wellbeing in the context of confrontation with a ruthless occupying power that has not once refrained from recourse to excessive military force and perpetrating war crimes -- some well documented -- against the Palestinians and other Arab people ever since the balance of regional forces and the realities of international alliances permitted it to do so with impunity. Israel's customary violence and the brutality of its military machine, however, do not exempt resistance activists from the obligation to take all measures possible to protect the lives of civilians and to ward off danger to their fundamental wellbeing. In like manner, the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to resort to all available means to throw off the occupation does not give Hamas an unrestrained moral or political licence to mount any operations it likes without considering the possible costs of its actions and balancing these against potential gains.

From day one of the Israeli invasion, Hamas leaders excluded civilians from their calculations with their frequent cries of resistance to the bitter end, even if it means the annihilation of all the people in Gaza (according to Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government), their boasts of the legendary steadfastness of Gaza (Taher Al-Nunu, spokesman for the Hamas government), and their predictions of ultimate victory in spite of the death and bloodshed (Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas's political bureau). The same essential arrogant indifference to the sanctity of civilian lives is also evidenced in commentaries on the part of many Arab intellectuals sympathetic with Hamas who portray the Hamas electoral victory in 2006 as a democratically-sanctioned mandate to wage resistance and a popular agreement in advance to accept the consequences of Hamas's subsequent decisions regardless of how calamitous the consequences.

What makes this even more regrettable is that these commentators have taken a very specific electoral moment, randomly lifted it from its social and political contexts, and implicitly elevated its results to the level of a carte blanche to make even the most fateful decisions which, in the true sense of democracy, would demand a renewed appeal to the public instead of the mere presumption of public approval. Since it took over power independently in Gaza in the summer of 2007, Hamas and the factions allied with it never held a general referendum or a truly public dialogue in the interest of determining popular preferences with regard to whether or not to continue with the relative calm with Israel regardless of the ongoing blockade or to escalate the confrontation with the occupation beneath the banner of resistance. No one asked the Palestinian people themselves. Rather Hamas, in an authoritarian manner, decided to end the truce and to visit the exorbitant costs of this decision upon the presumed supporters of its decision and upon objectors alike, without either of these bodies of opinion having a say in the matter. What kind of popular mandate are the Arab intellectuals who are supporting Hamas talking about? What kind of democracy do they have in mind? Democracy is not a once-and-for-all vote. Rather its strength resides in the principle of ongoing popular participation, which entails the periodic soliciting of public opinion and abiding by the consensus of the majority.

In conjunction with their haughty disregard for the lives and welfare of civilians, the producers of resistance narratives have totally suspended the requirements for a rational and objective assessment of the current political situation surrounding the Palestinian cause. This is not to dispute the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, statehood and liberation from an occupier that has practised horrific forms of persecution and oppression since the beginning of the last century. However, the intellectuals have failed to address the crucial question as to how, rationally and objectively, on the basis of free and informed choice in light of an awareness of regional and international realities in the distribution of power, to formulate realistic courses of strategic and mobilised action that bring the Palestinians closer to their aspirations.

As all experiences in successful national liberation movements testify, what is needed is a painstaking search for intelligent accommodations between right and reality, and what is legitimate and what is possible. This search must be conducted in a manner that obviates in substance and in form the expropriation, on the grounds of platitudes and the simplistic rubric "resistance is the solution", of the people's right to choose between different options of varying repercussions. The producers of resistance narratives may enumerate the failures of the peaceful settlement option in the Palestinian case, and they may go on ad nauseam about the "great strategic picture in which there is no possibility for a negotiated solution with Israel and its superpower backer that will guarantee the right to self-determination and the creation of a Palestinian state". However, as much as the evidence supports their views, it is not enough to justify, morally or politically, the imposition of the choice of armed resistance on the Palestinian people and to force them to sustain its horrendous costs along with its paltry rewards. The Palestinian people have an inalienable right to choose between resistance and political settlement, and to collectively express their convictions through direct democratic means on the progress of their cause towards or away from its desired goals.

Only free and rational choice can produce a visible popular consensus over whether to proceed with the political process or to continue with the resistance, and then over the moral and political substance of the strategic course upon which the consensus has converged. After all, a negotiated settlement does not necessarily mean commitment to the Oslo framework; nor does resistance have to be restricted to suicide bombings and Qassam missiles.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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