Decolonizing Palestine
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Decolonizing Palestine

Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial

Somdeep Sen

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Decolonizing Palestine

Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial

Somdeep Sen

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About This Book

In Decolonizing Palestine, Somdeep Sen rejects the notion that liberation from colonialization exists as a singular moment in history when the colonizer is ousted by the colonized. Instead, he considers the case of the Palestinian struggle for liberation from its settler colonial condition as a complex psychological and empirical mix of the colonial and the postcolonial. Specifically, he examines the two seemingly contradictory, yet coexistent, anticolonial and postcolonial modes of politics adopted by Hamas following the organization's unexpected victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election.

Despite the expectations of experts, Hamas has persisted as both an armed resistance to Israeli settler colonial rule and as a governing body. Based on ethnographic material collected in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Israel, and Egypt, Decolonizing Palestine argues that the puzzle Hamas presents is not rooted in predicting the timing or process of its abandonment of either role. The challenge instead lies in explaining how and why it maintains both, and what this implies for the study of liberation movements and postcolonial studies more generally.

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An Introduction

We don’t know what will happen next. Life is unsure. We are not allowed to have a vision. People here think short-term and are concerned with their immediate needs because we don’t know what destiny looms in the future. Maybe the border will be closed, maybe we won’t get a visa. Palestinians are not allowed to dream about the future
—Ahmed Yousef, Author Interview, Gaza City, May 2013
On May 16, 2013, after a six-hour journey from Cairo, I arrived at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. I was dropped off approximately a hundred meters from the border and had to walk the rest of the way through a security cordon set up by the Egyptian army. When I reached the gate of the border crossing terminal, I gave my passport and a letter to an Egyptian soldier. This letter, issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, allowed me to use the Rafah border crossing to enter Gaza within a designated time period. He examined my documents for a few seconds and then handed them to a superior officer. I waited for the next twenty minutes, still outside under the hot sun, without a passport and surrounded by the vast and desolate landscape of northern Sinai. Looking over my shoulders were Palestinian travelers, nervously waiting to be allowed to enter the border crossing terminal. There was an air of uncertainty. It was possibly a variant of the same sense of uncertainty that a prominent member of Hamas, Ahmed Yousef suggested above to me was synonymous with Palestinian life in Gaza.
Once my documents were returned and I was allowed to enter the premises of the border crossing, Ahmed Yousef’s words were further validated by what I saw inside the Egyptian passport control terminal. Without an adequate system of ventilation, the sweltering summer heat inside was unbearable and some of the elderly travelers had been forced to retire to the chairs in the back of the room. Most other travelers remained gathered around the passport department, waiting patiently for the Egyptian passport control officers to bark out their names on a Public Address system with only one operational speaker. The officers would then fling their passports at them. This was the stamp of approval allowing Palestinians to return home to Gaza. Those who were not “fortunate” enough to receive this stamp of approval were taken to a backroom for extra security checks. Witnessing all this, one anxious Palestinian doctor, desperate to see his family in Gaza City, said to me, “You see here. They treat Palestinians like cattle.”
FIGURE 1.1 Entrance to the Palestinian terminal at the Rafah border crossing. Photo by author.
FIGURE 1.1 Entrance to the Palestinian terminal at the Rafah border crossing. Photo by author.
Yet, despite encountering all the familiar features of a place that is besieged and colonized, at Rafah I was also confronted with another, very different image; namely, that of a place that also postures as a postcolonial state that has already risen out of the era of colonization. After spending two hours on the Egyptian side of the border crossing, I entered the Palestinian terminal. Together with a group of Palestinian travelers who had been let in at the same time as me, I was driven through a gate dominated by a sign declaring: “Welcome to Palestine” (figure 1.1). Under it were Palestinian border security personnel wearing the uniform and statelike insignia of the Palestinian Authority. All of us traveling from Egypt to Gaza had to then stand in line at an immigration terminal and, much as at any other ordinary passport control desk, I had to present the entry permit issued to me by the appropriate immigration authorities. In my case, the permission to enter Gaza had been granted by the Residence and Foreigners Affairs General Administration of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip.1 The passport control officer asked me questions like “What are you doing here?” “Who invited you?” and “How long do you plan to stay?” Having answered them sufficiently, I was then granted a Palestinian entry stamp. Momentarily, it felt as if I had indeed arrived in the State of Palestine—one that had been liberated, was now sovereign, and encompassed a distinct territory.
Of course, the presence of these two, seemingly contradictory, images is not limited to the premises of the Rafah border crossing. In fact, the Gaza Strip as a whole became a place of contradictions when Hamas adopted a dual mode of existence following its historic victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. After the unequivocal triumph of the Islamist faction, Fatah refused to be part of the Hamas government. Over the course of the 2007 Battle of Gaza, Hamas then consolidated its rule over the Gaza Strip while maintaining its commitment to the armed resistance.2 In doing so, Hamas oscillated between the images of the postcolonial state and an anticolonial movement. As the government in the Gaza Strip, it represented a civilian authority posturing like the future Palestinian state. However, by remaining committed to the armed struggle, Hamas also recognized the fact that Palestine is far from being liberated.
The Hamas representatives I met in the Gaza Strip often embodied this dual image in their public personas. During our meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad looked like an agent of the state. Wearing a suit, with the statelike insignia of the Palestinian Authority behind him and the Palestinian flag by his side, he was more reminiscent of a bureaucrat than the keffiyeh-clad Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla fighter) or the masked al-Qassam fighter I had visualized while reading about Palestinian resistance.3 However, despite looking like the Palestinian bureaucrat, he was also quick to draw on the vocabulary of a liberation struggle. And, when I asked him to reflect on the future of Hamas as an organization, he declared, “We need to liberate the land first. Before we do anything else, we need to create a clear liberation platform and use it to acquire a Palestinian state.”4
At the outset, it is this dual Hamas that I aim to explicate in this book. I ask, How should we conceptualize Hamas’s politics as it wavers between the anticolonial and the postcolonial? How does its anticolonial resistance survive and find meaning for the Palestinian struggle to dismantle what I go on to conceptualize as Israel’s settler colonial rule? How does the stateless Palestinian encounter Hamas’s postcolonial governance, which evokes the image of an era after the withdrawal of the colonizer? How does the anticolonial faction rationalize the postcoloniality of its governance, while still engaged in an anticolonial armed struggle against the colonizer? And, how does this coexistence of the anticolonial and the postcolonial complicate our understanding of what it means to be liberated (and unliberated)?
In answering these questions, I draw on my fieldwork in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Israel, and Egypt, conducted between 2013 and 2016, to present an ethnography of anticolonial violence and postcolonial statecraft in a settler colonial condition. For instance, to capture the multiple experiences of anticolonial violence, I place a Hamas member’s staunch conviction that an armed struggle is essential to the Palestinian liberation movement alongside a Palestinian restaurateur’s remembrance of being tortured in an Israeli prison and a young Gazan’s ambivalent stance on Palestinian armed resistance because of the scar on his body left from being shot by an Israeli soldier. Similarly, when providing an ethnography of Hamas’s postcolonial statecraft, I bring together a Hamas member’s insistence that governance serves a purpose for the liberation struggle, a young Palestinian’s encounter with the authoritarian nature of this governance when he was publicly beaten by the police in Gaza City, and an instance that I witnessed of a violent family dispute being defused by policemen in northern Gaza. And, I place these ethnographic accounts in the context of the settler colonial narrative I encountered in Israel. These include my reflections on the absence or derogatory presence of Palestinians in exhibits at museums in Tel Aviv celebrating the Israeli “War of Independence,” the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian cultural artifacts, and the almost casual way in which Palestinians carrying out stabbing attacks using knives and scissors were killed during my stay in Jerusalem in 2015 and 2016. In the end, much like the many Palestinian voices through which this text speaks, this book also oscillates between the euphoria and enigma of the anticolonial quest for change, and frequently breaks character to reveal the uncertainties surrounding this quest, especially when confronted with both the anticolonial and the postcolonial on the path toward liberation.

The Anticolonial, the Postcolonial, and the Long Moment of Liberation

Language matters.5 And, nowhere more than in the study of Israel-Palestine. It is then of some consequence that, in the pages thus far and in those that follow, I have refrained from discussing the religiosity of Hamas’s conduct. This is not to argue that religion is an unimportant facet of the organization’s identity. The name Hamas is, after all, an acronym of Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, or the Islamic Resistance Movement. Moreover, taking their point of departure in the political interest in the religiosity of the organization (especially in the post-9/11 era), several seminal works have put forth a nuanced understanding of Islamist politics in Palestine (Gunning 2007; Roy 2011; Hroub 2006; Dunning 2016). In this book, however, I aspire to globalize Hamas. In Global Palestine John Collins notes that, though historically characterized by a claim of exceptionalism with regard to both the character of Zionism and the suffering of Palestinians, recent scholarly works on Israel-Palestine have drawn on the “theoretical advances [made] in the study of global politics.” In doing so, they have provided an understanding of politics in Israel-Palestine that resonates beyond its geographical boundaries, globalizing Palestine as a consequence (Collins 2011, 3). But this impulse has largely eluded the study of Hamas. The dearth of global theoretical discussions of Hamas is, for one thing, a consequence of the organization’s relatively recent rise to political prominence. This has led to a discussion of Hamas’s specificity in comparison to other Palestinian factions. But a far more important reason is its politically divisive status, which has led many to characterize Hamas as singularly contemptible in its conduct, rather than as a nonexceptional entity replicating a form of politics that already exists within and outside Palestine. Donna Nevel described this as the urge to say, “But Hamas . . .” She wrote, “In conversations about Gaza, I have heard many thoughtful people in the Jewish community lament the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza but then say, ‘But Hamas . . .’ as if that were the heart of the problem” (Nevel 2014).
The tendency to perceive Hamas as singularly contemptible and thus as the problem hindering a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was also present in many of my encounters in the field. At a social gathering in Tel Aviv, a Swedish employee of an international NGO heard me call the siege of Gaza unlawful and responded, “But wasn’t it because of Hamas? They took over Gaza in a coup, and that’s why there is a siege. Hamas is the problem.”6 In December 2015, during a conversation over dinner in Jerusalem, an Israeli acquaintance who described himself as leftist readily admitted, “We are doing horrible things in Jerusalem and the West Bank.” Then, referring to the ongoing stabbing attacks, he continued, “These right-wing people have gotten us here. I’m not surprised that Palestinians are responding in this way.” But as soon as I attempted to conflate the Palestinian plight in Jerusalem and the West Bank with that of the Gazans, he interjected, “No. But Gaza and Hamas are a different question. We gave them freedom. Our army pulled out and we got rid of settlements.7 And what did Hamas do? Rockets and tunnels.”8 In this book, I do recognize that Hamas is deeply shaped by the specificities of its genealogy and political history and thus my Israeli acquaintance’s argument is deserving of some consideration. But my primary concern here is not the particular activities of the organization that have been characterized as being reprehensible. Instead, I bring what Collins terms the global turn, seen in the theorization of politics in Israel-Palestine in general, to this study of Hamas. I do so with regard to the anticolonial character of Hamas’s armed struggle, the postcolonial nature of its governance and implications of the coexistence of the anticolonial and the postcolonial on the path to liberation. That is to say, I globalize Hamas by explicating its politics in terms of the global experience of anticolonial struggles, postcolonial states, and conceptions of being liberated (and unliberated) that go beyond the particularity of Palestine.
The Anticolonial
In this book I consider the presence of State of Israel and its endeavors in the Palestinian territories to be, in many respects, settler colonial in nature.9 To that end, the political condition that Palestinians in general, and a faction like Hamas in particular, are meant to navigate is not unlike other colonial contexts. In general, colonialism involves the localized dominance and ascendancy of an exogenous entity that is able to perpetually “reproduce itself in a given environment” (Veracini 2010, 3–4). As Ania Loomba notes, colonialism does not just entail the expansion of “European powers into Asia, African or the Americas.” The forming of colonial power also requires the “unforming or re-forming” of the communities that already exist. The practices of “unforming or re-forming” have included “trade, plunder, negotiations, warfare, genocide, enslavement and rebellions” (Loomba 1998, 2). They have equally involved institutionalized forms of cultural domination (Blusse 1995; Vishwanathan 1995). Finally, colonialism entails the creation of the (inferior) “status” of the colonized in the discourses of the colonizer. This is exemplified not least in the 1929 Rhodes Memorial Lecture delivered by South African prime minister general Jan Smuts in which he characterized “the African” as a “child type, with a child psychology and outlook” (Mamdani 1996, 4). Such institutions, practices, and discourses of domination would appear to exist in Palestine, and this in turn has allowed me to draw parallels between the Palestinian condition and other colonial contexts. But, as I demonstrate further in chapter 2, the settler colonial condition is distinct in that these institutions, practices, and discourses of domination are not just meant to establish and reproduce the colonizer’s localized dominance or exact the resources and labor of the colonized. The setter colonial narrative also insists that the indigenous do not exist, as a people or community with a distinct identity (Wolfe 2006; Jacobs 2009; Veracini 2011). In Palestine then, the colonized are left to contend with settler colonial institutions, practices, and discourses that, in an effort to materialize this myth of indigenous nonexistence, strive to erase the signature of Palestinian presence in the “Holy Land” (Khalidi 1992; Khalidi 1997; Pappe 2006; Masalha 2012).
With this being the political “circumstance” in which Hamas operates, the anticolonial nature of its armed struggle is then “easily” established, especially when (as is the case in this book) the analysis is informed by a perspective on the anticolonial imaginary that draws on the work of Franz Fanon. I contextualize the anticolonial imaginary—namely the manner in which the colonized imagine their path out of the era of colonial rule and toward liberation—in relation to the stark distinction Fanon makes between the worlds of the colonizer and the colonized. The sector of the colonized is poor, hungry, congested, lacking permanent infrastructure and dwellings, and in want of the most basic amenities required for a dignified existence. In comparison, the colonizer’s world is privileged with the permanence of stone, steel, and paved roads, and its inhabitants are satiated and rarely in want of “good things” (Fanon 1963, 4–5). In between these worlds stands the colonizer’s infrastructure of oppression—barracks and police stations—that speak the language of violence, surveil the sector of the colonized, and ensure that the sectors of the colonizer and colonized remain separate and distinct (Fanon 1963, 3). This Fanonian distinction would seem self-evident in Israel-Palestine. For instance, the wealth, infrastructure, and in general, material privilege I encountered in, say, Tel Aviv contrasts sharply with the poverty and congestion of the Palestinian refugee camps in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The former symbolizes permanence and is made of stone and steel and is indeed a place that is home to the privileged. The latter is not fit for a dignified existence. Its residents are starved of the most basic of amenities like clean water and electricity, and their lives are characterized by impermanence and uncertainty. At the cusp of these two worlds are border crossings and checkpoints. Here lies the Israeli military infrastructure—armed personnel and armed vehicles—that surveils Palestinians, tempers their rebellious spirit, and ensures that the world of the colonized does not encroach on the sector of the colonizer.
The Palestinian anticolonial violence that responds to the chasm between these two worlds (and realities) mirrors the violence of armed factions in colonial (and) revolutionary contexts beyond Palestine. Fanon writes that the violence of the colonized needs to pursue an agenda of disorder and breach the material infrastructure of colonial domination (Fanon 1963, 2–3). Though Hamas’s violence is materially incapable of realizing this Fanonian agenda, in chapter 4 I show that it aspires to interrupt Israel’s settler colonial rule of Palestinian lands, with the hope of making it a difficult endeavor to maintain. However, the violence of decolonization has to contend with not just the materiality of a colonial project. Colonization, as Fanon demonstrates, also infiltrates the spiritual being of the colonized in a way that alienates them from their sense of self and compels them to emulate the colonizer. In Fanon’s native Martinique, it was under the yoke of French colonial rule that society became alienated from its African-Caribbeanness and being white like the French in culture and language came to be seen as a vehicle of upward social mobility (Grohs 1968, 26). Fanon himself craved the colonizer’s whiteness. He wrote of being unconcerned with his “negro nationality” (Fanon 1952, 157). Instead, by obtaining the love of a white woman, he hoped to access the worthiness that was associated with whiteness (Fanon 1952, 45). Tragically, though, despite craving whiteness, for the colonizer Fanon was above all a black man and was frequently rejected as worthy of nothing more than the jungle, as no more than a “dirty nigger” (Fanon 1952, 21).
That, in the eyes of the colonizer, the colonized is worth no more than their “jungle status” was apparent when Winston Churchill laid the blame for the Bengal famine o...

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