Hamas has been all over the news since its brutal October 7 attack, but there’s much less understanding of how the group emerged. Only by studying Hamas’s history can we chart a better way forward.

Hamas militants at a rally in the Gaza Strip, on March 10, 2023. (Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images)

After Hamas’s attack on October 7 killed 1,400 Israelis, the political class in the United States and across the world were quick to rally behind Israel as it launched its own brutal campaign of retribution. So far, over 8,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of whom were civilians, have been killed by Israeli bombs that have landed on schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, and refugee camps.

Despite public support for a ceasefire, politicians have insisted that even to attempt to contextualize Hamas’ actions is to offer a defense for terrorism. Tareq Baconi, the author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, spoke to Daniel Denvir on Jacobin’s the Dig podcast about the origins of Hamas in the failure decades of peace talks between Israel and Fatah. These efforts, whose high-water mark was the 1993 Oslo Accords, only succeeded in normalizing Israeli apartheid, creating a regime in which Israel policed the West Bank and kept Gaza as an open-air prison, Baconi argues.

In this, he offers much-needed context to the events of October 7, which he sees as Hamas’s effort to prevent any attempt to normalize the apartheid regime and ensure that Middle Eastern stability cannot not be achieved without Palestinian liberation.

Daniel Denvir

Let’s start with their early history. Hamas was founded in December 1987, in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp, amid the mass uprisings of the first Palestinian Intifada. This was twenty years after Israel first occupied Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. And nearly four decades after Israel’s founding by Jewish settlers, the Nakba had expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians beyond the borders of what became the Jewish state. What motivated Hamas’ founders to establish this new organization at that particular moment? Why did they believe that an Islamist resistance organization was required to carry forward the struggle in that way at that particular juncture?

Tareq Baconi

It was a moment in time, which was preceded by about a decade of internal reflection and thinking among Hamas’s leaders. So just to give a bit of a history to contextualize that moment in 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in Egypt in 1928, had branches in Palestine. These branches had been operating in Palestine since before the Nakba, so throughout the ’40s and then the ’50s and the ’60s.

The Muslim Brotherhood has a very particular ideology which is focused on Islamization. Essentially, it focuses on creating a society that’s virtuous and that’s grounded in Islam, that abides by the moral values that Islam puts forward. And it believed in the idea that if a Palestinian society that’s virtuous and that’s moral is present and created, then that is the path to liberation — that rather than openly resisting the occupying force, actually all of the focus should be on Islamization.

And so the Muslim Brotherhood invested a lot of time and resources in developing an infrastructure of education and charity foundations and healthcare outlets, and all the forms of welfare that are grounded in Islamic values. And then throughout the 1980s, something began shifting. The Palestinians under occupation — so in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip — began agitating against the Israeli occupying forces. And within the Gaza Strip specifically, there was a splinter group called Islamic Jihad that kind of flipped that ideology on its head.

Rather than believing in Islamization as a path towards liberation, they came out and said, actually, the only way to achieve liberation is through resistance, through armed struggle. And only once we have liberation can we then focus on Islamic society and developing this virtuous society that we’re all aspiring for. And so that created some pressure within the Muslim Brotherhood chapter in the Palestinian territories to begin exploring ways of more actively engaging with and resisting the occupation.

 

So, whereas in the past they were quite acquiescent and in some ways even openly dependent on the occupying forces for licenses to operate, throughout the ’80s they began shifting to considering a more formal resistance with the occupation. And I think this came to a head in 1987, which, as you say, was the beginning of the first Palestinian Intifada.

This was a period of mass popular resistance and civil disobedience. And at that moment, it became very clear that the idea of Islamization, this slow trend, would have to give way to something more confrontational. And the movement initially thought that it would splinter off from the Muslim Brotherhood to create Hamas, the Islamic National Resistance Movement. But what ended up happening was that Hamas emerged as a movement that subsumed its parent organization. So in some ways, its entire social infrastructure became integral to the growth of the movement as a political and military movement committed to resisting occupation.

Daniel Denvir

Throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the Muslim Brotherhood had to navigate an Arab political scene that was dominated by deeply secular radical currents, currents like pan‑Arab Nasserism, and also among Palestinians in particular, of course, Fatah, which was founded in 1959.

I want to just go back to this moment, because we can’t understand Hamas and its founding without understanding Fatah and the larger Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, that Fatah would come to lead. And that’s because, as you argue, Hamas was founded fundamentally as a critique of what the PLO and Fatah had become by the late ’80s, but it was also founded with a sort of reverence for Fatah and the PLO as they had been in their early days.

Hamas was founded as a project to resurrect that uncompromising commitment to national liberation through armed struggle. But before we get back to 1987, let’s unpack this history. Tell us about the historical period when Fatah was founded and how it was shaped by this global context of Third World anti-colonial revolution — a context that I think can feel quite distant to many people, at least in the United States today. What was their theory and practice of resistance and what sources did it draw from?

Tareq Baconi

That’s really important actually, to understand that context and to understand how Hamas at this moment of transition in 1987 differentiated itself from pan-Arabism and from Islamization, and tried to move away from this idea that either of those things could be allowed to unfold and unravel before Palestinians began dealing with the immediate crisis they were facing, which was the occupation and the colonization of their land.

And so what Hamas did in 1987 was to break away from those currents. But, as you say, that break had happened under secular nationalism before, under Fatah specifically, which then rose to take over the PLO. And Fatah really began as an organization grounded in the refugee communities. These people, the Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed out of Palestine in 1948, ended up in refugee camps around their homeland: in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Syria, and in Egypt, as well as, of course, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Essentially, the PLO accepted the loss of 78 percent of the Palestinian’s historic homeland to Israel and the formation of a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land.

This movement was very much driven by this idea of other anti-colonial movements seeking liberation of their land. The difference is, and this is a crucial difference, that they were outside their homeland. So unlike other anti-colonial movements that were fighting their colonizers in their homeland, the Palestinian people were dispersed, and they were waging these attacks against Israel from refugee camps. And then Israel was actively fortifying its borders and beginning to crack down on refugees who were trying to come back to their homes by threatening to shoot them or expel them again.

This created a situation in which Fatah was rising to prominence as a movement that could attack from scattered refugee communities — attacking what had become an established state. And that already placed it in a very difficult position, because it started launching its attacks from host countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which then threatened those host countries with Israeli reprisals.

It was a moment in time when Fatah — and not only Fatah, but other factions, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) — were waging revolutionary armed resistance against Israel from beyond the borders of the state. And I think we all recall the moments of the plane hijackings, the moment of the fighting that would happen in Jordan and elsewhere between Palestinians who would sacrifice their lives for the struggle and Israeli armed forces.

Now, this was a period of time when anti-colonialism was on the rise, and many anti-colonial movements were emerging victorious. But by the end of the ’70s and the early ’80s, two things started happening. The first is that the limitations of a commitment to armed resistance were becoming increasingly clear — that is, armed resistance of the form that the PLO was able to wage.

The second issue was that the diplomatic and the international community had put conditions on the PLO. These stipulated that it would be allowed to enter into the fold of the diplomatic community on the condition that it recognized the state of Israel and renounced armed resistance. And so this pressure was mounting on the PLO and on the Palestinian leadership. And throughout the ’80s, we see internal discussions in which the PLO is exploring the possibility of conceding to those demands.

In 1988, the PLO comes out with a declaration recounting the independence of the state of Palestine, which essentially amounted to a historic concession on the behalf of the Palestinians. Essentially, the PLO accepted the loss of 78 percent of the Palestinian’s historic homeland to Israel and accepted the formation of a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land. This concession is a concession that Hamas then challenges.

Hamas — while the PLO is coming out of this moment of revolutionary foment and is sort of laying down its weapons and conceding that now diplomacy is a way forward — comes out as a movement that challenges that compromise. Rather than diplomacy, they argue, we have to remain committed to armed resistance for full liberation, except we do so in an ideology that is Islamic, not secular.

Daniel Denvir

How did the PLO’s pacification shape Hamas around the time of its founding and in its early years? What alternate vision did Hamas propose by picking up this banner of resistance? What was Hamas’s theory of how their strategy would lead to liberation and their assessment of why the PLO had failed?

Tareq Baconi

I mean, I think that the PLO’s historic concession in 1988, which later became the Oslo Accords, was something that Hamas has learned from very deeply in different ways over the course of its years. In its early years, Hamas was quite naive in believing that the concession that the PLO made was one that would be impossible for the movement to do because ideologically the movement was opposed to the very notion of partition. It’s believed naively that it would never be placed in a situation where it would also have to countenance the notion of partition. Islam and its Islamic ideology would provide it with a sufficient ideological backing, that it would be able to push back, or survive against, all forms of pressure that would force it into accepting partition.

I say naively because I think over the course of the years, Hamas has understood that actually maintaining that position of opposing partition is a much harder commitment than it might have anticipated in its early years. And so just to go back to your question, I think what Hamas learned from the PLO’s historic concession is that, actually renouncing armed resistance and accepting partition will not lead to liberation. Quite the contrary, it would lead to further defeat and further acquiescence, and that’s a lesson that Hamas learned very openly over the course of the nineties and Palestinians generally, even beyond Hamas, recognize that even after they’ve accepted this major, major concession of letting go of 78 percent of their lands, the international community did not pressure Israel accepting any concessions.

For instance, the Israeli settlement project continued, and Palestinians were not rewarded for their concessions with any form of self-determination. Rather, their concession was used to undermine any kind of effective Palestinian voice that could get concessions from Israel. The lasting lesson which Hamas took from the PLO is that you cannot concede, and certainly you cannot enter into any form of negotiations from a position of weakness.

And we see this lesson emerging with Hamas in later years where it considers actually negotiations with Israel, but keeps saying that they will not put the gun down until the negotiations are completed. So unlike what the PLO did, which is concede and then expect some form of reward. Hamas understood actually that these parties were not negotiating in good faith and that there can be no concession from a position of weakness. It has to be concessions or negotiations from the position of armed resistance.

Daniel Denvir

What specifically was the significance for Palestinian politics and for the national movement of the PLO making this concession and ultimately agreeing to what is euphemistically called security coordination with Israel?

Tareq Baconi

When the PLO conceded the partition of Palestine, this entered it into the fold of diplomatic negotiations. And there was a moment in time, and I’m referring specifically to the Madrid negotiations, where Palestinian negotiators were very effectively pushing for the creation of a Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land of Palestine.

Now, ideologically, we might be opposed to the partition of Palestine, but there was a moment in time when the PLO’s concession might have produced Palestinian statehood that was entirely upended by the Oslo Accords because, as you said before, the Oslo Accords was when the Israeli government got recognition from the PLO for the state of Israel. But in exchange it only gave recognition to the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

So the lasting lesson which Hamas took from the PLO is that you cannot concede, and certainly you cannot enter into any form of negotiations from a position of weakness.

There was no language in the Oslo Accords around a Palestinian state, around Palestinian self-determination, the rights of refugees to return, or Israel ending its settlement-building project. And that was a major defeat. For many Palestinians, the Oslo Accords was the full capitulation of the PLO to Israel’s demands. That was the moment which Edward Said famously referred to it as the Palestinian Versailles.

What became institutionalized, is that through the Oslo Accords, this governing entity, which is referred to as a Palestinian Authority, was created. The Palestinian Authority theoretically was meant to be the embryo of a future Palestinian state, but in reality it was essentially a Bantustan. So it was an authority that was committed to governing the civilian population under its control while operating under the overarching framework of Israeli apartheid and Israeli occupation.

So it became an authority that essentially stabilized the Palestinians under occupation. And that meant a few things. Number one, it relieved Israel from having to care for the civilian population under its control. And this is in violation of international law, which states that the occupying force always has to care for the civilians under its control. And so, by taking on that responsibility, it relieved Israel from the responsibility of acting as an occupying force. It deluded the international community into thinking that this was the framework for a future Palestinian state, rather than what it actually is: a governing authority under occupation, a sort of Bantustan model. And third and most importantly, it prevented the Palestinian liberation struggle from being able to call on Palestinians in their entirety.

So Palestinian refugees, Palestinians in the diaspora, Palestinian citizens of Israel, were excluded. Rather than the Palestinian liberation project being a project that is acting on behalf of Palestinians as a people, the Palestinian Authority became an authority that spoke on behalf of the Palestinian constituency that’s under occupation. And so, over the course of the years of its operation, we see the PLO, which is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people — this anti-colonial liberation movement that at its heights was calling for the full liberation of Palestine — become subsumed into an authority that is governing a small segment of Palestinians under Israeli control, and even committed to Israeli security through security coordination. The formation of the Palestinian Authority ends up undermining the Palestinian liberation project by turning it into really just a governance project under apartheid.

Daniel Denvir

In 1994, seven years before Hamas would launch its first rocket into Israel, they launched their first suicide bombing, killing seven Israelis. How and why did this tactic emerge when it did, just after the PLO had signed the Oslo Accords? You have written that suicide bombings were opposed by the Palestinian public, and in Israel they were exploited by [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who successfully became prime minister for the first time in 1996.

Hamas could always retort, of course, that alternative strategies have also failed, and they would be proven right that Oslo, for example, would just end up being a reconfigured system of Israeli control. Why suicide bombing? And what was Hamas’ vision for armed struggle, including the targeting of Israeli civilians? And how did that vision relate and compare to or also depart from this longer history of armed struggle in what had until then been a secular-led national liberation movement?

Tareq Baconi

I think in the context of Hamas specifically launching into armed struggle, there’s a fundamental difference from the PLO launching its attacks from around Israel. In the case of the PLO, most of the combatants that they ended up engaging with in their armed resistance were military officials by virtue of the fact that they didn’t necessarily have access to Israeli Jewish civilians because they were outside the borders of state.

But even in the history of the PLO, there were attacks against Jewish civilians, not necessarily Israelis, in hijackings and in other contexts, but the discourse had always been that this is a process or a policy that is adopted in order to put pressure on Israel and members of the international community to not ignore the question of Palestine. We might have our own thoughts about the morality of the struggles of the PLO and the way they perpetrated, let’s say, plane hijackings or massacres elsewhere — but strategically, they ended up placing the Palestinian question in the center stage of the international agenda.

Now, the tactic of suicide bombing specifically was something that was learned from Hezbollah. In 1994, the Israeli government rounded up hundreds of Hamas officials and members of the movement and deported them to Lebanon. Essentially, it was a forced transfer of Palestinians under Israeli rule outside the boundaries of the state. This backfired massively because rather than deporting Hamas and then putting them out of sight, out of mind, it placed this spotlight on the Palestinian predicament and allowed Hamas to actually begin organizing and engaging with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

And so that’s where the movement first became exposed to the tactic of suicide bombing. Now, when the movement adopted that tactic in the ’90s, it was focused on one thing. It was focused on undermining the Oslo discussions, because it believed, rightly, that those negotiations would not advance Palestinian rights, that they would consolidate Palestinian defeats. And so the use of suicide bombings was very specifically used as a force to undermine the negotiations and to sort of embarrass the PLO that was negotiating from a position of having secured the Palestinian territories and enabled the safety of the Israeli Jews, and to put pressure on the Israeli government to in some ways move away from negotiations.

So it was very much a spoiler tactic, and it wasn’t a tactic that was straightforward. It gave rise to huge moral and strategic questions internally within the movement around whether or not they should adopt this policy. But in retrospect, it was a policy — again, the ethics aside — that actually succeeded in undermining the negotiations.

It’s very difficult to say whether the negotiations would’ve produced a Palestinian state without suicide bombings. I personally don’t think so. I think the Israeli government was committed to expanding its settlement project regardless. And we now understand Oslo to be a project aimed at securing Palestinian autonomy, not statehood. But nonetheless, at that time, the suicide bombings played a huge role in undermining negotiations.

Daniel Denvir

How did Hamas react to the new uprising, and how did the second Intifada shape the larger Palestinian national movement and Hamas’ place within it?

Tareq Baconi

The second Intifada emerged from a period of despair for Palestinians. So here we have about ten years in which Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership had attempted to do everything in their power to accept and recognize the state of Israel and to try to secure the occupied Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, the state of Israel is expanding its settlement project and further entrenching its occupation. And the deadline for establishing a Palestinian state comes and goes. And we have in the Camp David negotiations — this final effort led by the United States to try to have an agreement where all the issues, what they call the “final status issues,” would be on the table.

The formation of the Palestinian Authority ends up undermining the Palestinian liberation project by turning it into really just a governance project under apartheid.

But even in the eleventh hour, we see that the maximum offer the Israelis are able to put on the table is far short of the minimum demands of the Palestinian people. It therefore becomes clear that all of the negotiations had actually been completely futile, and really for Israel and for its patron, the United States, they are just a way of managing the occupation and of not placing any form of accountability on Israel for its violations of international law.

When that becomes apparent, it leads to a huge rupture among the Palestinian population. And this, provoked by [then Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, becomes this moment where Palestinians rise again, with civil disobedience and popular uprising throughout the occupied territories in ways that were actually very similar to the first Intifada. The major difference here is that in the first Intifada, at a time when it was sort of popular civil disobedience, [Yitzhak] Rabin [Israel’s prime minister from 1974­–77] famously called on the army to break the bones of all the protestors.

So that was the way that they talked about trying to control the protests in the second Intifada. It wasn’t just breaking bones; it was using live fire. So very quickly, from the first day of the Palestinians beginning to rise up, Israel used significant force, hundreds of thousands of bullets, against unarmed civilians that were rising up throughout the territory. So unlike the first Intifada, the second militarized very quickly, and it led to the collapse of any idea, at least as far as Hamas was concerned, that negotiations were the way forward.

And so Hamas wasn’t the only party that was committed to armed resistance. But Hamas in some ways led the resistance activities. Now over the course of the ’90s, it had suffered significantly as a movement because through security coordination, a lot of its infrastructure was dismantled. But in the early months of the second Intifada, it was very quickly able to mobilize, and it committed to what it called the “balance of terror” campaign. Now, this campaign had a very clear goal. It believed that through a war of attrition, it could force Israel to back off and to end its occupation. The movement believed that if it sufficiently terrorized Israeli civilians, those civilians would call on their government to pull back from the occupation.

So its message was, “now you’re facing suicide bombing campaigns on streets, and you want security? End the occupation.” That was the message that it was putting forward. And in some ways, it was essentially a war of attrition. So whenever Israel would invade the occupied territories or deal with Palestinian resistance with heavy-handedness, Hamas would launch suicide bombers into Israeli streets.

This was in the early days of the second Intifada, and it quickly backfired for various reasons, the most important of which is that this was unfolding after the 9/11 attacks against the United States, which meant that the war on terror doctrine was in full swing. The Israeli authorities were able to convince the American administration that the second Intifada was akin to Israel’s 9/11.

Daniel Denvir

And that any Palestinian resistance, particularly but not exclusively Hamas, was part and parcel of the same Islamic terrorism that the United States was in a self-described existential war against.

Tareq Baconi

Precisely. What that meant is that the Israeli regime had essentially a carte blanche to act with disproportionate force against the Palestinians. And so, rather than the suicide bombings creating a dynamic where Israel would pull back from the territories, they actually created a dynamic of entrenchment in some ways. So we see the biggest invasions of the refugee camps, with Jenin refugee camp and other refugee camps throughout the West Bank.

Israel uses its full military force to come back into the occupied territories that it had ostensibly relinquished to the Palestinian Authority. It reinvades all of these territories and crushes all forms of Palestinian resistance. And so we see, over the course of that transition, Hamas’s demands change. Rather than using a balance of terror strategy of relying on suicide bombings to push Israel to relinquish its occupation, Hamas actually changes its tactics and begins calling for alternative means of engaging with Israeli force with the Israeli authorities. So it begins to focus specifically on the occupied territories. It attacks settlers rather than sending suicide bombers inside of Israel. And it starts shifting its tactics to explore other forms of resistance, including political and diplomatic resistance.

Hamas’s attacks accomplished not deterrence, which is what they wanted, but the opposite: more and more brutal Israeli reprisals that reached this new height with the invasion of refugee camps and all the other attacks that made up Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. But of course, it would be easier to argue that the movement should try other methods if Israel allowed any of those methods to work. But in fact, and this will be a consistent theme throughout the story that we’re telling, and throughout this interview, Israel, with US support, is committed to demonstrating that no method will work, and that the only option is capitulation.

What Hamas does do is to force Israel to question the ways that they can deal with the Palestinian issue. So we see several things happening at the end of the second Intifada, one of which is Sharon’s decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip.

But for Hamas specifically, the commitment to armed resistance, as you say, begins to fracture, and they begin to understand that maybe there are other forms of engagement, political or diplomatic engagement in order to secure Palestinian rights. However, they also understand that those forms of engagement, those avenues of engagement, had not in the past succeeded, that Israel had quelled all forms of Palestinian participation that isn’t armed resistance. And the example that Hamas had to date was the PLO and the fact that the PLO had conceded and put down the gun and entered into ten years of negotiations, only to end up in a situation where the Israeli army was more entrenched in the occupied territories than ever before. And so Hamas then begins to explore prospects for political engagement without putting down the gun.

Israel, with US support, is committed to demonstrating that no method will work, and that the only option is capitulation.

Daniel Denvir

Yet it is the Palestinians and Hamas that have been portrayed as the intransigent party who won’t negotiate.

Tareq Baconi

Yes, but the strength of the Israeli attack against the Palestinians in the second Intifada revealed to Hamas the limits of its armed resistance. And it became very clear to the movement that full liberation, at least in the current iteration, was not possible. That was out of bounds. And so over the course of the five years of the second Intifada, we see Hamas very, very actively and openly putting forward political interventions to try to limit civilian deaths and to try to abide by the expectations of the international community that Palestine would be restricted to the occupied Palestinian territories.

They would offer hudna, or cease-fires, to the Israeli authorities. They would say, we will pull back all of our fighters if you dismantle the occupation. And then even in their armed resistance, they would limit that resistance to the settlers in the occupied territories — not to Israeli Jewish civilians within the boundaries of historic Palestine, but to settlers who are illegally occupying settlements in the West Bank or the Gaza ship.

And in doing that, the movement implicitly and not so implicitly — in some cases explicitly — talks about the creation of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, which is ostensibly the demand of the Israeli authorities and the international community: that there would be a two-state solution. And yet, rather than engage with Hamas, rather than try to limit the civilian deaths that were happening on the ground and engage with Hamas politically, there’s every effort to continue to demonize Hamas as an irrational party that is not putting forward any workable solutions.

This reinforces the narrative that the only way of dealing with Hamas or Palestinians more broadly is militarily. And the echoes of that go both back historically and into the future. So historically, the Israelis have always tried to depoliticize the Palestinian movements, even the PLO in Lebanon, presenting them as nothing but terrorists, and in some ways totally undermining the political project of the PLO in Lebanon, which they used to justify their invasion of Beirut in 1982. More recently, Israel has refused to deal with Hamas politically or engage with its political projects, instead painting Hamas specifically, but Palestinians more broadly, as terrorists, even when they pursue their rights through nonviolent avenues.

Daniel Denvir

The 2005 cease-fire saw Israel pull back eight thousand settlers who had controlled 30 percent of the land on the Gaza strip. Hamas saw this as a victory for the resistance, but you argue that Israel saw it as part of a strategy aimed at the annexation of the West Bank. Which one was it?

Tareq Baconi

It was both. So for Hamas, the movement actually relied on what it called the Hezbollah model, which is the model of resistance that Hezbollah carried out against Israelis, which ultimately resulted in Israel relinquishing its control over and occupation of Southern Lebanon. Hamas saw Israel’s pulling out of eight thousand settlers from the Gaza Strip as a victory in that sense that it was clear that the state was incapable of tolerating the cost of maintaining that settlement.

We should be clear: these are eight thousand settlers controlling 30 percent of the land, and two million Palestinians in the remaining 70 percent. So the scale of confinement of Palestinians to make room for Jewish settlers was extreme in the Gaza Strip. Those eight thousand settlers were in the most fertile lands, enjoying extensive infrastructure connected directly to Israel and enjoying a European suburban life with pools and lawns, while two million Palestinians lived around them in refugee camps with no infrastructure and no ability to move. The starkest forms of apartheid.

And so when the settlers were pulled out and Israel’s occupying structure changed — so that rather than maintaining the occupation from within by protecting settlers, it reconfigures itself to maintaining a blockade on the Gaza Strip from the outside — Hamas is under no illusion that occupation has ended. They see it as a victory that they forced Israel to remove their settlers, but they’re under no illusion that the occupation has ended.

But in some ways — and actually I wouldn’t have been able to say this with as much certainty three weeks ago — what we saw on October 7, 2023, is the result of Hamas being able to deal with that strip of land as a “liberated territory.” Even though the blockade obviously meant that the Palestinians there were still under occupation, within the Gaza Strip Hamas had relative autonomy in a way that the Palestinians in the West Bank do not, because the Israeli army invades the West Bank day in, day out: it carries out raids, it terrorizes civilians, it dismantles all forms of organizing. So that still happens in the West Bank; it doesn’t in the Gaza Strip. And so the Gaza Strip was a space where Hamas could focus on developing its infrastructure and the political and social and military projects that enabled it to carry out the offensive it did in October 2023.

Daniel Denvir

In 2005, Hamas entered the electoral arena for the first time ever, contesting for power in the Palestinian Authority — first in municipal elections, and then in 2006 winning a majority in legislative elections. But you write that Hamas really wanted to reform the PLO rather than to run a Palestinian Authority that it rightly saw as a tool for administering the occupation. What did Hamas seek out of reforming the PLO, and why? If that was their larger goal and they did see the Palestinian Authority as fundamentally compromised, why did they decide to nonetheless enter elections?

Tareq Baconi

That’s a very important question, and I think that it’s one that Hamas has internally really grappled with, and I’m not sure that they really got to a good enough answer. So let me just lay out a few things. First of all, the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinian people; that’s what the Palestinians got out of the Oslo Accords. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have always been marginalized from the PLO.

So there was every effort to make sure that these parties do not enter into the PLO. So the movement historically has always rebelled against that and believed that it enjoys enough legitimacy among the Palestinian people to be a part of this umbrella organization that brings together all the Palestinian factions fighting for liberation. And part of the reason that it’s been marginalized by the PLO is because the PLO in 1988, up and through to the Oslo Accords, recognized the state of Israel and accepted the Oslo framework.

And Hamas is against these agreements. Entry of Hamas into the PLO would mean that the PLO would have to grapple with that historic concession that it had made, and it’s been unwilling to do that. And so in 2005 and 2006, when the elections were being pushed onto the Palestinian people, we have to understand this within the context of the war on terror; there’s this effort to create a democratic Palestinian leadership by the Bush administration. So they’re pushing forward for elections after many of the top Palestinian leaders are assassinated or die.

This leads to a moment in time where the Americans are pushing for elections within the Palestinian Authority. Now, Hamas comes out and says, the Palestinian Authority is illegitimate. The Oslo Accords have failed. We cannot think of the Palestinian authorities through the framework of the Oslo Accords. So if we run in these elections, we’re running in these elections in a post­–second Intifada moment where the Palestinians are looking to rebuild their political project after this crushing violence that has been used against the Palestinians — after the restructuring of the occupation, after the death of many Palestinian leaders, including Arafat and others. In this post­–second Intifada moment, this is a moment of rebirth for the Palestinian liberation project.

And so Hamas, rightly or wrongly, believed that it could enter into the Palestinian Authority, and using that foothold revolutionize the Palestinian political establishment. They hoped to use the foothold of the Palestinian Authority to really enter into the PLO, or open up to debate all the fundamental tenets that the PLO had accepted by then, which included recognizing the state of Israel. The movement was convinced that there were no negotiations possible post–second Intifada, given where the Palestinian political project had gotten to. However, the flip side to that is that’s not where Israel or the PLO or the international community were at. They believed that the Palestinian political project had been sufficiently decimated, that it was precisely the time when they could reinforce the idea of the Palestinian Authority and restart negotiations with Palestinians on a weaker footing.

Hamas, rightly or wrongly, believed that it could enter into the Palestinian Authority, and using that foothold revolutionize the Palestinian political establishment.

There emerges an incompatibility of expectations. Hamas runs in the elections, and this immediately starts a chain reaction of several events. The first is that Hamas gets democratically elected in elections that are pushed for by the European Union (EU) and the United States and seen as fair by international observers.

Daniel Denvir

Including by Jimmy Carter, who was there.

Tareq Baconi

Yes, including by Jimmy Carter and other EU officials who say, these are fair elections. Hamas wins democratically. So this is what Palestinian democracy produces. And again, I should be clear, these are Palestinians under occupation. So Palestinian refugees, the diaspora, and Palestinian citizens of Israel are not voting, but this is who the Palestinians choose in 2006 for various reasons. And the response of the international community is to initiate efforts to push for a regime change — to begin preparations for a coup to undermine the elected party and to reinstate Fatah, which is the party that is committed to negotiations under Israeli apartheid.

These preparations take the form of financial support, military support, and diplomatic support against Hamas and in support of Fatah. And so we have about a year where Hamas tries to overcome that attempted coup and to try to create a Palestinian Authority that is united, that even brings Fatah into the governing body — to try to create a Palestinian Authority that accepts international demands, recognizes a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, accepts partition in some ways, and puts forward major concessions.

And instead of any of those being dealt with, the international community, through what it calls the quartet conditions, puts forward the same conditions it had put on the PLO before it — you must renounce armed resistance, recognize the state of Israel, and accept the Oslo Accords — when these conditions are not employed or accepted by Israel, which is still using armed force against civilians, which has undermined Oslo and continues to expand its settlements.

So it’s really an effort to try to marginalize Hamas, and it works. It facilitates a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, and results in a situation where Hamas then takes over the Gaza strip, and Fatah becomes the governing authority in the West Bank. And this is where we see the institutional and political division within the Palestinian territories begin to take hold.

Daniel Denvir

How did Hamas win those elections? Did they win voters over because of their resistance to Israel, or was it more on good-government grounds and their relentless criticism of Fatah’s corruption, or was it both in a way that is maybe interrelated? And then how did Hamas envision doing politics in a way that included governance and resistance?

Tareq Baconi

So I think that there has been a lot of speculation around how Hamas won those elections, and I think one of the lines that we often hear is that it won as a protest vote against Fatah. To give context, Fatah at this time had lost a lot of legitimacy, not only because it is committed to negotiations that are clearly going nowhere, but also because its leadership is increasingly corrupt and not speaking on behalf of what the Palestinians want.

By the time of the elections, it was very much a party that was past its heyday and living on former glory, one that is now misaligned with Palestinians. So many people articulated or explained Hamas’s election victory as a protest vote against Fatah. I think that minimizes what actually happened. Hamas put forward a very coherent and astute political program, which focused on cleaning up the Palestinian Authority. So it advocated reform, it pushed back against corruption, and it focused on the needs of the Palestinians under occupation.

In that sense, it really connected with the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But also Hamas’s resistance is something that Palestinians support. They might have ideological differences in that not all Palestinians are Islamists, obviously, and they might have tactical differences in that not all Palestinians support targeting civilians — but the idea of a resistance that’s dealing with Israel through force is something that Palestinians appreciate, because it’s seen as a form of defense against aggressive colonial violence.

The idea of security coordination and acquiescence for Palestinians means accepting a situation where Palestinian civilians are killed daily, with no pushback and no form of protection. So Hamas’s resistance project then and now is still something that Palestinians admire and appreciate because they see it as protecting them from Israeli force. All of these factors together meant that Hamas had a very solid standing in the elections, and I should say was far more effective at mobilizing and organizing than Fatah was in the lead-up to the elections.

But in terms of the second part of your question around governance, I think Hamas was deeply ambivalent about governance. I don’t think Hamas wanted to emerge as a governing authority. In some ways, the election victory was a surprise, even for Hamas. I think what the movement wanted to do was to reconstitute the whole idea of governance and move it away from administration under occupation, into resistance — into, how do you mobilize people under occupation to move away from imagining they have a good life, and to begin focusing on resisting the occupation? That was their idea of governance.

And in some ways, this is what we see in the Gaza Strip in the space that they did actually govern in for the past fifteen years. So I think that the idea of governance as we might understand it — caring for a population under occupation — was not necessarily something that Hamas was after. Of course, it was looking to provide that welfare structure for civilians, but it was really more importantly looking at using that space to push forward a political project aimed at undoing occupation.

The idea of governance as we might understand it — caring for a population under occupation — was not necessarily something that Hamas was after.

Daniel Denvir

We should pause here in the history to talk about where Hamas fits into the regional geopolitical order, now that we’re past the point in the history where it’s become a governing power in Gaza. Traditionally, Hamas has depended on Iran and Syria for support, and on Hezbollah as a powerful military ally on Israel’s northern border. At least that was the dynamic until the so-called Arab Spring complicated things.

How did support for and opposition to Hamas fit into regional geopolitics from the late 1980s until protests filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square? And then how did those massive antiregime protests across the Arab world — which among other things briefly brought their Muslim Brotherhood allies to power in Cairo — change the geopolitical dynamics for Hamas?

Tareq Baconi

So Hamas and the PLO before it had always understood that, as a poorly resourced organization and people, the Palestinians needed to rely on patrons in the region to provide them with financial, military, and diplomatic support. And Hamas was actually very good at securing that support from different bodies. So it had engaged in conversations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and Jordan and Syria and Iran and Qatar and Turkey over the course of its life. And it would always have ebbs and flows, and often play some of these patrons against each other. But what it was always very good at was making sure that its project never expands beyond its immediate goal, which is the liberation of the land of Palestine. In other words, it wasn’t ever, as far as I know, co-opted to act as a proxy for regional patrons in other wars.

Hamas had good relations with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey and elsewhere. Things really began changing and became quite tumultuous for the movement after the revolutions began in the Middle East. Two things really were quite major. The first is that in the early days of the revolutions, Hamas — which always thinks of itself as a movement that is very connected to the people because of its social infrastructure — aligned itself with the Syrian people against the [Bashar al-] Assad regime, which created a major fissure. Its political wing, which was based in Damascus, was kicked out of Syria. And the funding which it was getting from Iran, which of course is an ally of the Assad regime, was abruptly ended at the moment in time when Hamas was a governing authority.

After it was kicked out of Syria, it relocated this political bureau to Qatar and started negotiating other forms of funding. So that was one of the big changes that happened after the revolutions began. And the other was that in the early days and years of the revolution, we saw the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt. We saw [Mohamed] Morsi democratically elected, and the movement very quickly jumped on that bandwagon. It’s believed that this was the time of Islamic renaissance. This is the time when the Muslim Brotherhood would come back to power and very openly embrace Morsi.

And just briefly, we should emphasize here that this is very practically important for Gaza and for Hamas, because what we haven’t mentioned yet — but that most listeners no doubt know —  is that Egypt is fundamentally complicit in the blockade by keeping the Rafah crossing closed, or nearly closed.

So when the blockade was instituted, really the effect was to try to strangle Hamas entirely. And the movement at the time invested a lot of resources to dig tunnels from the Gaza Strip into the Sinai Peninsula under Rafah. And those tunnels became a lifeline for the movement.

[Former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak was complicit with the Israeli regime in terms of instituting the blockade against the Gaza Strip. But he turned a blind eye to the tunnels. So during the Mubarak years, Hamas was still able to get some inflow of goods and people through tunnels under the Rafah border. When Mohamed Morsi came to power, that obviously changed quite drastically. And the tunnels — and not only the tunnels but the Rafah border itself — became much more permeable. The blockade was in some ways eased. And the complicity of the Egyptian regime with Israel around the Gaza Strip was undermined, which is why there was such jubilation among Palestinians in Gaza at the time.

You saw Morsi’s poster everywhere in the Gaza Strip. And there was this belief that now the idea that Palestinians would remain under blockade was fundamentally challenged, and that they would have an heir regional patron that is against Israeli apartheid and against the blockade. But the swift turn of events in Egypt really brought that to an end. And actually, when [Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi came to power, one of the first things he did was to crack down on all of the tunnels, to raze a lot of the areas around Rafah, and to reinforce the blockade, which is where we’re at today: the Sisi regime being actively complicit in the blockade.

Daniel Denvir

And for Sisi to accuse Hamas of basically nurturing Salafi militants operating in the Sinai, which is so off base on so many levels. I mean, we haven’t talked about this much, but Hamas is theologically and ideologically opposed to the sort of anti-national, more nihilistic Salafism exemplified by Al-Qaeda or the Islamic state, and in fact has repeatedly cracked down and repressed ISIS operating in Gaza and propagandized against their theology.

Tareq Baconi

Absolutely. And the movement is actually very strict on that. It does not tolerate any form of ideologies that are committed to violence for the sake of violence or the transnational violence that we see in organizations like ISIS or otherwise. It actively polices against and cracks down on any kind of Salafi networks in the Gaza Strip, and has actually in the past engaged with educational programs to try to steer the younger population that are open to that kind of propaganda on their virtual devices away from that.

More generally, the conflation of the Muslim Brotherhood with those organizations is sinister, and it’s done with a very particular political agenda, which is to frame all political demands, certainly by Islamic parties, as a form of transnational terror. And following the coup that brings down the Morsi government, the Sisi regime unfortunately jumps on that bandwagon of depoliticized Islamic terrorism, accuses Hamas of fermenting that unrest in the Sinai Peninsula, and uses that as justification for blocking the Strip.

Daniel Denvir

By 2014, Hamas was actively seeking to offload its governing responsibilities. Why did Hamas want out of governing Gaza, and why was Israel so determined to make sure that didn’t happen?

Tareq Baconi

So Israel at the time didn’t want that to happen for the simple reason that it wanted a governing entity to stabilize the Gaza Strip and absolve it of the responsibility for caring for two million Palestinians under its occupation. It believed very strongly that it had sufficiently contained Hamas, and that it had sufficiently managed to restrict Hamas and Hamas’s reach to the Gaza Strip. And it made the calculus that a few rockets every couple months were worth the price of maintaining Gaza under blockade and stabilizing it under the Gaza Strip. That was something that it could administer and tolerate relatively easily. And so it wanted to make sure that Hamas stayed in power as the governing authority. As you say, it’s funny to fast forward to 2023, and now the Israeli discourse is that Hamas has always been ISIS and needs to be destroyed.

And the difference between that Hamas and this Hamas is, of course, that there’s no difference. But in the Israeli political sphere, the difference is that Hamas was not as strong in its resistance or as explicit in its resistance as this Hamas, post­–October 7. And the issue here is resistance. The issue here is that Palestinians have no right to resist.

Israel once wanted to make sure that Hamas stayed in power as the governing authority. Fast forward to 2023, and now the Israeli discourse is that Hamas has always been ISIS and needs to be destroyed.

Israel wanted to maintain Hamas as the governing authority. This is post-Morsi, and so all the lifelines that Hamas has in terms of tunnels that would allow for the entry of goods or people are now inaccessible, which leads to a severe financial crisis. The movement is unable to provide services for the Palestinians in Gaza, and the Palestinians are beginning to turn against Hamas. So they begin to see Hamas as a reason for their suffering. Of course, they understand that the blockade is the fundamental reason, but the blockade is not something they can change. Hamas, however, is.

And so Hamas becomes the recipient of rage in the Gaza Strip. And to go back to the point that I was making before, Hamas was always fundamentally ambivalent about governance. It wanted to govern only insofar as it was able to use its governance to put forward and maintain a Palestinian political project that’s committed to resistance. And so, by 2014, all of these things meant that Hamas’ governance was actually shackling Hamas: it was unable to continue to operate either as an effective governance authority because of the financial constraints, or really to wage any kind of effective resistance project against Israelis.

Daniel Denvir

At that point in 2014, Hamas had upheld a cease-fire in place since 2012, since Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense war on Gaza. And what that showed was that Hamas could control and prevent rocket fire from Gaza, both from Hamas soldiers and from soldiers of other factions like Islamic Jihad. But you write that Israeli policies continued unabated. In fact, they intensified that year. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, which you write represented a new extreme in Israel’s assault on civilian lives. Meanwhile, infrastructure airstrikes were just leveling entire tower blocks of apartments, much like what we see today: 2,200 Palestinians were killed, 1,492 of them civilians, 551 children.

You have argued that this was the highest level of civilian casualties Israel had inflicted on the Palestinians in any one year since 1967; the exceptionally high death toll of children under the age of 16 gave rise to accusations that Israel was systematically targeting Gaza’s younger population. Stepping back for a moment, lay out the arc of military conflicts between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza: incredibly one-sided affairs that killed handfuls of Israelis and hundreds or thousands of Palestinians. Explain this longer arc of conflicts or wars or assaults from 2007 to the eve of Hamas’ recent operation. Did Israel’s military operations against Gaza become more extreme and overwhelming over time, or was there just more of a consistent pattern, as the Israeli security establishment phrase “mowing the lawn” might suggest?

Tareq Baconi

I mean, what Israel came to call “mowing the lawn” was fundamentally a doctrine that was aimed at undermining Hamas’s military capabilities intermittently. So every few months or years, Israel would launch an operation that would theoretically be focused on Hamas’s military infrastructure. In the early years of Hamas’s rule, the movement’s firepower was not as developed as it would become in later years. And so in some ways, the Israeli military assaults were less severe than what they would become. But I think it’s important to mention that Israel’s military assaults on the Gaza Strip never focused only on military infrastructure because of what the Gaza Strip is, how densely populated it is, because of its reality as essentially a series of refugee camps connected to each other.

Hamas was operating in civilian areas, and Israel was responding in civilian areas with disproportionate force that was aimed at undermining Hamas’s military capabilities, but also Hamas’s appetite, and the appetite of Palestinians in Gaza generally, to continue to support armed resistance.

So in some ways, it was focused on exacting civilian costs from its military assaults. What we see begin to change in 2014 is that Israel begins to employ a doctrine called the Dahiya doctrine. This is a doctrine that Israel had used against Palestinians in Lebanon in the past, and it’s in reference specifically to Dahiya, which is in south Lebanon. It’s a heavily populated residential area, and Hezbollah has a lot of its political leaders based there.

The Dahiya doctrine was basically a strategy by Israel to level residential buildings and to attack indiscriminately in civilian areas in order to exact a high toll on Hezbollah. That’s a doctrine that Israel then employs in 2014. It’s still within “mowing the lawn” — it’s still an operation that’s seen as a sporadic attempt to undermine Hamas’s military capabilities. But because of the way the 2014 assault began — where it was clear that Hamas exhibited a more advanced form of rocket fire than it did in, let’s say, 2008 — the blockade was instituted shortly afterward.

And because of Netanyahu’s own domestic challenges at the time, the government needed to exact a much higher tool. So it really launched a fifty-one day campaign that was brutal, and for Palestinians more brutal than anything that’s ever been seen before, toward a captive, essentially refugee population. In that policy, they directed fire at residential apartment blocks. They started leveling some of the highest towers in Gaza in the most densely populated areas, and that was a very shocking development for Palestinians and Gaza. And in some ways it’s partially the reason why, for years after that, Hamas was actually more active in pulling back resistance.

Daniel Denvir

Could you explain Hamas’ governing style?

Tareq Baconi

Hamas was operating within political corridors, so after it won the election in 2006, the movement very actively tried to put forward an inclusive political agenda. It tried to bring Fatah into the governing structure, for instance; I don’t think Hamas is completely against pluralistic politics. The problem is that in the instances where the party is engaging with Fatah today — let’s say in possible reconciliation agreements — it fundamentally believes that the project that Fatah has been putting forward is a project that is based in Palestinian capitulation. And so it has taken a strong position against engagement in pluralism or in sort of plurality with Fatah. I think that reconciliation agreements between the two parties have kind of stalled.

Hamas was operating in civilian areas, and Israel was responding in civilian areas with disproportionate force that was aimed at undermining Hamas’s military capabilities and the appetite for armed resistance.

But to go back to your specific question around governance, I think it’s really important to understand Hamas’s governance within the context of the blockade. It’s limited in terms of what it’s able to do and what it isn’t able to do, and that means that its governance is less than ideal. I would describe Hamas’ governance as soft authoritarianism because the movement has certainly undermined political plurality. It hasn’t allowed for mobilization or organizing by Fatah, let’s say, in Gaza. And there’s a history to this. Part of the reason — not to justify it — is because there’s a degree of paranoia. The past mobilization by Fata had been aimed after the 2006 elections at initiating a coup and undermining Hamas’s democratic rise.

But the movement has also shown authoritarianism in other ways. It has cracked down on social activities. There isn’t as much freedom of speech or organizing in the Gaza Strip, and there has been a crackdown on protestors at various times over the course of the past sixteen years. So I think it’s important to call out Hamas on those deficiencies in its governance while also contextualizing it within the particular challenges of existing under occupation and specifically under blockade.

Daniel Denvir

What was the context for Hamas’ operation, and why has it felt like such a breaking point for the status quo?

Tareq Baconi

So there’s the issue of the broader context, and there’s the issue of the immediate timing. The broader context is one where Hamas was in some ways effectively contained, and it was beginning to limit resistance from the Gaza Strip, certainly from other factions like Islamic Jihad and others, in order to maintain calm. And as far as the Israelis and others understood, that looked like a form of security coordination and a form of curtailment of Hamas’s power, restricting it to the Gaza Strip in a way that was not too disruptive for Israeli civilians.

Now, during this time, Hamas never changed its ideology, unlike Fatah, whose security coordination is grounded in recognizing the state of Israel and partitioning Palestine. Hamas never conceded ideologically, which is why I argue in my book that although containment was effective, it was likely to be temporary because there was always a recourse for Hamas to go back to its actual ideology, which stresses the importance of armed struggle for liberation.

The broader context is that the containment of Hamas has made the apartheid regime more vicious and more acceptable internationally and regionally. It’s becoming more vicious in the sense of more restrictions on the Gaza Strip, more settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank, more disruptions of the status quo in Jerusalem, more agitation within Israel itself to increase crime and violence against Palestinian communities. Israel, under the most explicitly right-wing fascist government its ever had, is now pushing forward ideas of colonization and ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, the [Joe] Biden administration is ingratiating itself with Israel, with a US visa-waiver program and pushing forward normalization agreements with Saudi Arabia. So there’s a very upsetting constellation of events where Palestinians are becoming more exposed to Israeli colonial violence while Israel is becoming more politically and diplomatically welcomed. And so this is the context in which Hamas chooses to upend the idea that it’s been contained and to reemerge as an armed party.

When it comes to the specific timing, we should keep in mind that this wasn’t an operation that was planned in weeks. It was clearly an operation that had been long planned. I think several factors drove the specific timing. I think the most important for me, and others might disagree, is the perceived weakness of the Israeli military. The fact that there were that many reservists protesting the changes that the Netanyahu government was pushing forward in Israel meant that the army was the weakest it’s ever been. And there’s a certain degree of smugness here, because the army really did believe that they successfully quelled resistance from the Gaza Strip, so they kind of let go of their full preparedness in the Gaza Strip and were focusing specifically on protecting settlers while they expand their violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. From Hamas’s perspective, I think it was the right moment to act militarily, in terms of being able to exact the greatest cost from Israel’s army.

Daniel Denvir

The 2018 and 2019 March of Return at the Gaza apartheid fence saw mass nonviolent protest, to which Israel responded by killing more than two hundred and injuring thousands; the Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a classic nonviolent resistance strategy, has been ferociously demonized and repressed. How is it possible to conduct a meaningful strategic debate in a context where Israel and the United States do everything possible to ensure that every single strategy will fail?

Tareq Baconi

I mean, I think that’s really where we’re at with the Israeli political establishment and the American administrations: the only good Palestinian is a dead Palestinian or a silent one. All forms of resistance are met with force; boycotts and divestment and economic resistance are labeled antisemitic or terroristic. Going to the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice is labeled legal terrorism by Israeli politicians. And even writing or culture or advocacy on campus is a form of intellectual terrorism. What we see really is an effort to try to make the Palestinians disappear, because this is the only thing that the Israelis can accept. The reality of this is because Israel is a settler colonial state, and in settler colonial states, the indigenous have to disappear, they have to be erased — because otherwise they continue to be reminders of the injustice that is at the heart of that state being created.

There’s no way that Israel and Israeli settlers don’t understand that the foundation of their state is ethnic cleansing. It’s in their history, they’re aware of it, and Palestinians by their mere presence are a reminder of that injustice. Now, regardless of whether they think it was an injustice or not, it’s still rooted in the expulsion of Palestinians from their territory. They might justify it as something that happened in the context of war, but still, fundamentally, the presence of Palestinians is a reminder of what the foundations of their state are about. And so rather than dealing with that history, rather than dealing with that political reality that Palestinians are bringing to the table, Israel and the United States in successive administrations have focused on making sure that Palestinians are depoliticized — that they’re accepted only as a people who live with certain civil rights, quietly gratefully, and that any kind of political demands are dismantled or removed.

What we see really is an effort to try to make the Palestinians disappear, because this is the only thing that the Israelis can accept.

Up until October 7, this was the deadliest year for Palestinians. More than fifty children had been murdered by Israeli forces before October 7 happened. But this was nowhere on the global agenda. Now people might say, well, yes, armed resistance brought it onto the global agenda, but then initiated ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians. That’s correct. But Hamas likely saw the alternative as a slow death.

They were to continue being strangled in the Gaza Strip and having civilians killed day in, day out without anyone saying anything. So the inability to deal with the politics at the heart of the Palestinian question is really saying, we accept Palestinian death, and that’s a fair price to pay to maintain Israel as a Jewish state. Unfortunately, that’s not going to be sustainable, because Palestinians will always resist as long as they exist as a people.

Daniel Denvir

After the Hamas operation, we saw a snarky response here and there on the American left: What did you think decolonization looks like? But is it really so obvious what decolonizing Palestine looks like? What have these debates over how to liberate Palestine looked like over this long history of the Palestinian national movement? And where, at this bleak moment, might they be heading next?

Tareq Baconi

Look, I think the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been at this moment, and I firmly believe that decolonization in Palestine will be context-specific. I think we will learn from Algeria and we will learn from South Africa, but neither of these examples offer the solution for what Palestinian liberation looks like. We have to do the heavy lifting as Palestinians and allies to figure out and understand what decolonization means for us. And this is something that is not only specific to Palestine; this is something that’s universal. We’re living in the twenty-first century. Palestine is one of two remaining settler-colonial apartheid states.

The challenges that Palestinians face are very specific to Palestine, but they also have universal implications around racialized oppression and around power and domination. We see this already — we see that what happened on October 7 is starting new debates regionally and globally. So Palestine is in some ways at the center of what it means for us to think about decolonization, what it means for us to actually go into a postcolonial world.

Ultimately, decolonization, if it is to be effective, is not going to be grounded in bloodletting and killing of civilians. It’s going to be a process that’s focused on dismantling a structure of oppression. And of course, there will be violence in that. I don’t think there’s been any anti-colonial struggle that isn’t violent, but there’s a difference between armed resistance and the kind of bloodletting that could sort of spiral out of control without an effective ideological and strategic political project. And I think that’s the work we need to do: to figure out what project can hold an effective strategy of decolonization and move it forward.

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