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Suicidal Insurgencies in Palestine

How can our conceptual optics account for this unprecedented series of brutally violent events?

6 mins read
A Palestinian boy inspects the ruins of his house following an airstrike in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahia, on May 11, 2023. (Photo by Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua)

Below are early critical reflections from within on the recent upheaval in Israel/Palestine highlighting the disastrous consequences of Hamas’s “boomerang” insurgency, which triggered mass destruction and the deepening of Israel’s apartheid. Articulation of a joint nonviolent struggle is urgently needed for decolonization and justice in our torn land.

The Black Sabbath

The black sabbath of 7 October in southern Israel will be remembered as one of the gravest national shocks ever. Even seven weeks later, the Negev region, from where I write, is engulfed in a state of collective mourning. Hamas’s surprising invasion unleashed mass terrorist killing and horrific, inhumane crimes of extreme cruelty on an unprecedented scale. 7 October was by far the largest day massacre in the history of the century-long conflict, with Hamas murdering and killing over twelve hundred Israelis. This was accompanied by injuring, burning, looting, abusing, and torturing thousands of defenseless civilians. Moreover, over two hundred Israelis, including elderly, women, and young children were kidnapped as hostages against all norms of warfare or human rights. The indiscriminate bombing of Israeli cities by Hamas and Hizballah has continued unabated since 7 October. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are still displaced.

It didn’t take long for the violence to return as a vicious boomerang to the small, besieged territory of the Gaza Strip, where 2.1 million Palestinians live, mostly refugees from 1948. Israel’s retaliation, predictably, was extremely heavy-handed, overstretching far and wide the “right to defend itself.” The first month of the war was the bloodiest in the history of this land, with Gaza—the largest Palestinian city—literally flattenedmore than eleven thousand Palestinians killed, mostly children and womenand over a million forcefully displaced. Israel has inflicted massive collective punishment on most Gazans, a move buttressed by Israeli public discourse demanding revenge, destruction, and annihilation, with government ministers proudly declaring “Gaza’s Nakba 2023” and openly calling for “erasing” the strip and evicting its population. A mutual disaster.

Comparative Optics

How can our conceptual optics account for this unprecedented series of brutally violent events? I offer here the optic of a boomerang insurgency, being a doomed attempt to violently rise against an oppressive regime using terrorist methods with little regard to the immense power and intentions of that regime. Boomerang insurgencies are often driven by a messianic belief in complete (religious or national) redemption with scant attention to the huge cost imposed on their own civilian populations.

Such boomerang (some may say suicidal) insurgencies have a long history among rebelling colonized or oppressed nations. We can recall the violent campaigns by groups such as the Chechens in southern Russia, the Kurds in eastern Turkey, and the Tamils in northeastern Sri Lanka—all using terrorist and suicide bombing as key tools in their arsenal.

These insurgencies have typically spawned severe reactions from ruling states using their own version of terrorism, inflicting massive casualties on civilian populations and destroying the just struggle for equality, resources, and/or sovereignty. In all three cases, following a period of armed insurgency, Chechen, Kurdish, and Tamil national movements suffered fatal blows and have not recovered for decades after their suicidal revolts.  

Notably, this has often not been the case. Nonviolent campaigns for liberation also have a long history, with legendary leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela. Organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC), Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Zapatistas, or the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) became more effective once they laid down their arms or stopped using terroristic methods.

Failed boomerang insurgencies are also well-known by both Jews and Palestinians. Jews recall two rebellions against the mighty Roman empire that led to the ransacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of Jewish nationalism for millennia. The Palestinians, too, recall the Great Revolt of the 1930s that was crushed by the mighty British army, sending Palestinian leadership into exile. The effect of this seriously weakened the Palestinians and contributed to the disaster of the 1948 Nakba.

Deepening Apartheid

The background to Hamas’s insurgency is essential: the story does not start on 7 October. Israel was created in 1948 as an ethnocratic state committed to Jewish supremacy. Palestinians still live under the ongoing consequences of the Nakba—the 1948 ethnic cleansing of large parts of Palestine—and over fifty-six years of military rule, settler colonialism, and blockade in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. They suffer ongoing settler colonization and massive land grabs that saw most Palestinian lands nationalized and settled by Jews. More specifically in Gaza, following the disengagement—Israel’s partial retreat—and the violent 2007 takeover by Hamas, Israel imposed a sixteen-year suffocating siege, lasting until 7 October.

Over the last two decades, mainly under the hawkish leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, the colonial Israeli regime has de facto annexed the West Bank. In addition, Israel has forced a sharp separation between the West Bank and Gaza and given Hamas’s leadership implicit backing. This prevented the emergence of a united Palestinian leadership. Coupled with discriminatory laws and policies against Palestinian citizens, Israel has established, step-by-step, a de facto apartheid regime bolstering Jewish supremacy and Palestinian fragmentation between River and Sea. This was exemplified in the opening sentence of the “basic principles” of the current Israeli government:

The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the [Jewish] settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel—in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, and Judea and Samaria.

Given this clear framing, Israel has used the fog of war since 7 October to deepen the control and dispossession of Palestinians outside Gaza. In the West Bank, the Israeli army and settlers have trebled their attacks, killing over 200 Palestinians in almost daily infringements into putatively Palestinian autonomous areas. Settler attacks have caused the cleansing of tens of fringe Palestinian communities forced to flee settler violence. Within Israel too, almost 2 million Palestinian citizens have been placed under severe surveillance, prohibition of political activity, and mass arrests for any shred of public sympathy with Hamas.

Disastrous Violence

Hamas is not monolithic and enjoys substantial support among Palestinians. It has used a range of social, political, and terrorist tactics over the years. Nonetheless, it has consistently denied Israel’s right to exist and violently opposed any peace or reconciliation. Accordingly, Hamas’s 1988 Charter declared:

Israel will exist . . . until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it. . . . It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine. . . . peaceful solutions . . . are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.[Preamble, Article 6, Article 13]

During the 1990s Oslo period, and again during the second intifada in the early 2000s, Hamas orchestrated a deadly series of suicide bombings, killing hundreds of Israelis in buses, restaurants, hotels, and public spaces. They have also murdered hundreds of Palestinians suspected of collaboration. Many of these acts hit the center of Israel well beyond the settlements in the occupied territories, triggering harsh “boomerang” responses by the Israeli colonial state and inflicting widespread damage to Palestinian society, killing thousands and again seriously impeding Palestinian national aspirations.

Since Hamas violently took control of Gaza in 2007, over 20,000 rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip at Israeli civilian spaces. At the same time, it imposed an authoritarian regime over residents. The long-planned 7 October attack appears to have again caused a major setback to the just Palestinian struggle for freedom, self-determination, and decolonization. The 7 October attack is hence likely to be remembered as a major moral and political nadir of the Palestinian struggle.

Needless to say, destructive violence is consistently employed by Israel.  As an occupying and colonizing force, Israel’s main policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians have been framed by a pervasive use of force. It has persistently denied Palestinians basic individual and collective human rights, most notably the right of self-determination and return. Such violence is also highly destructive to the nature, stability and morality of Israeli society as well. Hence, the current asymmetric dialectics of violence rests on long dark histories, and can be likened to a deadly dance, born from the clash of active settler colonialism with Jihadist Islam.

Decolonization  

The disaster of 7 October and its horrific boomerang consequences are plain to see. It is hence high time to reflect on the strategy of a violent insurgency with its deadly boomerang effect. The task for Palestinian, Jewish, and international circles supporting peace and Palestinian rights is to rebuild a renewed (preferably joint) Palestinian-Israeli nonviolent decolonization agenda. Such a campaign will resist Israeli apartheid and apply a range of civil, economic, political, and international forces to dismantle the apparatus of supremacy and occupation.

Renewed mobilization will combine political, popular, and moral strategies, and attempt to organize wide circles of support in a way armed resistance and terror are bound to fail. Several movements have already begun this task, including A Land for AllCombatants for Peace, and Standing Together—all joint Palestinian-Jewish movements with small yet growing followings. The task of rebuilding nonviolent campaigns is urgent, so that the dark clouds of 7 October do not cast a paralyzing shadow over the moral and political task of attaining the legitimate rights of all people residing in our dear, torn, and sorry land.

The spirit of that struggle was well articulated by late poet Mahmood Darwish:

(from the prisoner to the prison guard)
I will teach you how to wait.
At the gate of my ever-delayed death
Slowly
You may get tired
And cast your shadow elsewhere
So you can enter your night, liberated
From the shadow of my ghost.
[Translated from “State of Siege”
]

Oren Yiftachel

Prof. Oren Yiftachel teaches political geography, urban planning and public policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Yiftachel is one of the main critical geographers and social scientists working in Israel.

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