One major outcome of the current conflict in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem will be the emergence of Hamas as the charioteer of the Palestinian resistance movement against Israel.
Hamas’ ascendence poses a predicament for a number of countries that have a sense of involvement with the Palestinian cause. India falls into that category. A policy adjustment has become necessary. This may involve a leap of faith, as it overlaps the country’s relationship with a militant Islamic group.
In the current conflict, Hamas has won considerable sympathy far beyond the Muslim world, including among those who might otherwise be vehemently opposed from a variety of ideological perspectives to political Islam being the manifestation of power.
These complex feelings range from visceral reaction to a far more developed and politically articulated accommodation with Islamism as a political force.
The uninformed Indian mind feels confused, seeing some combination of al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas et al, while Hamas itself exemplifies a new form of the historic project of justice, freedom, equality and resistance to suppression.
In the international context, the evidence of this transformation appeared when the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez flew to Tehran and dramatically embraced the Iranian president in 2006. More recently, Iran sent a flotilla of tankers to Venezuela last year to help the Latin American nation fight a crippling fuel shortage due to US sanctions, in an act of defiance in the face of Washington’s warnings.
What began as tactical cooperation between Venezuela and Iran has become something far more elaborated.
Curiously, the relationship between militant Islam and secularists in modern history dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 when the Soviet leadership viewed militant Muslims as at least tactical allies while promoting an “anti-imperialist” movement in Asia against the British, French and Dutch colonial empires.
To quote a well-known British scholar on political Islam, Fred Halliday, “For decades afterwards, the Soviet position on Islam was that it was, if not inherently progressive, then at least capable of socialist interpretation.”
Of course, it was a different story than in the latter part of the 20th century. As a key template of the Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union, the West succeeded by a far clearer alignment of Islamist groups against communism, socialism, liberalism and all that Moscow stood for – with devastating effect culminating in the “Afghan jihad” in the 1980s.
Inevitably, when history is rewritten, the language of political adjustment also changes to accommodate the new accommodation. Thus the protests in Western cities this past week over the Israeli assault on Gaza carried the banners “Palestinian Lives Matter,” echoing the movement that surged in the US after the brutal murder of George Floyd, a black man, by police in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, last May.
That sympathizers and supporters of the Palestine cause invoked Black Lives Matter, a decentralized political and social movement in the US against incidents of police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people, carries much symbolism about the changing perceptions of Hamas worldwide as a resistance movement.
A riveting piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on May 19 was titled “The ‘unshakable’ bonds of friendship between the US and Israel are shaking.” Kristof wrote that young Americans tend to see “the rise of this hawkish, more extremist Israel and perceive not a plucky democracy but an oppressive military power. What strikes them most isn’t democratic values so much as what Human Rights Watch calls ‘crimes of apartheid.’”
Importantly, among Democrats in the US Congress, attitudes toward Israel have grown more critical as the party base expresses concern about the human rights of Palestinians. The energized progressive wing of the party – led by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among others – has openly accused Israel of gross human-rights violations against Palestinians and of operating an “apartheid state.”
Senator Sanders wrote a forceful essay in The New York Times last week in which he argued, “In the Middle East, where we provide nearly $4 billion a year in aid to Israel, we can no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior.
“We must change course and adopt an even-handed approach, one that upholds and strengthens international law regarding the protection of civilians, as well as existing US law holding that the provision of US military aid must not enable human-rights abuses.”
Sanders concluded, “We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter.”
Meanwhile, diplomacy always happens behind the scenes because it needs to be quiet, and seldom if ever does its every component get read out. Reports have appeared nonetheless that US President Joe Biden has lately switched to a somewhat sharper private tone in his calls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden’s juggling act on Israel only underscores his acute awareness that the Democrats are no longer solidly in Israel’s corner. The crisply worded White House readout on Biden’s call with Netanyahu on Wednesday ended with a noticeably undiplomatic formulation hinting at irritation, which has made headlines in the international press: “The President conveyed to the Prime Minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.” (Emphasis added.)
Indeed, Israel and Hamas have agreed a ceasefire, which came into effect early on Friday local time.
All this has great relevance for Indians who have been brainwashed by Israel and its lobbyists in academia, the media and think-tanks into the stereotyped conceptions of Hamas as a violent jihadist group.
Part of the problem, admittedly, lies in history, as Hamas used to be antithetical to the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasser Arafat and, more recently, to Fatah led by Mahmoud Abbas, who had been friends of India.
However, much water has flowed down the River Jordan since Arafat. Even as the Palestinians increasingly became disillusioned with Fatah’s dalliance with the US Central Intelligence Agency and Israel, Hamas – with its styles of dogged resistance, systems of social reform and the organization of the centralized party – began rising in popular esteem.
To be sure, Fatah now feels threatened to the point that Abbas contrived to scuttle the parliamentary elections in Palestine slated for May 31 (to be followed by presidential elections on July 3).
The covert bonding between Abbas and Netanyahu, and the latter’s blatant interference in intra-Palestinian politics, has been an enduring feature, but no one wants to talk about it.
In fact, the former Fatah intelligence chief Mohammed Dahlan, who split from Abbas and lives in the United Arab Emirates, keeps contact with US and Israeli intelligence, and is being groomed as possible contender to replace Abbas, 84, as Palestinian Authority president.
Herein lies the far-reaching significance of Hamas’ resistance in Gaza to the ferocious Israeli attacks. A point has come where Hamas, thanks to its growing deterrent power, may be insulating Gaza from any more Israeli aggression – as Hezbollah has succeeded in Lebanon since the disastrous Israeli invasion in 2006.
In political terms, this means that no issues of war and peace can any longer be decided in Palestine without the participation of Hamas, which has emerged as the most effective player with support from Iran, Turkey and Qatar.
Hamas by far overshadows the traditional friends of India in the Palestinian camp, who are of course a pale shadow of what they used to be in the halcyon days of Arafat. India must, therefore, upgrade its approach. The Indian statement of May 16 at the UN Security Council suggests that the new thinking is in transition, struggling to be born.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.