The siege and resistance in Gaza: Interview with Toufic Haddad

by Toufic Haddad • Published 12 July 2018

Toufic Haddad is an activist, academic, and author of Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I.B. Tauris, 2016). He recently completed a postdoctoral research fellowship from the Arab Council for Social Sciences, entitled “The Political Economy of Siege and Resilience in the Gaza Strip”. He was interviewed by Omar Hassan.

Palestine solidarity activists the world over have been incredibly inspired by the courageous protests taking place in Gaza since March 30. Can you explain the conditions in Gaza that have led to this important development?

There are many interrelated issues going on here, both historical and more contemporary. The most immediate and pressing issue, of course, is the overall conditions of siege that the Gaza Strip has been subject to since the 2006 electoral victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement – Hamas.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently described Israel’s siege as “caging Gazans in a toxic slum”. Here is a territory where 97 percent of water is polluted and in less than two years the poisoning of ground aquifers will be irreversible. You have 48 percent unemployment, 63 percent youth unemployment, and an economy that has collapsed due to debt and a lack of liquidity. On top of this you have education, electricity, wastewater and health sectors in states of advanced disrepair and collapsing. The overwhelming majority of the Strip’s two million residents have not been able to leave Gaza for 12 years, gravely impacting everything from education and health to family life and livelihood, to say nothing of the psychological dimension. The regime of control Israel imposes over Gaza is unprecedented globally, with some academics calling it a “digital occupation”. Remote control machine guns and the constant presence of drones monitor and police this tiny territory (360 km2) while Gaza’s access regime is so sophisticated that Israel counts every calorie and controls every chemical compound that enters the territory.

It would be imprecise, however to explain or reduce protests to purely humanitarian questions. Gaza has been under siege because the international community and Israel want to prevent an alternative political model emerging within Palestinian politics there. Hamas has led this alternative political project, and has and could again legitimately take power in Palestinian politics if elections took place. This counters the existing Western state approach to “managing” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through the US-sponsored Oslo process. These actors have thus imposed the siege in an effort to prevent this tendency from making any gains or spreading further to the West Bank.

But the issue is far larger than Hamas. The entire peace process had no solution to the question of Palestine overall, and which is represented in its most concentrated form in Gaza.

People tend to forget that “the Gaza Strip” only exists by virtue of the results of the 1948 war. Namely it is a rump territory where the victims of the Zionist campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine ended up. Three-quarters of the Gaza Strip residents are refugees originating from the coastal and southern regions of Palestine. This is the demographic reverse of the West Bank, where refugees constitute only a quarter of the population.

The collective experience of displacement and its harsh living conditions transformed Gaza into the crucible of Palestinian nationalism and the refugee return movement, with the territory birthing the most significant vanguard political tendencies of the Palestinian movement historically – from the Communist Party in the 1950s and ’60s, to Fateh in the late 1960s, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad more recently. These protests are the latest incarnation of these dynamics, where we witness yet another popular uprising being launched around all the historical issues of the Palestinian movement (for return, self determination, liberation, etc.), and all the new means that Israel, and now the international community, have used to try to control and subvert Palestinian rights.

The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza has been known for a long time, and there is no shortage of reporting on it from all the major international agencies. But the humanitarian approach has been a means used by international actors to guise Gaza’s political significance, which embodies all the main questions of Palestine – from the question of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, to 50 years since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to 12 years of siege, to the political question of the Palestinian opposition to the Oslo process.

In addition to all these historical factors and the issue of the siege, there is yet another important factor that has arisen. Hamas, which won the 2006 elections and attempted to reform the Palestinian national movement through its capture of the Palestinian Authority’s state-like institutions via elections, eventually came to the conclusion that Gaza is ungovernable within existing constraints. That meaning: they are abandoning civil governance and service provision because they understand – correctly – that it is a trap. The pretence that the institutions of the Palestinian Authority could manage Gaza and its contradictions, without sovereignty and freedom of movement and goods, is false. Self-governance – the crowning achievement of Oslo – became a way to alleviate Israel from the most “burdensome” elements of its occupation, while Israel remained and remains in ultimate control. When we add that the Fatah government in Ramallah has cut its spending on Gaza in recent years as a means to pressure Hamas, we realise that the protests are both a popular rejection of the Occupation, the siege, the political crisis of Palestinian politics, as well as a way for Hamas to kick the “problem” of Gaza back to its rightful address – Israel and the international community, who are the main parties responsible for the perpetuation of the problem of Palestine for 70 years.

Israel has tried to justify its massacre of over 120 Palestinians in these protests by claiming that the protests have been organised and led by Hamas “terrorists”. On the left we obviously reject this characterisation of Hamas, but can you tell us about the political leadership of the movement and how it has related to the various political factions?

Any attempt to define the protests as a creation of Hamas is reductionist and seeks to put the Israel/Palestine conflict back into the “war on terror” framework, which I think the demonstrations have been very successful in breaking out of. This has not stopped Israeli commentators from attempting to repackage these demonstrations within this discursive logic, with one describing the protests as a “collective suicide bomb” on Israel’s “border”, and Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman describing Hamas as “cannibals” sending children to be killed in order to make Israel look bad.

But as noted, the protests have deeper roots and considerations deriving from Gaza’s historical and contemporary predicament. With Hamas’ recent decision to abstain from governance, the path was opened for popular forces, and particularly a younger generation of activists, to take initiative and see what could be done to change the situation, not relying on the existing political order – be it international or domestic. Having said this, the traditional structures of the Palestinian national movement – the PLO factions, together with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have all gathered around the new mobilisations and their organic leadership to form the Higher Committee for the Great March of Return, which oversees the movement and protests. So it is a combination of new and old actors, experimenting with new and old tactics.

At the end of the day, Hamas is still the dominant political player in Gaza, and its ability to mobilise forces in Gaza is unmatched there. In this regard, Hamas’ decision to abstain from governance essentially greenlighted its members to join popular mobilisations, providing numerical and logistical weight. This should not however be confused with Hamas being the organisers of the demonstrations. At the same time, we should reject arguments that attempt to counterpose Hamas to them. Hamas is an organic actor in Gaza, and it is and will be a part of any mobilisation against the occupation there – whether it initiates these movements or follows them. Islamophobia has played a negative role in attempting to reduce the question of Gaza to a “war on terror” logic, but at the end of the day, the majority population of Gaza is Muslim, and Islamic institutions have played a major role in providing services and political leadership for the national movement under occupation, in light of the failures and impasse of the secular national movement of the PLO, stuck in the trap of Oslo. In this light, there is no reason to apriori delegitimise Islamist mobilisation within the Palestinian national context, while we can also still support, and should support, progressive wings of Palestinian politics – parts of which will also include Islamists by the way. Ultimately it is the racist Zionist settler colonial project in Palestine and Western imperial support for it which is the source of the conflict, and we should reject explanations that lose sight of that.

Finally, it is important to note that the current protests represent the evolution of struggle dynamics whereby the broader Palestinian theatre has witnessed the failure of the political leadership and strategies of all factions. This includes the failure of Fateh’s “Oslo approach”, and the stalemate/dead end of approaches which rely upon armed struggle. We are thus witnessing the evolution of new dynamics and social forces which also gives the initiative a particularly exciting feel.

Can we talk a little bit more about some of the individual stories of the martyrs killed by IDF snipers? The statistics can be numbing – over 120 killed, thousands wounded, etc. Can you give us a sense of who these people are and what their motivations might have been?

Although it is difficult to answer your question without being on the ground in Gaza – which is almost impossible at this stage – I think it is safe to say that the base of the movement is composed of what can be termed the “Oslo generation”. These are youth, mainly up to 30 years old, who grew up in Gaza during the Oslo years (now, a quarter-century on) and who have never left the Gaza Strip, and never had minimal opportunities for a decent living. Their parents would have witnessed or participated in the first (1987) intifada, but have since also witnessed the drastic deterioration of life quality as a result of the Oslo process itself. Keep in mind that the “peace process” was used as a cover for Israel to implement apartheid, beneath the joint guise of “security needs” and “withdrawal from population centres” for the purposes of “Palestinian self-governance”. Israel used the peace process to forcibly impose “closure” on the West Bank and Gaza as a way to pen Palestinians in, particularly Gaza residents, and to take their lands. The majority of Gaza’s labour force used to work inside the Israeli labour market, and almost everyone was thrown out of work and imprisoned in the economically unsustainable Gaza Strip as a result of “peace”. A fence was built to hermetically seal the Gaza Strip in 1995 – the height of the peace process – seven years before Israel would build its apartheid wall across the West Bank. So youth in Gaza have grown up totally isolated from the rest of the world – without opportunities for normal living, with a historical understanding of their refugee status and its causes, and with the dashed hopes of the peace process. We can add to this the sense of betrayal of the international order to their cause, and the ineffectuality of their leadership and parents’ generation to change their condition. Let’s not forget that the land, just on the other side of these Israeli snipers – is refugee property. So it is right there – they can see their land, but not access it. The starkness of the injustice is only compounded by the difficulty of daily living and the brutality and trauma of Israeli actions that have killed 4,500 Palestinians in Gaza alone since 2008.

This is the context which drives the protests on the ground, and this context forms the personal life experience of the protesters. Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently interviewed some of these youth, who told her “We’re dying anyway, so let it be in front of the cameras”. The international order has been deaf to the cries of Gaza, so these protests de facto represent a prison riot that is attempting to put Gaza back on the table, after Western governments and Israel, together with the Arab order, thought they could bury it in a debilitating siege, and through isolation.

When I think of the protesters, I think of the figure of Wissal Shaikh Khalil, the only woman killed on the horrific May 14 protest, where almost 70 Palestinians were killed – more than 500 shot in the head, and with more than 3,000 injuries from live ammunition. The picture we get from her is of a young woman who is frustrated by the situation, who sees the older generation as having been passive and acquiescent to conditions. She stood up and said “I don’t believe in this, I’m not taking it, and I want to go out with the boys and challenge the Israelis as well”. On that note, while the overall situation perpetually generates protest, protest itself becomes a way of also overcoming social and traditional restrictions on life. Because obviously, when you’re under siege and in states of extreme poverty, what happens is that society becomes much more dependent on extended family and tribal networks as a way of survival and welfare. This has enormous negative consequences on people’s sense of individuality, and reinforces patriarchal values which is very stultifying for youth and women in particular.

The demonstrations also witness clear participation of older people protesting because the siege means that they cannot take care of their families. I’m reminded of Mu’een Assa’i (58) who, a day before he was killed in the protests, offered one of his kidneys for sale online to feed his family, describing life in Gaza as “unbearable from all sides”, and that he was serious and of sound mind. The siege is crushing new and old generations alike while preventing the transition of youth into adulthood, and social actors performing their traditional roles. Society is on the brink of collapse. The explosive conditions can either lead to implosion and social and political collapse, or explosion, towards Israel, the primary source of Palestinian oppression. It has done the latter, to avoid the former. An Arabic news correspondent went to the buffer zone where the demonstrations were taking place and interviewed an elderly woman there. He joked that most women of her generation would be at home, making bread, and asked her what she was doing? With cold resolve, she responded: “My husband has been killed, two of my sons have been killed, another is in a wheelchair, and I don’t care if a bullet hits me through the forehead”. People clearly feel they have little to lose. Non-action is a form of certain slow death. Under these conditions, why not risk active/faster death, if there is at least a chance something can change?

I’d like to talk about what seems to me to have been quite a stark contrast between the scenes in Gaza and then the relative passivity inside the West Bank and in the 1948 areas of Palestine, even in response to Trump’s decision to move the embassy. While there have been protests, there seems to be a “gap” in energy. Am I overstating that, or is this a fair point to make? And if so, what’s behind it?

I think it’s somewhat accurate, though it is more helpful to understand matters in their specificity, which includes appreciating how Israel has undoubtedly fragmented the Palestinian people geographically, politically and socially. Folks need to take into consideration that Israel has different interests in different parts of historical Palestine, and therefore implements different strategies to realise its goals. Political actors and mobilisations take on different forms as a result of these dynamics, and hence it becomes difficult to generalise a common type of struggle, because the means of oppression and control, and with it resistance, vary in each locality.

In this reading, Gaza is the most intense of the theatres, because it is the least important for Zionist aspirations. Gaza is the territory that Rabin – the Nobel peace prize winner – wished would “sink into the sea”. But the West Bank is different. Israel has key strategic interests there in so far as the territory is much larger, contains the strategic high grounds, contains important water reserves, and also contains the historical sites which are important for the Zionist movement to assert its mythology of “returning the Jewish people to the land of Israel”.

This is why Israel basically used the peace process to be able to “separate” from the Palestinians across the 1967 occupied territory, while investing its energies in massive colony construction projects in the West Bank, tripling the number of settlers there since 1993. Israel aims to annexe these territories, thereby uniting the conquests of 1948 Palestine with those of 1967.

In more recent history – because of the Palestinian rejection of the Oslo framework with the eruption of the Al Aqsa (second) intifada in 2000, and especially after the 2006 elections – Israel and the Western states have tried to make the West Bank seem more prosperous compared to Gaza, as a way to lessen the anti-Oslo political tendency, manifested most coherently in Hamas. Namely, the West Bank was given a “carrot” while Gaza was given the “stick”, with the entire logic of the arrangement aimed at getting Palestinians to believe that resistance was futile. While there were nominal improvements to economic conditions in the West Bank since 2007, one should not be deceived, as the situation there remains extremely unstable, with worsening economic conditions in recent years, and no less a brutal occupation regime, albeit administered differently. We must not forget that the West Bank is much larger and more difficult to organise, while Israel is also on the ground there, and on a daily basis enters the hearts of Palestinian cities and towns to conduct arrest campaigns. This does not happen in Gaza, which also helps resistance experience and leadership to accumulate.

Israel currently holds around 7,000 Palestinian prisoners, and the overwhelming majority of these represent the political leadership of the West Bank. If these persons were free to organise, the West Bank context would certainly look different. Israel well understands this, which is why it doesn’t rely upon the Palestinian Authority to arrest these persons – they do it themselves.

On top of this is the dynamic of Fateh, and in particular the majority branch of the party loyal to Abu Mazen [Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas], nominally in control of Palestinian governance functions in the West Bank. These actors see the West Bank as their last stronghold. Fateh in general has a different strategy to addressing the Palestinian condition, which derives from its historical experience of struggle through the PLO. As far as Fateh is concerned, the Palestinians have paid the price of armed resistance (winning recognition through it) while Palestinians should use current conditions to avoid a damaging frontal confrontation with Israel. They believe this will ultimately defeat Zionist ambitions because as long as Palestinians survive and remain in Palestine, organised as self-identifying Palestinians, they will remain “the non-Jews” within the “Jewish democratic state” from an Israeli perspective. Fateh believes this contradiction will eventually force either statehood or the collapse of Zionism. So the PA and Fateh in the West Bank are not interested in a popular mobilisation that could threaten their hold on power, and displace their claim as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian struggle. They are interested in maintenance of status quo and demobilisation. Thus a debilitating , divided internal situation prevails across the Palestinian political sphere and within the West Bank in particular, where factional unity cannot be achieved on the ground, and with the Israeli occupation army doing its part to ensure that none of the Palestinian actors in the West Bank gain much traction – including Fateh.

Alternatively, in Gaza we see the opposite: all factions – including most Fateh branches there, together with the left, are increasingly unified. There are even joint operations rooms and the exchange of military expertise and equipment. But this is hardly possible in the West Bank where the Abu Mazen faction of Fateh dominates and will not allow alternative strategies and actors to gain momentum and potentially displace it and its strategy. We also must acknowledge that Abu Mazen and Fateh still have a fairly wide political and social constituency, with about 16 percent of employed persons working in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (with wages significantly higher than the private sector), and a public sector driving at least 40 percent of consumer demand. The PA is the main economic player in the West Bank, and there are few opportunities besides it – work in Israeli settlements, or the majority state of private sector actors who struggle in a “race to the bottom” in their “mom and pop” shops. There is always unemployment. Israel’s broader “de-development” policies can be thanked for this as well.

On a popular level of course, the West Bank and Palestinians everywhere are inspired by Gaza, and we do witness demonstrations taking place, including among Palestinian communities inside 1948 Palestine (Haifa in particular). But it would be wrong to compare their size and intensity to Gaza, because the political conditions for organising, and the political interests and tactics of Israel vis-à-vis each population and territory differ.

Let’s move to the regional level now. Palestinian protests have historically been a trigger for democratic and anti-imperialist forces across the region, but at this moment the counter-revolutionary aftermath of the Arab spring seems to be making practical solidarity extremely difficult. How do you read this current moment, and where do you see the Palestinian movement in this broader context?

Historically Palestine has been the “cause of the Arabs”, but it’s been obvious to most that this hasn’t been the case for decades, if it ever was, and Palestinians have been left to their own fate, especially after Oslo. With the Arab uprisings of 2010/11, the limited support the cause received further deteriorated in light of local revolutionary dynamics understandably becoming more important. Moreover the Palestinian movement was fracturing internally around the same time, between the West Bank and Gaza, which created a crisis of representation and leadership. Popular forces across the Arab world remain in solidarity with Palestine of course, however this solidarity cannot actualise in a context marked by the extreme counter-revolutionary forces and dynamics that have been unleashed to crush these revolutionary tendencies.

The major counter-revolutionary waves that have been unleashed have understandably preoccupied Arab revolutionary actors, further isolating the Palestinian theatre from its natural periphery. Political actors should be aware however that this is temporary, and will not last indefinitely. Eventually revolutionary dynamics will re-ignite across the region for years if not decades to come, as the old regimes have no answers to the questions the revolutions posed, and the genie will not be able to be put back in the bottle.

In the meantime, we are witnessing instead unprecedented Arab state collusion with Israel – represented most vividly in Saudi-Israel rapprochement, but also unprecedented Egyptian-Israeli collusion. Egypt has even invited Israel to bomb the Sinai with its fleet of drones to squelch the local opposition movements there. The Arab states seek to team up with Israel and the Trump administration to counter “Iran” – but really any perceived local opposition to their rule. These dynamics are debilitating for the Arab revolutionary currents, particularly in the absence of a larger progressive movement and network to be able to sustain it, and which must be built through struggle. At the end of the day, the Middle East and Palestine features within a central axis of world trade, energy and political conflicts. This means that any genuine democratic forces in the area must counter a substantial number of reactionary elements of the world order, together with their local manifestation. The stakes in this respect couldn’t be higher.

What role do you see for solidarity activists in countries like Australia?

In order for the Gaza protests to be successful, we need to have regular, determined demonstrations and solidarity activity going on in the West. We have to use the protests in Gaza to educate around Palestine and build a new generation of activists, and a movement at large, that can expose the cruel apartheid regime Israel has established there, with active Western donor state abetment.

We have to plan for a long term struggle, because currently there are no prospects at this time that the situation in Gaza is resolvable. Donors and Israel vacillate between “technical humanitarian” and “military” solutions, but both have been tried, and both have miserably failed. In fact these approaches are deeply implicated in creating the situation today, because they have attempted to hive political issues from economic and humanitarian ones.

Not one of these actors however is talking seriously about resolving the political problem of Gaza, which in fact is the strongest instantiation of the political problem of Palestine. We can be assured that these actors will fail, as the situation has long passed any “technical” solution, and Western governments know very well what they do in Palestine. While pretending to sponsor peace, by supporting the Oslo process, Western states have actually been cementing apartheid – sometimes quite literally. USAID funds to the Palestinians have gone to pave an alternative road system, separate from that used by Jewish colonists. It’s not just the US though. UK arms sales to Israel have reached historic heights, while Germany is selling Israel nuclear submarines. Meanwhile, these actors feign impartiality, subvert Palestinian democratic processes, and bankroll neopatrimonial Palestinian governance structures in an effort to displace the main contradiction between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, into intra-Palestinian political and class conflicts. They also protect and abet Israel from sanctioning, with these powers never failing to declare that Israel is their ally. In this respect, donor aid to the Palestinians pales in comparison to the funding and benefits given to Israel by Western states, while these actors also argue that the former is given because it helps Israel solve/manage its Palestinian “problem”.

Western solidarity movements can thus play a key role in the struggle to expose this political farce, and the time is long overdue for this. Western state support of a brutal apartheid regime in Israel/Palestine is certainly not representative of the interests of the average Western taxpayer. Solidarity actors in the West are uniquely positioned to do this, and the more they organise, the less bloody the conflict will be. Western states ultimately form the strategic, diplomatic, economic and military conditions which allow Israel to operate, and without this, the project is unsustainable.

Here a historic opportunity has arisen for the Palestinian movement to be wedded to new social and political struggles in the West, which can make the connection between what happens to Palestinians in Gaza, to the scourge of racism, policing, surveillance, immigration policies, austerity and neoliberalism at home. The connection is both moral and inspirational, as well as very practical: Israeli policies and doctrines are widely implicated in everything from wall construction on the Mexico-US border to the impunity of Western urban policing squads, sent on training missions to Israel. In this regard, Palestine and Gaza in particular, is an example of how people with very little can challenge and change history. We must learn from this example and bring this inspiration and ethos into our own lives in the West, where everywhere you scratch the surface – sometimes not even that – injustice lurks at every corner.


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