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What was is no more, what will come uncertain: Palestine after October 7th

Middle East & North Africa

Upon returning from a month of fieldwork in Lebanon and Qatar, Noria MENA Program co-Director Xavier Guignard sat down for an interview with Program Chief Editor Colin Powers. The transcript below is an abbreviated version of his comments.

What changed on October 7th?

The first thing that bears mentioning is that Israeli colonization and the resulting Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not start on October 7th. While October 7th is a rupture within this larger history, a game-changer undoubtedly, to properly understand the event’s meaning and consequence, one must locate it within this larger history—one which stretches back at least a century.

Concerning what has changed, we can identify three major novelties. Firstly, October 7th was the first and to date only time that armed Palestinian actors managed to occupy Israeli territory, in some instances for up to three days.

Israeli military capacity is significantly lesser than what has been believed

Secondly, and as has perhaps been more discussed at this stage, October 7th and the days that followed revealed that Hamas’ military capacity significantly exceeds what had been assumed by Israeli intelligence, foreign intelligence services, and by the vast majority of the observer/expert class, and that Israeli military capacity is significantly lesser than what has been believed. Obviously, the incursion which Hamas led on October 7th left behind an outrageous number of civilian casualties, and documentary evidence points toward the conduct of war crimes.

Acknowledging that, the group’s expressly military operations—targeted at the border fence, the wider enclosure system, and adjoining Israeli military bases—demonstrated aptitudes qualitatively greater than was commonly thought. The same can be said of their guerilla tactics within Gaza over the past three months. Conversely, Israel’s campaign, which has largely failed to afflict substantive damage on Hamas’ military wing despite one of the most intensive bombing efforts in history, points toward a degradation of the security apparatus.

Thirdly (and relatedly), October 7th in many ways invalidated two fundamental aspects of the Israeli state’s identity: its claim to be a safe haven for Jewish people from around the world, and its claim to be the MENA region’s military superpower. By definition, this has reshuffled the deck and changed the terms of the conflict forever more.

Why do you think it essential to historicize October 7th, to emphasize that this was not the first salvo of a war?

It’s essential because the drivers behind Hamas’ operation can only be understood historically, and any lasting resolution to the conflict will require an appreciation for those drivers.

In the lead-up to October 7th, Hamas, like a great many other Palestinian political and military actors, had recognized that the only language Israel listens to and respects is violence. This lesson had been hammered home over many years. Official peace negotiations ended over a decade ago, with the Obama administration’s half-hearted attempt collapsing due to Israel’s expansions of settlements in the West Bank, as former US Special Envoy Martin Indyk has publicly acknowledged on a number of occasions.

Non-violent resistance and activism, like the 2018-2019 great march of return in Gaza, were met with brutal repression by the Israeli military and silence from the international community. Other diplomatic efforts, like joining the International Criminal Court, failed to either blunt the advance of colonization or hold Israel to account for its war crimes. Observing all this, the leadership of Hamas saw that the continuation of the status quo meant only the slow suffocation of Palestine, and that a true shock to the system was the only way to potentially allow the air to start flowing again. Clearly, in their estimations, violence, and violence of scale, was viewed as the best means of administering such a shock, and thereby breaking out of the status quo.

In what ways have the last three months shifted popular regard for Hamas amongst Palestinians?

After October 7th, Hamas garnered widespread popular support. We should pause here for a moment because the nature of this popular support, and the reasons for why it has come about, are often misunderstood, in some cases willfully by those seeking to justify attacks on Palestinian civilians.

The first relevant point to make relates to the effects of information bubbles. What made the news in western media, particularly in the early days, were pictures and videos of war crimes conducted by Hamas. Contrarily, there was a notable absence of pictures and videos in the west when it came to Hamas’ operations against Israeli military sites. This schema for inclusion and exclusion was inverted in the case of Arab media. There, the imagery, especially of the war crimes committed in October 7th, have only been broadcast on very rare occasions, while imagery of attacks on military targets are frequently disseminated. I say all of this to first say that Palestinians, whether in Gaza or anywhere else, are not expressing support for the war crimes visited upon Israeli civilians on October 7th when they assert support for Hamas. Rather, they are expressing support for violent resistance to a violent reality—support for violent resistance against ongoing occupation and colonization.

Secondly, we should consider what Hamas and the other, relatively small groups that participated in the attacks of October 7th, specified as the reasons for why they acted on October 7th. In their own words, the reasons are four: (i) to defend and preserve Al-Aqsa Mosque; (ii) to fight back against the colonization of the West Bank; (iii) to fight back against the enclosure of Gaza; and (iv) and to fight for the rights of Palestinian prisoners. Each and every one of these causes finds wide support amongst the Palestinian population, regardless of political affiliation. So, yes, on the one hand, public opinion polls in the past and a fair poll today would likely reveal a significant majority in opposition to Hamas’ governance—which is recognized, as is the governance of the Fatah dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, as corrupt, inefficient, and repressive. Nevertheless, insofar as a significant majority of Palestinians back the four causes referenced by Hamas in launching the October 7th attack, a great many Palestinians would, despite rejecting Hamas as a governing actor, still articulate a generalized support for the movement.

It is the end of change, not the means of violence, that is primarily being supported

It is imperative to understand that at our current juncture—one defined by what I said earlier: the slow suffocation of Palestine—large portions of the Palestinian people will understandably and predictably give their backing to anything and anyone which attempts to end the status quo. Evidence of this is abundant. The last ten years have witnessed massive popular mobilizations and protest actions both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The desire for change, and the willingness to struggle for it, could be no more apparent. Alas, these efforts proved unable to yield results—just as negotiations and diplomatic efforts did. As a result, the desire for change is seeking other vehicles for its advance. In other words, in expressing support for Hamas and by extension, for violent resistance, it is not violence in and of itself that Palestinians offer their backing to: Rather, they again express their desire for change. It is the end of change, not the means of violence, that is primarily being supported.

If we turn the lens to the wider Palestinian national movement, how is Fatah navigating the current moment, one marked by both an unfolding tragedy of unprecedented proportion and rising danger, the latter in the form of a re-ascendant Hamas?

Hamas has established itself as the leading Palestinian political force for the years to come. Again, this is not through legitimacy won in governing Gaza, but through endorsing, in word and deed, the mandate of the Palestine Liberation Organization as it was set fifty-odd years ago. Its growing power also stems from moments of genuine political savvy. In demanding, for instance, the release of all Palestinian prisoners and putting particular stress on the release of non-Hamas leaders, the movement has positioned itself as being above the political fray—as being steward and guardians of the nation at large. This is a powerful and clever sell, and one which redounds positively.

Hamas has also benefited from the faults of rival contenders. Most the other actors within the Palestinian national movement, Fatah first and foremost, staked their legitimacy on the “state-building” project in the West Bank. As the failure of this project became unmissable, predominantly due to Israeli colonization, these actors’ legitimacy went out the window. Thereafter, in Fatah’s case, authoritarian practices became the primary means for retaining control and power: At this stage, Fatah provides neither an ideological anchor nor a political horizon.

The risk of civil war and heightened intra-Palestinian clashes in the years ahead is very, very real

That all said, whatever Fatah’s failings, it should be considered a certainty that any Hamas bid for hegemony would provoke intense resistance from them and the Palestinian Authority. Despite all that has transpired, the leaders of Fatah still consider themselves the leading protagonists of the Palestinian nation, and still view the Palestinian Authority (and to a lesser extent, the PLO) as the nation’s appropriate institutional form. Institutionally negotiating Hamas’ rise in power and influence, especially in view of Hamas’ obvious material and popular strength, is therefore fraught. The risk of civil war and heightened intra-Palestinian clashes in the years ahead is very, very real.

Are there any prospects for national reconciliation at this stage? What is the character of present discussions between Fatah and Hamas and within the wider national movement?

So before we get to the inter-party movement question, we should look at intra-party movement dynamics. Within Hamas, it is difficult to ascertain how things will shakeout between the political leadership, most of which is based abroad, and the military wing, which is in Gaza, directing the war effort and accruing the largest gains within the internal balance of power as a result.

On the Fatah side, the party-movement is split when it comes to Hamas

A new equilibrium of some kind will be established with time, with knock-on effects for Hamas’ outlook on the Palestinian national movement, Israel, etc. On Israel, I think for now we can operate from the assumption that Hamas remains willing to accept a two-state solution, as stipulated in the 2017 revisions to its charter. They may frame this position as a short-term tactical arrangement, but we should remember that is also how the PLO initially framed its willingness to recognize Israel in the 1970s before accepting Israel’s right to exist as a permanent, de jure reality through the singing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993.

On the Fatah side, the party-movement is split when it comes to Hamas. Some are genuinely invested in national reconciliation. This includes Jibril Rajoub, for instance. Reconciliation is also popular amongst the Fatah leaders in prison, with Marwan Barghouti being one of the individuals leading the charge on this front. Clearly, then, there is a large faction within Fatah that sees reconciliation as both necessary and the right thing to do. At the same time, there is a large coterie, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his inner circle, Hussein el-Sheikh and Majid Faraj in particular, which conceive of reconciliation as a direct threat to their political existence. As they are the ones in charge and with their hands on the till, what they say ultimately goes.

All this translates into a lot of mistrust and hesitancy at the inter-party movement level. Since October 7th, Fatah has largely kept its distance, while Hamas has struggled to cobble together a broader national front. The latter’s struggles is in part attributable to the obstructionist position of Fatah, but also due to many prospective coalition members perceiving Hamas as being unable or unwilling to engage them as equals: In their eyes, Hamas understands allies to be clients. 

In the face of Hamas’ rising fortunes, the brazenness of the Israeli settler movement, and the declining regard assigned it by Palestinians, how long can the Palestinian Authority hold on in your estimations?

While the Palestinian Authority lost the last of its legitimacy in 2021, when it canceled scheduled legislative elections, its coercive power remains strong. This power of course derives from coordination with the Israelis and the training, military, and financial support that is furnished by the Americans, Europeans, and Arab partners. Nevertheless, it is real.

Can the Palestinian Authority at this point be a tool for emancipation and liberation? Absolutely not. Can it be a step toward sovereignty? That’s hard to imagine. But can it work in partnership with Israel to reproduce control? Well, it has for twenty-five years now, and we have seen regimes, both in the Middle East and further afield, capable of surviving a lack of legitimacy in the medium-term through skillfulness in repression, surveillance and the like. What is more, it should be expected that this skillfulness will now be upgraded, as the Israelis and their international partners work to prevent a total fiasco in the West Bank. That, plus the fact that all the major armed Palestinian actors, inclusive of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP, are as yet of the mind that resistance should not deviate from the primary struggle against the Israeli occupation—are as yet of the mind that civil war should be avoided if at all possible—suggests that the Sulta may be around a good while longer.