Hamas: Constrained or Nimble?


While other Palestinian institutions are in crisis, Hamas has maintained its integrity and survived political turmoil. But to capitalize on this, it will need to revise its strategy.

n 2017, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas made news by taking three major steps that did not involve firing a single shot: it issued a new charter; it elected a new leadership; and it allowed the administration in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to answer to the ministries of the Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the West Bank, a relationship that had been sundered a decade earlier.

These measures were interpreted by observers as having been brought about by external political constraints. There were good reasons for reaching such a conclusion, since Hamas was, and to an extent still is, hemmed in from all sides. However, focusing solely on external considerations misses a great deal and is hardly sufficient for explaining why and how Hamas behaves as it does. The movement’s ability to take observers by surprise was dramatically illustrated in April 2018 with a series of marches on the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Rather, three additional factors must be taken into account. First, Hamas’s leadership does not passively respond to outside conditions, but actively evaluates them in order to optimally manage its responses. Second, international pressure does not so much directly affect Hamas’s calculations as it has an impact on domestic public opinion, which in turn shapes the group’s understanding of opportunities and constraints. And third, Hamas is distinctive on the Palestinian scene in that it has developed an institutionalized rather than a personalized organization, one with mechanisms linking its leadership with the rank and file.

Understanding Hamas’s internal dynamics helps to show how its actions reflect strategic choices, allowing for a better comprehension of the way the organization interacts with political realities, makes concessions, and capitalizes on these to maximize its gains. This, in turn, allows observers to grasp how Hamas achieves its goals, manages challenges, maintains its integrity, and survives, despite the formidable obstacles it has encountered in recent years. Such resilience has particular resonance at a time when Hamas’s main rival, Fatah, is showing signs of incoherence and decay, when many Palestinian political structures are in crisis, and when the Palestinian national movement is facing an uncertain predicament.


Hamas was founded on the eve of the First Palestinian Intifada (1987–1993) as an “Islamic resistance movement.” While it has long sought to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), this has never happened. Fatah has dominated the PLO since 1969 and is unwilling to cede to Hamas any part of its power. Hamas rejected the Oslo Accords of 1993 and the negotiations with Israel that followed. When this process led to the election of a Palestinian president and parliament in 1996, as part of a supposedly temporary Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas refused to go along with it.

In 2000 the Second Intifada broke out, following the failure of the Oslo process to establish a Palestinian state. Hamas was active in the protests, solidifying its standing in Palestinian society. When new parliamentary elections were scheduled for January 2006, Hamas decided to participate, even though it continued to reject the Oslo process. The organization quickly showed a remarkable capacity for mobilizing in opposition to the PA, and this helped propel it to a stunning electoral triumph.

A picture and its story: Smoke clears and photographer captures momentÊof protest

That triumph, which led to Hamas’s entering government for the first time, was met with a harsh international response. The Middle East Quartet—an ad hoc body created to mediate in Middle East peace talks, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—sought to impose conditions on Hamas for negotiations to continue. These involved recognizing Israel, accepting past agreements with Israel, and renouncing violence. When Hamas demurred, Israel and the United States took steps aimed at generating popular discontent with the Hamas government in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel ceased transferring tax revenues to the new Hamas-led Palestinian government while Western backers stopped providing it with budgetary support. Even private banks, fearing sanctions, put an end to their dealings with the new government. Under such pressure, Hamas did agree in principle with Fatah to form a national-unity government in 2007, but the efforts to unseat it continued. These efforts, spearheaded by the Palestinian security forces loyal to Fatah, failed, showing Hamas’s significant ability to maneuver domestically.

Power struggles between Fatah and Hamas over control of PA institutions escalated during that period, until there was a major outbreak of violence in June 2007, when the two groups engaged in a military showdown in Gaza. The ensuing Hamas victory allowed the organization to take over PA institutions in the territory. This provoked a rift in Palestinian areas, with Hamas ruling over Gaza and Fatah over the West Bank, from where it retained control of the PLO. While Hamas’s refusal to comply with the Middle East Quartet’s conditions had led to a momentary increase in its popular support, this did not help Hamas to overcome growing public dissatisfaction with the tightened blockade on Gaza imposed as a result of its victory, which began eating away at its popularity.

Hamas’s leaders justified their military takeover in 2007 as a reaction to what they said was a planned coup by Fatah, but their actions placed them in a difficult position. The organization had crossed its own self-imposed redlines of never killing Palestinians or attacking other Palestinian groups. Hamas imposed a tight grip on power in Gaza, but it also lost its reputationas a more principled movement in the eyes of much of the population.

Even if the situation was corrosive to Hamas’s status, it was manageable. The PA deposed the Hamas-led cabinet after its takeover of Gaza, but this came with a decision to continue funding the salaries of PA employees in the territory, allowing it to retain a base of loyalists there. In response, Hamas set up a parallel administration, hiring thousands of people, whose salaries the PA refused to pay. To counter the stranglehold on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, Hamas encouraged the growth of a “tunnel economy,” whereby economic activity took place through hundreds of tunnels dug under Gaza’s border with Egypt. This provided Gaza’s inhabitants with work and cheap goods, generating renewed satisfaction.

As a result of the tunnels, Hamas’s revenues rose, so that by 2009 they totaled $150–$200 million annually, a figure that would rise to about $375 million in 2011, when the regime of Egypt’s then president Hosni Mubarak fell. During the same period, unemployment in Gaza dropped from 45 percent to 32 percent. This led to the increased stability of Hamas rule and a bigger regional role for the organization after the election of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president in 2012. All this seemed to promise an end to Hamas’s isolation.

Periodically, the rival Palestinian leaderships would pledge to reconcile, and at times specific steps were taken to further this, such as extensive negotiations in 2011. Generally, it was the weakness of one side or the other at a particular time, and sometimes both, that led to efforts to appear to favor unity. However, neither side was willing to risk surrendering authority in its respective realm and international actors remained guarded, with some even hostile to such attempts.

Things changed for the worse for Hamas after July 2013, when Egypt’s military overthrew Morsi and the political system led by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s sister organization. The military-dominated regime in Cairo put an end to the tunnel economy, exacerbating the impact of the blockade on Gaza. The ensuing economic strains forced Hamas to accept the Shati Agreement of April 23, 2014, an unprecedented development in the Fatah-Hamas relationship that was aimed at allowing the Fatah-led PA to govern Gaza again. The accord collapsed following the war between Hamas and Israel in summer 2014, as both Palestinian groups focused on retrenchment rather than reconciliation. However, the brief opening revealed that Hamas was looking for a way out of the Gaza straitjacket in a manner that would strengthen its domestic popularity.


In early 2017, amid the continuing stalemate in Hamas-Fatah relations, Hamas once again faced a crisis. In an attempt to raise the heat on Hamas, the PA cut the salaries of some of its own employees in Gaza as well as other forms of support for the territory, because such revenues facilitated Hamas’s continued rule by reducing discontent. The organization concluded that, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the PA, “popular agitation would turn against [Hamas] rule,” as one activist put it.1 The collapse of the tunnel economy and the PA’s punitive measures had pushed Gazans to their limit, given the misery in which they lived. Hamas’s stark choice was either “reconciliation at any cost” and handing Gaza’s administration over to Fatah, or accepting an “inevitable catastrophe.”


This new reality forced Hamas and its electorate to be pragmatic with regard to the internal and external challenges the organization was facing. Hamas elections in February and October 2017 brought in Saleh al-Arouri, as deputy head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and Yahya al-Sinwar, as the movement’s head in Gaza. While both were seen as hardliners, they moved forward on a reconciliation agreement with the PA. The difficulties all around seemed insurmountable, but the two new leaders’ status as former Israeli prisoners and the fact that they represented new faces gave them the latitude to take Hamas in a new direction. As Sinwar stated in a meeting with Gaza trade unions in October 2017, reconciliation was a collective decision by the movement at home and abroad.

Under the reconciliation agreement that ensued, ministers from the PA in Ramallah are supposed to take formal control of political structures in Gaza, with Hamas ending any governing role there. However, full implementation seems unlikely at present. A unified cabinet in Ramallah nominally governs Gaza, but its effective control of the bureaucracy there is shaky and untested. Several outstanding issues, such as Hamas’s insistence on retaining an armed wing, will likely remain unresolved. But even if parts of the agreement remain frozen, it has allowed Hamas to cede governing responsibility without losing influence over much of what goes on in Gaza. Even a bomb attack in Gaza in March 2018 targeting visiting PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, though it raised tensions, failed to bring about a collapse of the accommodation between Fatah and Hamas.

Why was Hamas willing to discontinue governing Gaza? And how did the election of seemingly uncompromising figures lead to its more relaxed grip on power and a more flexible ideology? External constraints, acting on public discontent in Gaza, had generated enormous pressure on Hamas, making its leaders realize that they could no longer govern, let alone wait out the blockade. However, Hamas also had choices, and in 2017 it showed that it could react not by accepting defeat passively but by turning crisis into opportunity.

Hamas was able to do this because its internal deliberations are conducted in such a way as to allow for the emergence of a broad consensus. The organization has always striven to have in place mechanisms allowing it to sustain itself, maintain links between the leadership and the base, and ensure that its members are united around party structures and a common strategy. That is why when Hamas faced external challenges, geographical isolation, a lack of allies, and rising popular discontent in 2017, it reacted by electing a new leadership. During this period it also altered its charter in a protracted, movement-wide process that suggested a willingness to compromise without formally repudiating past positions. These moves, aimed at giving new momentum to the organization, came as part of Hamas’s preparation to disengage from its governing role in Gaza.

While Hamas has decisionmaking institutions, it gains by being able to anchor its choices in interactions between these institutions and local activists on the one hand, and between the organization and the broader public on the other. Hamas activists emphasize that all members were involved in deciding on a number of strategic choices in recent years, through forums providing for intense discussions—including whether to participate in local or legislative elections, to approve of a truce with Israel, or to endorse reconciliation talks with Fatah.2

A mechanism that Hamas uses for internal dialogue is monthly gatherings that it calls lailat katiba (or “battalion night”), in which its leaders share the movement’s ideas with all members in each region.3 Hamas also depends upon local bodies to create informal networks based on kinship, friendship, and neighborhood ties. In addition, these local bodies build a profile of the population by conducting surveys and registering people in the organization’s database of inhabitants.4 This allows Hamas to get a sense of the public mood about issues, in particular its standing and general attitudes toward its behavior and political choices.


Were the measures Hamas adopted in 2017 anything more than a quick fix? Hamas’s ability to reestablish its position will depend on regaining the popular support it once enjoyed in Gaza, as well as on its success in rebuilding regional alliances to mitigate its political and geographical isolation. Achieving breakthroughs on these fronts depends on Hamas’s organizational potential and its strategic choices.

Hamas’s support dropped sharply as a result of its military takeover of Gaza and preservation of order through the heavy hand of its security forces. The organization realized it had to pursue conciliation as the violence had led to the death of dozens of people, leaving influential local families embittered. Hamas’s social and political interaction with the public had shifted its initial approach, from direct and largely unrestricted access toward more limited contact suiting an autocratic governing authority. Hamas sought to reverse course and once again position itself as the protector of the population, rather than as a force policing society and suppressing the political opposition.

Hamas does have a history of reviving itself. During the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005, after years of repression by the PA at a time when Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were ongoing, Hamas was able to persuade many of its compatriots that the arrest of its cadres and the torture of some of its top leaders had been necessary to defend popular interests.5

However, while the post-2007 period allowed the movement to organize freely at the local level throughout Gaza, its current quest to regain public support could prove more difficult. Hamas’s decision to abandon governance in the territory and work in favor of Palestinian reconciliation, particularly societal reconciliation in Gaza, might facilitate this task. However, the organization’s enemies will not make it easy for Hamas to regain its previous stature.

Regionally, Hamas is attempting to revive its past relationships in a highly contested environment. The Middle East is polarized between a Saudi-led coalition that includes Egypt, Jordan, and the PA, and an Iran-led alliance that includes Syria and Hezbollah. Hamas is caught between the two poles. To bridge the gap with the Saudi-led camp, Hamas accepted some ambiguity about a two-state solution in its amended charter. It also dropped any mention of its links with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and Saudi Arabia consider a terrorist organization, a contrast with how Hamas had presented itself in the past. However, such efforts will be complicated by the fact that Sinwar and Arouri come from Hamas’s military wing, whose primary supporter has long been Iran.

It is unlikely that Hamas will be able to navigate the regional split for long. The divisions are too strong and bitter for the organization to succeed in retaining a foot in both camps. Today, Egypt and Iran are the main rivals for Hamas’s allegiance, each important with regard to the organization’s specific political priorities, which are themselves a reflection of its multifaceted identity.

Hamas’s relations with Egypt deteriorated after Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power. However, the organization cannot afford to be on bad terms with the largest Arab country and the neighbor that controls Gaza’s major lifeline, its twelve-kilometer southwestern border. Egypt is also the one actor that can persuade the PA to implement a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, and push Israel to go along with it. For its part, Egypt needs Hamas’s cooperation to combat the Islamic State, a common enemy that has been effectively contained in Gaza, but not on the Sinai Peninsula, where an insurgency continues.

At the same time, there are strong forces attracting Hamas to the Iranian camp, even if the relationship worsened in 2012. Khaled Mishal, then the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, publically supported the uprising against the Syrian regime, Iran’s major regional ally. Yet Hamas needs Iran’s financial support, which was suspended following that fissure, to pursue its social and political activities. Rebuilding the alliance would allow Hamas to resume providing services to the population and would help it regain regional standing as a major opponent of Israel. Iran, in turn, believes that renewed ties with Hamas would permit the Islamic Republic to recover its reputation as leader of the regional “resistance axis,” rather than just as the sponsor of a sectarian Shia coalition.

The regional context suggests that the Iranian pull may be stronger since it is based on a longer-term, strategic concurrence of views. Arouri has described the relationship as being built on “solid ground.” By contrast, the connection with the Saudi-led coalition seems to reflect détente more than any strong alignment. However, the lesson that Hamas learned from the failure of its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab uprisings in 2011 is that it is better not to be tied to an ideological framework, but, instead, to pursue Hamas’s interests according to circumstances. A Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, has emphasized this, arguing, “We are not at a stage where we are comfortable with ideological alliances [as they involve us in] regional [political] games.”

But the cold pursuit of Hamas’s interests may prove tricky today. Regional polarization between the Saudi- and Iranian-led camps leaves little room for the organization to maneuver as it pleases. Hamas is also at its weakest internally and regionally since its establishment in 1987, which means that it is not in a position to play each side off against the other. Any attempt by Hamas to generate advantage from one camp will provoke problems with the rival camp.


Hamas has stood out among Palestinian groups for its ability to maintain its power and effectiveness over time, while remaining united and cohesive. But if the organization is strong, its strategy has been more problematic. Hamas’s control over Gaza highlighted the contradiction between the organization’s resistance role, intended to defend Palestinians, and its governance tasks, which frequently meant imposing strict, unpopular control over the population.

Against this backdrop, Hamas and its electorate reacted in 2017 by bringing in a new leadership, introducing hints of compromise into its charter, and showing a greater readiness to adjust to internal Palestinian and regional political realities. In a comparison that Hamas leaders would find distasteful, the organization had to manage the same tensions faced earlier by Fatah in the period after each Palestinian intifada, when it sought to prioritize a political strategy over armed resistance. Fatah’s unpersuasive performance led directly to its electoral defeats in local elections in 2004 and legislative elections in 2006.

As an organization, Hamas may fare better than Fatah, because it has a greater ability to deliberate, decide collectively, and even vote internally. But while the organization is likely to survive and renew itself, it faces a real problem down the road. The new leadership of Hamas has no clear solution to the strategic vacuum lying at the heart of the Palestinian national movement that it seeks to lead.

Source: Carnegie ME Center

Review of Richard Falk’s “Palestine’s Horizon: Toward a Just Peace”

By  | Apr 23, 2018 | Editor’s Picks, Essays, Palestine, Reviews

In “Palestine’s Horizon: Toward a Just Peace”, Richard Falk emphasizes the present need “to take stock, and reformulate a vision and strategy to guide the Palestinian struggle”. The book is an invaluable contribution precisely because it goes so far in doing just that.

In his new book Palestine’s Horizon: Toward a Just Peace, Richard Falk provides a helpful summation of where things currently stand in terms of the Palestinians’ prospects for freedom from Israel’s occupation regime. The book brings clarity to the question of why a just peace has to date remained so unreachable while offering hope for a path forward.

Richard Falk needs no introduction to those well read on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but for those unfamiliar, he is Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, a former UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, and a tireless voice for peace.

(In the interests of full disclosure, while we have never met in person, he is also someone I consider a friend and colleague. I have long republished writings from his blog with his kind permission at Foreign Policy Journal, and he was gracious enough to write the Foreword to my book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. That said, I will not withhold criticism, and there are two points specifically on which my own view seemingly diverges, which I will come to.)

Falk emphasizes in Palestine’s Horizon the abysmal failure of the world’s governments to make any progress toward a just peace. Actually, “failure” is the wrong word, since it implies intent to achieve a just peace, whereas government efforts to date have only served to sustain the status quo of occupation. As Falk argues, Palestinian prospects “rest on the activism of people rather than the diplomacy of governments and the United Nations” (pp. x-xi).

To be effective, our activism must focus on “shifting the balance of forces” in a way that forces Israel “to recalculate its interests in ways that make it possible to envision a fair and sustainable political accommodation with the Palestinian national movement” (p. x).

Throughout the book, Falk pays homage to the late Edward Said, who “was and in many ways remains the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation” (p. 120). Falk adopts Said’s reasonable assumption that, as Said wrote in 2000, “the only hope for the future is a decent fair coexistence between the two peoples based upon equality and self-determination” (p. 21).


Proceeding from this foundation, Falk explains how the US-led so-called “peace process” has undermined rather than supported Palestinians’ rights. Citing another great Palestinian scholar, Falk rightly notes that the illusion of the US as an “honest broker” is shattered by Rashid Khalidi in his book Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East—another book which I also highly recommend to anyone interested in seeing a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In this context, I’m honored that Falk also refers to my own book on the US role, adding that “This outcome has been elaborately confirmed in Jeremy Hammond’s Obstacle to Peace, which if fairly heeded would put an end to this double coding of American diplomacy pertaining to the Palestinian national struggle” (pp. 24-25).

Falk also emphasizes the unquestionable legitimacy of the Palestinians’ struggle. Indeed, its legitimacy was recognized even by Zionist leader and first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion: “‘If I was an Arab leader,’ he once confided to Nahum Goldmann, ‘I would not make terms with Israel. This is natural: we have taken their country. They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?” (pp. 33-34).

Of course, while recognizing the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ struggle against their colonization project, Zionist leaders like Ben-Gurion rejected their equal rights. “Zionism at its heart”, Falk observes, “is about maximizing territory of the land of biblical Israel, not about finding formulas for mutually acceptable coexistence on the land” (p. 34). The British government, too, rejected Palestinians’ rights during the Mandate period with the policy course determined by its infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917 (p. 39).

(Read more about how the British policy facilitated the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which was the means by which the “Jewish state” came into existence, in my article “What Was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Why Is It Significant?”. On the ethnic cleansing, see also my article “Benny Morris’s Untenable Denial of the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”.)

Falk advocates a “single, democratic, secular state, based on equal rights for all those resident in the country”; but, he correctly points out, “Of course, realistically, this one-state variant on Palestinian self-determination is not feasible in the current political atmosphere, since it would mean the end of Zionism…” (p. 36).

That is an important point to emphasize: from the start, the Zionist project was incompatible with respect for the rights of the majority Arab population of Palestine. This incompatibility manifested in the ethnic cleansing of most of the Arab population from their homes in Palestine in order for the “Jewish state” to come into existence in 1948.


Another watershed event came in 1967, when Israel invaded and occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (along with the Syrian Golan Heights and Egyptian Sinai Peninsula). As Falk explains, Israel continues to implement “occupation policies that are in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention that sets forth the minimal requirements of international humanitarian law. In defiance, Israel imposes apartheid structures of administration, illegal interferences with Palestinian mobility via checkpoints and closures, engages in ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem, performs house demolitions throughout Occupied Territories, and uses various techniques to subvert Palestinian residence rights.” (pp. 39-40)

Returning to the US-led so-called “peace process”, Falk points out how “The learning experience for those supporters of the Palestinian struggle of the last 20 years is that inter-governmental diplomacy is not currently a pathway to a just peace, but rather a sinkhole for Palestinian rights. The Oslo/Quartet process has facilitated Israeli expansionist designs, confiscated land, building and expanding settlements, and changing the demographics of the occupation, especially in East Jerusalem” (p. 42). Nevertheless, “it is the Palestinians who are given the lion’s share of the blame when diplomatic negotiations break down” (p. 43).

This hypocrisy is all the greater in light of the fact that it has always and ever solely the Palestinians who have offered any concessions; in the proper framework of international law and what the parties have a right to, as opposed to what Israel wants, Israel throughout the “peace process” has offered no concessions whatsoever—least of all with respect to land.

Indeed, as Falk observes, when in 1988 the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) accepted the two-state solution to the conflict on the basis of international law, it in effect “overlooked the unlawful acquisition by Israel of territory by forcible means in the 1948 War” (pp. 38, 61).

Throughout the “peace process”, the hypocrisy of the Israeli government has been matched only by that of the United States. As the author of a highly detailed and meticulously documented book on that specific subject, I wholeheartedly agree with Falk’s assessment that the “perpetuation of unconditional support by the US Government, especially Congress, which gives Israel little reason to feel bound by international law, UN authority, and international morality, and has resulted in impunity in relation to Israeli refusals to abide by international criminal law” (p. 44).

Falk emphasizes that now “is a time to take stock, and reformulate a vision and strategy to guide the Palestinian struggle”; it is “a time for the renewal of struggle and for a deepening of solidarity on the part of those of us who seek justice for the Palestinian people” (p. 43).

Developments under the Trump administration since Falk wrote those words have only served to reinforce their relevance. Palestine’s Horizon is an invaluable contribution to the public discourse precisely because it goes so far in the way of doing that work for us.

The Legitimacy War

Strategically speaking, Falk describes “a crucial shift” toward “greater reliance on a ‘Legitimacy War’ being waged by the Palestinian people to secure their fundamental rights. The essence of this war, waged on many global sites of struggle, is to gain control over the discourse relating to international law, international morality, and human rights as it relates to the Israel-Palestine conflict” (p. 45).


Importantly, “Legitimacy Wars shift the emphasis from governments and governing elites to peopleand civil society as the principal agents of historical change…” (p. 46). And, Falk adds with respect to Israel’s illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, “especially the people of Gaza should not be left to languish in an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe while diplomats dither in luxurious venues” (p. 47)

This strategy can be effective because it enables “a significant neutralization of hard power advantages in a political struggle involving such fundamental rights as that of self-determination” (p. 47).

Naturally, both Israel and its superpower benefactor are concerned by this strategic shift. Indeed, “This relevance is increasingly acknowledged by Israel itself, which has shifted its concerns from Palestinian armed resistance to what it calls ‘the Deligitimation Project’ or ‘lawfare’…” (p. 48).

Falk provides an important caveat to this perceived shift away from armed resistance toward the Legitimacy War, which is the long history of Palestinian reliance on non-violence to resist oppression. While we are oft told that Palestinians could get what they want if only they would denounce violence, it is frequently those resisting the occupation through nonviolence who have been most brutally repressed (p. 51).

A disturbing reaffirmation of that has come very recently with Israel’s shooting of unarmed demonstrators in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, has collaborated with Israel in repressing nonviolent Palestinian resistance (p. 66). Indeed, as I show in Obstacle to Peace, the PA was conceived by Israel and the US from the beginning as an administrative body that would serve as Israel’s collaborator in enforcing the occupation regime!

That is a salient fact warranting particular emphasis, since it almost entirely overlooked in the public discourse. The only time any hint of this truth becomes manifest in the New York Times or other mainstream media is when the Israeli Defense Ministry is opposing cutting funding to the PA—an awkward bit of news to explain without filling readers in on the necessary context regarding the intended role of the PA under the Oslo “peace process”.

(In case you were wondering, Israel has the power to cut PA funding because it collects taxes on the PA’s behalf in occupied territory and has at times threatened to withhold or withheld these funds in efforts to coerce the PA back into compliance if the Palestinian leadership stepped too far out of line. The US Congress has also used the threat of cutting US funding to the PA, or to UN agencies that uphold Palestinians’ rights, as punishment for disobedience.)

The occupation, of course, is always framed by Israel and the US in terms of Israel’s “security”. Under this framework, the word takes on a euphemistic meaning that basically encompasses whatever geopolitical goals Israeli policymakers envision. Every violation of the rights of the Palestinians is justified under the umbrella of Israeli “security”. Every Israeli war crime is committed in “self-defense” against Palestinian “terrorism”.

A stark rebuke of this practice came in 2004 when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its Advisory Opinion on the wall Israel was constructing in the West Bank. About 85 percent of it is built on Palestinian land, and the territory on Israel’s side of it amounts to 10 percent of the West Bank (p. 66). In that ruling, the ICJ “determined that Israel’s right to security cannot be invoked to override the right of Palestinians to self-determination” (p. 56).

It is not the security of the citizens of Israel that is of paramount importance to the Israeli government, but Jewish control over the land, which happens—regrettably, in the minds of Israeli leaders—to be already inhabited by Arabs.

The BDS Movement

In the context of the Legitimacy War, Falk discusses a wide variety of important non-violent tactics, but the one he seems to place greatest emphasis on is the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which “seeks to make Israel and the United States rethink and recalculate their sense of ‘the feasible’ in light of the mounting costs and dangers associated with continuing the denial of fundamental Palestinian rights” (p. 37).

Israel, of course, frames the BDS movement as an attempt to “delegitimize” Israel. This response presupposes that Israel was established through some kind of legitimate political process. It was not. Rather, it was established by war and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which was the ultimate manifestation of the Zionists’ rejection of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

Since discussing the matter within this framework of rights would be counterproductive, Israel must shift the narrative and therefore speaks in terms of Israel’s “right to exist”. The absurd concept of an abstract political entity having inherent “rights” has somehow managed to become accepted as dogma, so it also warrants emphasizing that there is no such thing as state’s “right to exist”. The proper framework for discussion is rather the right to self-determination, which it is Israel denying to the Palestinians, and not vice versa.

Another of Israel’s responses to the movement was to pass a law outlawing free speech by subjecting individuals to penalties for expressing support for the BDS campaign (p. 85).

Naturally, apologists for Israel’s occupation regime are also quick to denounce practically anycriticism of Israel’s violations of international law and human rights as “anti-Semitism” (p. 115).

Falk astutely observes the irony in the fact that “many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine” (p. 117).

Falk himself has been a frequent target of Israeli apologists for his prominent role as a critic of the occupation regime (p. 116). (See my 2013 article “The Demonization of Richard Falk” for a stark illustration, in this instance a baseless attack on Falk by the Zionist organization UN Watch. For writing that piece observing how that organization tried to deceive the public about Falk, I was in turn attacked by UN Watch. See also my blog post “Uh Oh. I’ve Gone and Riled Up UN Watch.”)

The US government has joined in the effort by equating criticism of Israel with what the US State Department calls “new anti-Semitism” (p. 118). Falk, who is himself Jewish, notes that “this atmosphere of endowing smears of anti-Semitism with respectability” has “become threatening to academic freedom in the manner of Cold War McCarthyism” (p. 119).

As Falk also observes, there are “all too few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness” (p. 123). In this context, Falk provides a great quote from Edward Said, who wrote in his 2003 Preface to Orientalism, “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy” (p. 123).

Sadly, there really is very little critical thought within the mainstream media. As an institution, the establishment media have in practice served state power. This is just as true with respect to coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it was when the media served to manufacture consent for the planned US war on Iraq by uncritically parroting government propaganda.

On the other hand, legitimate criticisms have been made of the BDS movement. This brings me to the first of the two points where my own view diverges substantially from Palestine’s Horizon.

Among the the movement’s critics are Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. Both men are fierce critics of Israel who’ve made important scholarly contributions to the literature on the conflict. But because they do not withhold criticism of the BDS movement, they have in turn come under criticism from BDS supporters. One popular response from the movement has been to argue that those who wish to uphold Palestinians’ rights must defer to the Palestinians themselves on matters of strategy and tactics.

Falk doesn’t speak of this internal dispute among what we may more broadly describe as the Palestinian solidarity movement (PSM), but he does echo the response of BDS supporters by writing that “it is important for non-Palestinian supporters to accept that its direction and political approach should always remain under the direction of its Palestinian organizers. It is important in this regard that those of us who are not Palestinian, yet lend support to BDS, reject Orientalist efforts to substitute our West-centric guidance for theirs. In this regard, non-Palestinians active in the PSM have a political responsibility to defer to the lead of Palestinian civil society who currently best represent Palestinian democratic aspirations” (p. 78).

When confronted with this reasoning, Noam Chomsky has responded that if your friend asks you to do something that you know would end up causing him harm, it is right to refuse the request so as not to inflict harm. This is hardly arguable. To illustrate, if Palestinian civil society were to advise an end to non-violent resistance and shift to an armed uprising, would it be right for those of us who support their aspiration for freedom to jump on that bandwagon, or at least to remain silent and withhold our advice against it? As a reductio ad absurdum, clearly, if a majority of Palestinians supported not just legitimate armed resistance, but terrorist attacks and indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli population centers, we would clearly be wrong to stand by them in advocating such tactics, and hardly less wrong to choose to just remain silent about it and not criticize it out of some misguided sense of “solidarity”.

I raised this point in correspondence with Mr. Falk, who agreed that the point about deference should not be used to stifle legitimate criticism of the BDS movement. He clarified that his own meaning was simply that Westerners must not adopt a colonialist mentality and act as if they know better than the Palestinians. We should act in solidarity, and not in a manner that causes resentment and factionalism.

The problem I still see is that resentment may be no less difficult to avoid when criticism is offered humbly and respectfully than arrogantly and condescendingly. Mr. Chomsky’s criticisms, for example, are the furthest thing from Orientalist. Yet he still pisses people off because, well, people just don’t like to have their views or behaviors criticized, no matter how constructively. But sometimes a friend being honest with you and telling you things you don’t necessarily want to hear is the greatest expression of support they could possibly offer.

In the context of BDS, Falk also acknowledges in Palestine’s Horizon that “imposition of sanctions by governments does raise some legal issues” (p. 79). Indeed, I would argue that inasmuch as economic sanctions by their very nature essentially constitute collective punishment of a civilian population for the sins, real or alleged, of the government under whose jurisdiction they reside, their legitimacy as a tactic is certainly questionable. This is no less true when the target of the sanctions is indeed a human rights violator.

What about those Israeli Jews who oppose their government’s policy and stand with the Palestinians in actively pursuing an end to the occupation? What about the fifth of the population of Israel who are Arab? Should we agree to support a tactic that would hurt both of these groups, as well? At the very least, this is a legitimate question that warrants deep contemplation.

Noam Chomsky has also observed that the BDS movement has opened itself to legitimate charges of hypocrisy, which in turn serve only to lend credence to Israel’s charge against the BDS movement that it is fueled by anti-Semitism. One prominent leader, for example, is known for advocating a cultural and academic boycott of Israel while himself studying for a degree at Tel Aviv University. For another example, many BDS supporters are typically fierce critics of sanctions, such as the US sanctions against Iraq and Iran, and rightly so; yet when it’s the civilian population of Israel, including the fifth who are Arab, who are harmed, somehow it becomes okay? The apparent double standard does lend itself easily to the charge of “anti-Semitism”, which only serves to weaken the movement and prevent it from achieving its worthy aims.

In my view, if the BDS movement is to truly have long-term success in achieving liberation of the Palestinians from Israel’s oppressive occupation regime, then its supporters must not shy away from addressing legitimate criticisms and be willing to evolve their thinking, both tactically and strategically. We must all strive to do better.

One State vs. Two State Solution?

This brings me to the second point on which my view differs from that presented in Palestine’s Horizon, which has to do with the popular rejection within the Palestinian solidarity movement of the two-state solution. This rejection stems from the popular association between “the two-state solution” and “the peace process”. Falk reinforces this association by treating Edward Said’s rejection of the Oslo process as synonymous with rejection of the two-state solution (pp. 131-132).

Certainly, we are told by government officials and the thought-controlling media that the aim of the “peace process” is to implement the two-state solution. But the problem with proponents of a one-state solution reinforcing this characterization is that it unwittingly serves the occupation regime by obscuring the opposite reality, which is the fact that the “peace process” has rather been the means by which Israel and the US have long blocked implementation of the two-state solution.

One-state proponents are certainly right to reject the “peace process” and its aims. But it is a fundamental mistake to equate that aim with the two-state solution, and this error has important strategic implications. As Falk acknowledges, the one-state solution is not presently a viable one. This raises the question of what can be done to make it viable. In my view, there is no path to a one-state outcome without first achieving an end to the occupation, which in essence means implementing the two-state solution. By rejecting the two-state solution on the mistaken grounds that this is what the “peace process” aimed for, one-state proponents are throwing out the baby with the bath water, as the idiom goes.

I have elaborated on the fallacy of equating the two-state solution with the goal of the “peace process” in my article “The Two-State Solution vs. the ‘Peace Process’, and Why the Distinction Is Critical”, so won’t repeat my argument here. Suffice to say that, if a one-state solution is achievable, the two-state solution is a prerequisite first step toward getting there.

I also raised this point in my correspondence with Mr. Falk, who agreed with me about the distinction between the two-state solution grounded in Resolution 242 and international law and the aim of the Oslo process. At the same time, he pointed out, the world’s governments have long been accepting of the Oslo framework.

Be that as it may, I would argue that this is all the more reason to advocate, rather than reject, the two-state solution. The world’s governments should be reminded of their treaty obligations and the true meaning of Resolution 242 under international law. It should also be understood that nothing in Resolution 242 prejudices the internationally recognized right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

As Falk writes, “inter-governmental diplomacy is not currently a pathway to a just peace”­; this rightly implies that, by effecting the necessary paradigm shift, it could become so.

Recourse to the ICJ and ICC

This brings us directly to another dimension of the Palestinian struggle Falk covers excellently in his book: the recourse to international legal mechanisms that have been available to the Palestinian leadership since Palestine was recognized by the United Nations as a non-member state on November 29, 2012. This has opened the possibility of the Palestinians pursing legal remedy for Israel’s crimes against them through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC) (pp. 91, 94).

As Falk writes, “Considering this background of apparent Israeli criminality, it would seem a no brainer for the Palestinian Authority to seek the help of the ICC in waging its struggle to win over world public opinion to their struggle” (p. 99).

And yet the PA has hardly made any progress on this front. Why not?

Part of the answer is that the PA has been threatened with retaliatory measures if it tries to do so. The US and Israel clearly recognize that the Palestinians have international law on their side. As former US Ambassador to the UN and current National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump John Bolton once put it, “to convoke the International Criminal Court is like putting a loaded pistol to Israel’s head—or, in the future, to America’s” (see Obstacle to Peace, p. 158).

As Falk explains, “Adding further credence to the idea that the ICC option should be explored was the intense opposition by Israel and the United States, ominously threatening the PA with dire consequences if it tried to join the ICC, much less to seek justice through its activation. The then American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, herself long ago prominent as a human rights advocate, revealed Washington’s nervous hand when she confessed that the ICC ‘is something that really poses a profound threat to Israel.’” (p. 100)

But, then, such threats are largely a bluff since the US and Israel know they cannot risk collapsing their own agent in the occupied territories. That would leave the IDF alone to enforce the occupation regime, which would be expensive and messy; hence the Israeli military establishment’s objections whenever such threats are made or temporarily implemented.

It’s also instructive that the US and Israel oppose recourse to the ICC, even though, as Falk observes, it would mean “leaders of Hamas could well be investigated and indicted for their reliance on indiscriminate rockets aimed in the direction of Israeli civilian targets” (p. 102).

Another part of the problem is the ICC itself. As Falk notes, the PA did appeal to the ICC in 2009, after Israel’s devastating 22-day military assault on Gaza dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”. The PA was rebuffed on the grounds that the ICC had no authority to determine whether the PA represented a “state”. Palestine has since been recognized by the UN as a state and in January 2015 acceded to the Rome Statute of the ICC; and yet still three years later, the ICC remains only in a stage of “preliminary examination”.

As Falk expertly expounds (p. 101),

This illustrates a basic problem with the enforcement of international criminal law. It has been effective only against the losers in wars or those whose crimes are in countries of the South. This has been true since the first major effort was made after World War II at Nuremberg and Tokyo, holding surviving German and Japanese leaders responsible for their crimes while exempting the winners, despite their responsibility for the systematic bombing of civilian populations by way of strategic bombing and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Unfortunately, up to this time, the ICC has not been able to get rid of this legacy of “victor’s justice,” which has harmed its credibility and reputation. All ICC cases so far have involved accused from sub-Saharan African countries. The refusal of the ICC to investigate allegations of war crimes in relation the Iraq War of 2003 is a dramatic confirmation that leading states, especially the United States, possess a geopolitical veto over what the ICC can do.

“Despite all these problems,” Falk concludes, “recourse to the ICC remains a valuable trump card in the PA deck, and playing it might begin to change the balance of forces bearing on the conflict that has for decades now denied the Palestinian people their basic rights under international law” (p. 103).

I certainly agree with that assessment. But this brings us to a third major problem, which is the PA itself. The Palestinian leadership under the illegitimate presidency of Mahmoud Abbas (whose term expired in 2009) has proven all too willing to collaborate with Israel in maintaining the status quo.

As one clear example, when Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, Abbas and his party, Fatah, conspired with the US and Israel to overthrow the elected government. The result was that Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza, while Abbas remained in power in the West Bank.

The political elite within the PA live relatively comfortable lives compared with the people they claim to represent. Why would they risk upsetting the balance in a way that could risk them losing their privileged status, attained from their service fulfilling the PA’s purpose under the Oslo Accords?

This is a conundrum Palestine’s Horizon does not answer for us. But I would posit that for progress to be made on this front, a prerequisite is that the Oslo Accords must be withdrawn from and the PA must be dissolved. The PLO as the PA’s parent body has the authority to do this. But it would require unity of purpose among the Palestinian leadership, which today is nowhere in sight. Israel and the US have masterfully employed a “divide and conquer” strategy, and the divide between Hamas and Fatah remains a serious obstacle to be overcome. (I elaborate on this further in my article “The Two-State Solution vs. the ‘Peace Process’, and Why the Distinction Is Critical”.)

A final problem is that, as Falk observes, Israel is not a party to the Rome Statue of the ICC and would surely not cooperate with any inquiry into the legality of its policies (p. 100-101).

Yet, if the obstacle the Palestinians face in their own leadership could be overcome, Israel’s non-cooperation would ultimately become a moot point. Once Israeli leaders fear leaving the territory under the Israeli government’s control lest they be arrested for war crimes, the end of the occupation will be in sight.


“[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people,” Edward Said once said, “there can be no end to the conflict” (p. 121).

That may seem like an unlikely outcome. And yet, as Falk rightly observes, “there is reason to believe that Palestine is winning the Legitimacy War, and that this could create a situation where surprising developments occur that recalibrate the balance of forces in favor of the Palestinians” (p. 140).

Mr. Falk has done us a great service by helping to empower us through this book with the understanding we need to effect the paradigm shift that is necessary for a just peace to be realized.

There remains yet much work to be done. For the Palestinian solidarity movement, there remains the question of how to actually realize the ideal solution of a single, democratic state. Specifically, in terms of overall strategy, there is the question of whether the two-state solution, properly understood within the framework of international law, is a necessary first step, or can somehow be bypassed. Second, within whichever strategic vision is most realistically achievable, there is the question of which tactics are most effective while remaining in accordance with international law and the universal moral principles it reflects.

Yet, as Falk observes, despite the countless obstacles that remain, there is reason for hope, and there are signs that the tide is turning. I can think of no words with which to conclude more fitting than these from Palestine’s Horizon (pp. 140-141):

I would encourage all of us to take responsibility for making the impossible possible when it comes to the pursuit of a just outcome for the peoples of Palestine and Israel. We must not be misled by accepting the (mis)guidance of self-proclaimed realists who continue to shape the policies of government, proclaiming that the achievement of justice and genuine peace is unattainable for the Palestinians, and indeed for the peoples of the entire Middle East. It is the task of citizens of conscience everywhere to think and act otherwise.

Source: Foreign Policy Journal