The Israeli war on Gaza simultaneously restored Hamas’ damaged legitimacy as the leader of the Palestinian resistance and pulled the rug out from under President Mahmoud Abbas. In the eyes of Palestinians, who do not expect actual victory from resistance fighters facing a massive Israeli war machine, Hamas’ steadfastness alone constituted a triumph. Israel succeeded neither in ending Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip nor even in preventing it from launching rockets that now strike previously unreachable areas inside Israel.
In some ways the Gaza war parallels the 1968 Battle of Karameh, which allowed the Fatah movement to take over leadership of the Palestinian cause. At that time Fatah succeeded in depicting its resistance against Israeli raids into the East Bank of the Jordan River as an enormous victory. Although the Fatah Fedayeen suffered heavy losses, it was the first time that they also inflicted losses on the Israelis (28 killed and approximately 90 injured). This depiction of victory is what legitimized Fatah in the eyes of Palestinians and gave it the ability to dominate the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1969 onward.
After the Gaza war, Palestinians see Hamas as a resolute and self-sacrificing warrior doing all that is within its means to safeguard Palestinian rights and to resist Israeli and U.S. demands, even if that means its leadership is assassinated and its institutions and headquarters are destroyed. It is now common to hear Palestinians taking pride in Hamas’ war accomplishments. They draw parallels between the Gaza war and the July 2006 Lebanon war, comparing Hamas to Hizballah who, in their view, possesses an honorable record because it successfully resisted the Israeli army and imposed substantial losses on it. The Gaza war has thus reversed a prior deterioration in Palestinians’ views of Hamas, which had been seen as more interested in obtaining power than in abiding by its principles after the bloody struggle with Fatah and the takeover of Gaza in June 2007.
Palestinians do question the high human costs of the war (more than 1,300 killed and over 5,000 wounded). Yet they do not blame Hamas as much as the cowardice and barbarism of the Israeli army, which targets citizens because of its inability to confront the resistance. This situation would be radically different if there were a genuine peace process that put an end to Israeli oppression; at that point the resistance would lose its legitimacy.
The Palestinians, however, have learned from experience that life is not much better during a cease-fire than during a war with Israel. Even when Hamas attempted a six month truce and stopped all acts of resistance against the Israeli occupation, Israel reneged on its commitments to end its siege of Gaza and open the border crossings. The Palestinians remained trapped, living in miserable economic conditions; the sick died while they were waiting for Israeli permission to travel abroad for medical treatment.
The Gaza war damaged what little credibility President Abbas had left with his people because he did not show heroism in a time of extreme danger. He might, for instance, have signaled that the Palestinian Authority would be dissolved or gone to Gaza to be martyred with his people. Rather, Abbas positioned himself on the side of the Arab governments opposed to Hamas, who viewed the resistance and not the occupation as the cause of the war. He defended the actions of the Egyptian government—seen by Palestinians as colluding with Israel in the war—and participated in the Sharm al-Sheikh summit that ended with the demand that the smuggling of arms to Hamas stop. Moreover, his security forces quelled the angry demonstrations that erupted in the West Bank and prevented standoffs with Israeli soldiers at military roadblocks. Denunciations of Abbas’s positions have become widespread among Palestinians, and a number of internet sites including Facebook (a favorite place for Arabs to express their opinions beyond the reach of government censorship) have posted discussion forums demanding his resignation.
The Gaza war also decisively discredited Abbas’s efforts to persuade Palestinians that resistance is futile. Early reports of deaths in Gaza sent hundreds of angry protestors into the streets of the West Bank, calling for revenge against Israel and a return to armed struggle including suicide bombings inside Israel. Before the Gaza war, many Palestinians grudgingly accepted campaigns launched by the Palestinian President’s security apparatus in the West Bank against Hamas members and infrastructure, but now many find such campaigns unacceptable. In fact, in popular opinion the Palestinian Authority stands condemned for closing Hamas’ bases in the West Bank because that prevented their use to launch suicide missions in revenge for those killed and wounded in Gaza.
Today, it appears that the discussion is moving on to consider when presidential and legislative elections should be held; Palestinians will not have the luxury of licking their wounds for long. And it also will not be long before the fighter who stood his ground demands a greater share of power. When the Palestinians head to the polls, they will have less fear than before that Hamas’ election would lead to an international boycott and financial blockade. Through the war Hamas was able to impose a new international reality, seen most clearly in a new European approach that recognized Hamas as a key player that cannot be bypassed.
The Palestinian music group “al-'Ashiqeen” has a song that begins with the line, “Bear witness, o world, for us and for Beirut.” One need only change the names of the locations that Israel bombed during its war against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982 with those in Gaza to see a strong resemblance between the massacres of yesterday and today. But there is one major difference. If the 1982 war forced the PLO’s leaders and fighters to leave the field of resistance and go into exile, the Gaza war by contrast firmly established the place of Hamas in the minds and hearts of Palestinians—the source of true legitimacy.
Omran Risheq is a Palestinian writer and analyst. Melvin Hall translated this article from Arabic.