Politics & Economics

Islamism, terrorism and Palestinian liberation

28 November 2023

By Jeremy Dewar

Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation by the US, Canada, EU, UK, Japan and Australia. Others, notably Saudi Arabia, have banned its military wing.

Suella Braverman declared the organisation displayed ‘medieval antisemitism’ and to be ‘the equal of Isis’. This is echoed by the Labour Party frontbench and even some on the left, including the AWL who label it ‘fascistic’.

Much of this is designed to ward people away from looking any more closely at Hamas, its ideology and practice. In particular we are meant to uncritically adopt the one-sided perspective of Hamas’ enemies—that it is not an expression of a wing of the Palestinian resistance, but a ‘fascist’, ‘terrorist’, ‘dictatorship’ to be treated accordingly.

The truth is more complex and reveals a mass organisation with deep roots in the communities resisting exile, siege, and occupation at the hands of the Israeli state.

Origins and ideology

Hamas originated as a Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the early 1980s for education, religious instruction and social welfare. It was founded in December 1987, five days after the outbreak of the first Intifada against the Israeli occupation. Its name is an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, but in Arabic spells ‘Enthusiasm’.

The Israeli authorities initially tolerated its activities as a conservative religious counterweight to the secular nationalist and ‘Marxist’ liberation movements and guerrilla organisations. It was far from the first Palestinian armed resistance organisation. The secular Fatah under Yasser Arafat and the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash, were the dominant forces in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) between the 1967 war and the 1987 Intifada; another Islamist group, Islamic Jihad, emerged in the early 1980s.

After its fighters were expelled from southern Lebanon in 1982, the PLO abandoned the guerrilla struggle it had pursued in the 1960s and 1970s and its prestige declined. It engaged with the 1992 Oslo Accords, eventually recognised the state of Israel and condemned ‘terrorism’ as the price for forming the new Palestinian Authority. It soon became mired in corruption and cooperation with Israeli repression in the West Bank and Gaza.

Having abandoned both the armed struggle and the goal of a single secular state, Arafat opted for the shadow of power in a fragmented West Bank statelet, still under Israeli military control. In effect, he made a present of militant resistance to Hamas.

This was aided by the fact that the Israeli oppressors continued to turn the screw, including on the PA. Young Palestinians demanded an effective resistance movement, willing and able to fight back, arms in hand, against murderous IDF repression of popular protests.

Hamas’ 1988 founding charter declared it a duty of all Muslims everywhere to defend and liberate the Palestinian waqf (holy territory) ‘from the river to the sea’. It named ‘the Jews’ as the enemy, declaring only small numbers would be allowed to remain. Its aim was an Islamic society, religiously and socially conservative. In this respect, its ideology is a mirror-image of hardline Zionist doctrine.

Thus, Hamas’ ideology is a thoroughly reactionary, antisemitic utopia. Its founding charter espouses all the antisemitic tropes of Jews being behind every war and revolution and cites as proof the notorious forgery of the Tsarist secret police, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Though Hamas spokespersons have distanced themselves from this, it has never been retracted and remains a powerful weapon in the hands of Israel and its supporters.

But, against those who claim that this makes Hamas fascist and no different from Isis, a number of points need to be made. First, unlike the latter, it is a mass organisation with deep roots in Palestinian society, especially in Gaza, through its schools and universities, its hospitals and welfare programmes and its thousands of resistance fighters.

Isis belongs to the Takfiri branch of Islamism that regards other Muslims as apostates against whom a terroristic war can be waged. Consequently, it believes in imposing Islam ‘from above’ whatever the wishes of the population. Hamas, by contrast, believes in Islamisation ‘from below’ and has on many occasions responded to the needs and aspirations of its base.

On the rare occasions that local Hamas commanders have sought to impose strict Islamic dress codes, for example, these have always failed and almost never received the blessing of the leadership. Rather, it has described its vision as being based on the historic Caliphate, where Christian and Jewish communities were tolerated.

Neither its social welfare system nor its early freedom from corruption are the real reason for its winning mass support, however. Rather it is its reputation for ‘steadfastness’ in pursuit of the original common goals of all the Palestinian movements, including the right to return for all those driven out in 1948 and 1967 and their descendants. Nonetheless, its record is not quite as uncompromising as might appear and the reason for this is its reliance on various states in the Arab and Islamic world.

Compromises since Oslo

Certainly, Hamas refused to be drawn into the talks that led to the Oslo Accords because it would mean recognising Israel’s right to exist. But even then there was a debate within its ranks and leadership over participation, because of the huge support for the talks from Palestinians eager to attain some kind of statehood. In the years that followed, the debate continued over whether to recognise Israel and agree a hudna (truce) on the basis of a temporary Palestinian state inside the 1948 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, the withdrawal of Israeli troops and dismantling of the settlements.

Eventually, despite abstaining from the 2005 presidential elections, which Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas won, Hamas stood in the 2006 Palestinian general election, winning a majority in the legislature and control over Gaza. Its election manifesto abandoned the antisemitic language of its Charter (without renouncing it), declaring the Zionist state of Israel, not ‘the Jews’, as the enemy. In effect it recognised the state of Israel.

Immediately after its electoral victory, the ‘democratic’ imperialist powers of the USA and EU cut off funding to the Palestinian National Authority, funnelling all aid through Abbas’ office. Attempts by Hamas to form a unity government broke down, leading to the so-called Brothers’ War of 2007, which ended with Fatah’s forces being expelled from Gaza and Hamas ruling the Strip, which Israel had vacated in 2005 in order to blockade it more completely.

Three further wars with Israel in 2008–09, 2014 and 2021 led to the destruction of much of Gaza’s infrastructure. Meanwhile, Israel’s blockade and western imperialism’s banning of the organisation have sought to isolate and bankrupt Hamas. Today, only Iran and Qatar remain willing to host its leadership and provide it with aid and diplomatic services.


Israel’s fundamentalist right wing, strengthened under the governments of Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu, with the USA’s unwavering support, under both Trump and Biden, remains the decisive force in Israel-Palestine.

It is not true that Hamas has only responded to this with rockets. In 2018–19, mass protests took place along the Gazan border; Israeli snipers killed 190 unarmed protesters, and injured thousands. Then, in 2020, the so-called Third Intifada broke out with mass demonstrations in the refugee camps and the main cities of the West Bank. Of course, this once again met IDF repression. In 2021, there was a Palestinian general strike.

Armed right wing settlers, with IDF support, made 2022 the bloodiest in the West Bank for years as they brutally expanded their control of the land. Even the totally peaceful BDS campaign is being outlawed in western countries, while criticism of Israel is suppressed or stigmatised as ‘antisemitic’.

No wonder there has been a rise in the demand for armed resistance. The rise of the Lion’s Den movement in the West Bank over the past two years (with Hamas’ participation) reflects this reality. And this is why, even if Hamas’ Gazan infrastructure is destroyed in this war, i.e. it turns into a political genocide, resistance will continue and need to be armed.

The October 7 raid may well have put a stop to the US-Israel-Saudi plan for ‘normalisation’ of relations, re-establishing a greater degree of US influence over the region, but that remains their goal. The raid also allowed the rival Zionist party leaders to close ranks and unite the Israeli population, just when the most serious divisions in the history of the state were emerging. Worse, it has given the Zionists cover for their vengeful retaliation, and provided a pretext for driving even more Palestinians in the West Bank from their homes, even the expulsion of the entire population, which is the stated aim of some in Netanyahu’s government.

This in the end is the flaw in the programme of Palestinian bourgeois nationalism, whether secular or Islamist. Even though it expresses the urgent needs of the most oppressed people, as a strategy it relies on support from neighbouring regimes who then manipulate it for their own ends. In essence, Hamas has not overcome the fatal Stalinist stageist theory that proved a dead-end for the various PLO factions. Instead, it merely gave it an Islamist colouration, replacing the ‘popular front’ with a clerical dictatorship.

Nevertheless, insofar as it resists the Zionist occupation and apartheid state, all socialists and consistent democrats must support Hamas against the IDF. But we can give no support to its social and political programme or to its methods of struggle, either guerrilla actions or massacres of helpless Israeli civilians.

True solidarity with Palestine means arguing for a radically different strategy: elements of which have been seen in the three Intifadas: mobilisations with armed self-defence and appeals to the surrounding and international working class to rise up against Israel and the West’s attempt to wipe Hamas off the map, by which they mean any form of resistance, if not the Palestinian people as a whole.

We demand the rescinding of laws labelling Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Israel is the indiscriminate mass terrorist, as we can see today. The huge worldwide demonstrations show widespread popular support for Gaza and the Palestinian cause. Those mobilisations need to move on to direct action, blocking arms and trade with Israel, including unions taking strike action, to force pro-Israel governments and politicians to withdraw from Gaza and allow entry of food, fuel, shelter, medical equipment and supplies. They must include a call to permanently lift the decades long siege of Gaza and the withdrawal of not only the IDF but the warships and planes of the USA and Britain.

These immediate and strategic is- sues highlight the need for an international party of the working class, uniting forces within Palestine, the surrounding Middle Eastern countries and inside Israel itself, no matter how remote the latter may seem right now. Armed with the strategy of permanent revolution and the tactics of mass action, revolutionaries can begin to solve the crisis of leadership that has seen so many defeats and so much suffering not only in Palestine but in all the surrounding countries.

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