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Hamas wasn’t behind the Jerusalem protests. So why is it fighting?

This confrontation with Israel overshadows the fundamental question of Palestinian liberation.

- May 17, 2021

As protests erupted in May 2021 over the forced expulsion of Palestinian families in east Jerusalem, Israel blamed the Palestinian Islamist faction Hamas for the “escalation.” In reality, Hamas had little to do with the protests: Young Palestinians were demonstrating against Israel’s systematic effort to use land ownership laws and the courts to force out Palestinians and (re)make the city as the capital of the Jewish people.

A week ago, Hamas began launching missiles into Israel, ostensibly in retaliation for Israeli police attacks on Palestinian worshipers in al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Israel responded with a massive air bombardment of Gaza, adding ground artillery by week’s end. As the crisis escalated, the death toll by Monday night had risen to 212, including 61 children.

The shift from protests in Jerusalem and across Israel and the occupied West Bank to another round of Israel’s war on Gaza offers no confirmation of Israel’s claim that “extremist elements” and “terrorist organizations” have driven these protests. For that matter, Palestinian protesters have not uniformly welcomed Hamas’s entry into the fray.

So why did Hamas begin its missile barrage? The answer lies in Hamas’s long history as a resistance organization — and its perception of political threats to its governance role.

Hamas wants to lead the Palestinian resistance

After Hamas evolved out of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, analysts and media reports focused largely on Hamas’s armed wing. While social service and charity efforts have also been a critically important operational focus for the organization, Hamas’s ability and willingness to militarily confront Israel sets it apart from its secular rival Fatah.

But Hamas aspires to lead the Palestinian resistance. The organization cultivates the public image that Palestinian military responses to Israeli attacks on Gaza are largely waged under the Hamas flag — despite the active participation of other factions, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

In 2018, during the Great March of Return, nonpolitically affiliated Palestinian refugees in Gaza peacefully demonstrated for their right to return to the land they were displaced from during the Nakba of 1948. Hamas was quick to support the march and eventually claim leadership. But Hamas also had concerns that the demonstrations displayed the possibility of a Palestinian resistance that was not dependent on its leadership or operational tactics. Israeli snipers killed more than 200 protesters and injured thousands more, triggering questions about Hamas’s resistance strategy.

This spring, Hamas was quick to display its willingness to fight Israel. As early as April 24, the Qassam Brigade — Hamas’s military wing — released a statement denouncing Israeli measures to restrict Palestinian access to al-Aqsa Mosque and announced its “readiness to defend the revolutionary people in occupied Jerusalem.” On May 5, Qassam Brigade Chief of Staff Mohammed Deif warned: “If the vicious aggression against our people in Al-Sheikh Jarrah does not stop, the resistance will not stand idly by and the Israeli occupation will pay a heavy price.”

When Israeli security forces stormed al-Aqsa Mosque compound May 10, Hamas’s involvement probably became inevitable as a way for it to remain at the forefront of a popular uprising.

Hamas has struggled to govern Gaza

Hamas’s urgency to respond to the developments in Jerusalem also reflects the organization’s political struggles since its unexpected victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections in 2006. Hamas took on the role of government at the helm of the Palestinian Authority — the self-government body established by the Oslo accords that has partial civil control over the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank — as an armed resistance faction. But the Oslo accords explicitly limit the Authority’s leadership to Palestinian factions that have recognized the State of Israel and renounced violence. Israel refused to recognize a Hamas-led government, and the Palestinian political landscape devolved into a brutal conflict between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza.

In 2007, Hamas, claiming to preempt a Fatah-led coup, took full control of Gaza. Since then, the coastal enclave has been under a siege imposed by Israel and Egypt and has suffered the human and material consequences of several major Israeli military campaigns. The humanitarian crisis prompted the United Nations to declare in 2012 that Gaza could become an unliveable place by 2020.

The siege has dented Hamas’s legitimacy as a governing authority. The severe limitations on the movement of goods, fuel and people have meant that Gaza’s economy has been at a virtual standstill for years. A “tunnel economy” managed and monopolized by Hamas provided some economic respite. But the Egyptian army destroyed many of the tunnels several years ago at the behest of the Sisi administration.

The pandemic has worsened the economic crisis in Gaza, as my research explains. Hamas has striven to maintain its unchallenged authority over Gaza with increasingly unpopular moves, such as routinely harassing and detaining government critics, torturing opposition activists in custody and carrying out public executions. A recent poll indicated that most Palestinians would have voted for a Fatah-led government in the PLC elections, which were postponed this spring. This level of support is a far cry from 2006, when Hamas rose to power as a government committed to fighting Israel.

Is the Hamas fight about political gains?

With the PLC elections postponed indefinitely, a military confrontation with Israel allows Hamas to refocus attention on its role as a resistance organization. Seeing the difficulties of governing a besieged Gaza, a Palestinian journalist once said to me: “Hamas is good at fighting. In government, they are big losers.”

Israel also benefits from Hamas retaining its armed resistance: Israeli leaders can present Hamas as a security threat that justifies a tough crackdown on Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere. The armed conflict also diverts attention from the political challenges to Israel’s occupation in general.

But while Hamas may strengthen its own political position, this latest confrontation with Israel has also overshadowed the fundamental question of Palestinian rights — to land, sovereignty and statehood — that inspired the protests in Jerusalem.

Somdeep Sen (@ssen03) is an associate professor of international development studies at Roskilde University in Denmark. He is the author of “Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial” (Cornell University Press, 2020).