Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The IDF Might As Well Be Hamas' Public Relations Agent

As a brief, introductory writing assignment, I asked my European History students to formulate an argument—perhaps aimed at skeptical parents or friends—about why the study of history is important and/or relevant.  They came up with a variety of creative and thoughtful responses, and a few of them suggested that understanding both specific historical precedents and general historical trends could be a useful addition to policymaking in the United States today.

This struck me as a particularly useful thought coming as it did at the end of several weeks during which defenders of Israeli colonialism threw all the dirt they could at their critics, particularly the charge of anti-Semitism.  Critics of Israel’s disproportionate violence in Gaza, they argued, were anti-Jewish, didn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist, and were defending Hamas. 

It turns out, Hamas hardly needs any of its supposed “supporters” in the international community—most of whom were criticizing Israeli terrorism and colonialism rather than defending Hamas’ own violence—when it has the Israel Defence Force as its public relations agent.

Current polling suggests that Israel’s ill-advised decision to bombard its colony, displace a quarter of its colonial subjects in Gaza, and shell United Nations facilities has had precisely the opposite effect that it ostensibly intended: Hamas is buoyant in polls, and has secured even greater support from Palestinians in Gaza

This should be no surprise, and is part of the reason why most of the Israeli regime’s critics argue that its violence and colonialism are self-defeating as well as fundamentally unjust. 

Many anti-colonial and nationalist movements struggle to gain traction, whether because elements of their programs and ideologies are out of step with their potential constituents; because their target audience is focused on elementary matters of economic survival; because they are in competition with other nationalists; or because they are unable to make the case that their behavior is a good match for the problems faced by colonial subjects.

The more violent, indiscriminate, and generally unhinged Israel’s response to anti-colonial activity in Gaza becomes, the more credibility Hamas gains, as an organization able and willing to meet fire with fire.  The more oppressive life becomes under a colonial regime which denies people self-determination, the more non-violence looks like a luxury, and the more likely people become to turn to those who practice a different kind of anti-colonial politics.  And the more hapless Israel’s violence makes other, more “moderate” anti-colonial groups look, the more dependable Hamas becomes.

If Hamas and the IDF were working hand-in-glove they could hardly come up with a better strategy to boost the popularity of the organization.  And in its own bizarre way, the Israeli regime benefits from Hamas’ popularity.  Run as it is by swivel-eyed fundamentalists, the regime is in bad need of an enemy to indulge its penchant for ongoing war.  It’s back-to-the-wall mentality requires a constant state of insecurity and legal exception.  It needs to provoke and stoke violence in its colony to rationalize its continued rule.

Anyone who has studied colonialism could tell you that although the specifics differ from case to case, these are features of the colonial relationship—particularly at the moment when colonial rule comes under sustained challenge—that are broadly applicable.  Such conclusions are logical, well-supported, and would probably be readily-drawn by many history students.  The same could not be said, unfortunately, for many of the commentators who sought to derail the debate with accusations of anti-Semitism, or for the public officials whose mulishness makes them accessories to such unnecessary and tragic cycles of violence.  


  1. (The following is best read in a poorly imitated southern drawl:)
    I may just be a low country engineer, without one of those fancy degrees from a shiny college. But let me see, if I can cotton to the point of this here miraculous collection of words which appears on my internet machine:

    You are giving a good whipping to the defenders of Israel's 'colonialism' as flying off the handle and calling every one in tarnation an 'anti-Semite.' Yet, isn't taring them all with the same raccoon tail of 'name-caller' just what you're doing here. Again, just a simple down-home engineer, but I imagine you calling 'many or most' of them 'anti-Semite callers' is as pernicious to the dialogue (where did those 5cent word come from) as when Alan Dershowitz (so far the one example you've given) calls people 'anti-semite'

    (End poorly imitated southern accent)

    Though I agree with you the larger point there. Hamas and the conservative Israeli gov't do kind of benefit in someways from each other to the detriment of the ordinary people in both countries.

    Though, I'm still not convinced colonialism is the right lens to view this conflict, yet it is an intriguing one and it has provoked my thoughts. Is there a post I missed where you laid out why you think this is so? Beside the unbalanced power relationships (which characterizes a lot of international relations)?

    1. The critical difference between their name-calling and my accurate description, if I may so put it to a Berkeley engineer who is raking in cash for his start-up faster than Jerry Brown can pass the buck, is that calling them pro-colonial is in fact accurate.
      If I take your other point correctly--it's difficult to tell through that drawl--I would definitely not say that all of Israel's defenders resort to the anti-Semite smear. But all of them who have made an appearance online do either that or call their critics Hamas-sympathizers, which I think I deal with in the post.
      As for the colonialism: One group of people ruling over a territorially-distinct group of people against their will in defiance of international law?
      Or from google's dictionary: "the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically". In this situation there is a high degree of political control, occupation by settlers, and other attributes of colonial rule: an ideological justification for that rule; the use of military and economic force (the intermittent blockade) to maintain that rule.

    2. And will you be cheering dear ol' Jerry on in his debate with the Wall Street clown tonight?

  2. So the difference between you, and the people you disagree that you are right and they are wrong? Why even the Jell-O mold with googly eyes and a tiny top hat that is currently running for state senator on the Peace and Freedom party ticket might have trouble accepting that logic….

    Not anything to do with anti-Semitism, but I think a lot of commentators are sympathetic to Hamas, or at the very least, come off that way.

    Not to be personal, but directing this personally at you. You seem sympathetic to Hamas. In all your post on Israel’s colonial atrocities or various Senators supporting a ‘colonial bully’, I think there has been one very brief and general condemnation of the actions of Hamas, and that was temperate with a mention of how they are essentially forced into it by the colonial power structure.

    And honestly, that’s a fine position. If Israel is really as terrible a colonial overlord as you think, then armed resistance is probably justified. Though this is implied you always stop short, and never say it explicitly. But if I’ve misinterpreted you, please correct me. Again, just a simple working-man’s engineer trying to get by…

    As to colonialism, are there places where use of this worldview is unhelpful in understanding this conflict? Does it delegitimize Israel’s security concerns? Does it portray Israel as a monolithic immoral entity? Does it pretty clearly lead to the conclusion that armed resistance is the proper response to Israel’s occupation? In a negotiated just peace, would it discount the concerns of Israel? Does it discount the degree to which the Palestinian people have agency and can control their actions or responses?

    Are there conflicts between a powerful state and a weaker actor where it wouldn’t apply? How do you distinguish between an occupation after a war, and a colony?

    1. That's for others to evaluate, but I think you'll find that their accusations are pretty groundless (I'd like to think that I don't fit the description of an anti-Semite) and mine have some basis in a characterization that reflects what I might be tempted to call "reality".

      I think that a lot of commentators are sympathetic to the colonized. I suppose this could be seen as including Hamas. I personally don't have much sympathy for any organization that uses violence as a matter of policy, but I'm conscious of how few options are open to them, and of the luxury that I have of sitting in the comfort of my home that no one will bulldoze or bomb and criticizing their recourse to violence.

      I think that ultimate responsibility does lie with Israel, which is why I direct most of my accusations at the regime there. Hamas could drop off the face of the earth tomorrow, and the Israeli regime would build more settlements and blast away at anyone who fought back. They're operating in a world in which sovereign states have far more power than people who live in poorly defined territories outside the rule of law like Palestine, and with that power comes a great obligation, I think. As a matter of basic self-interest if not a genuine humanitarian concern in many cases, I think that a lot of more 'liberal' Israelis realize that their government's policies are counterproductive and probably generate insecurity rather than the reverse. But my gut feeling is that whereas a dozen years ago it might have been the case that the Israeli lobby in the U.S. was crazier than mainstream
      opinion in Israel, that is no longer the case, and that liberals there are very marginalized today.

      I'm not sure about the colonial characterization...

      I don't think having an intelligent conversation about the degree to which colonialism breeds instability within and on the borders of Israel is incompatible with a moral could argue that nothing is more calculated to create long term security concerns for the Israeli state than the presence of colonized people on their doorstep...European imperial powers didn't face the same problem because their colonies were far away, but the ecumenical continental Empires (Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire) faced a great deal of what we would call terrorism because they denied rights of self-determination to so many minorities within their domains.


    2. I try to be consistent and refer to the Israeli "government" or "regime"...there's certainly a great diversity of opinion within the country (as was the case with any European colonial power, where there were always anti-colonial critics within the country). But it seems clear that the government is dominated by people who range from being basically committed to dominating Palestine, to those who want more settlements, to those who advocate for ethnic cleansing.

      I hope armed resistance isn't the only possible response. And the issue of agency is a real one. But the struggle is to balance structural interpretations of phenomena like colonialism, which have broad similarities across time and space with elements of contingency and agency, and I think that one way of doing so is to recognize that people have choices, but that those choices are constrained by the power relations within which they operate and the range of responses which we can see as having been open to, or been chosen by, people in similar circumstances.

      I think if that powerful state actually controls the territory and economy of the weaker actor, and actively denies that weaker actor membership in a global community while trying to displace people with settlers that's more like a colony than an occupation. Israel, for example, is pursuing none of the economic development or fostering of political institutions that the U.S. pursued in Germany after WWII. Instead, they are stifling democracy, denying access to international recognition, imposing blockades, sabotaging the politics, and settling people on the land they effectively control.