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The Palestinian cause in jihadist ideology: between fact and fiction

July 9, 2019 at 11:03 am

Palestinians in Gaza protest against German Parliament decision on BDS, in Gaza on 23 May 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

A commitment to Palestine binds together many Arab, Muslim and other marginalised minorities in the West, generating strong emotional, ideological and political support. The nature of this bond often goes beyond issues of kinship or religious connection to involve a common underlying experience of political alienation.

Radical jihadist groups, however, have exploited the Palestinian cause for their own ends. In this contradictory context, the French government has taken measures recently to penalise the expression of non-violent criticism of Zionism and to persecute activists supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; these measures impair the exercise of fundamental human rights and contribute to extremist “radicalisation”. I would argue that freedom of expression regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine can contribute to resilience-building among marginalised communities in France, while also thwarting anti-Semitism and other manifestations of “radicalisation”.

It is beyond the scope of this article to review all of the literature relevant to this topic, such as the biographies of the Salafi jihadist leaders; or to trace how the issue of Palestine affected the historical trajectory of transnational jihadism. The opinions expressed here are nevertheless informed by the few research materials available on the matter and by the most important statements and videos referring to Palestine that have been produced by the leadership of Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS).

I cannot claim absolute objectivity, as I am not indifferent about Palestine and Islam. Indeed, researching this topic has been especially distressing for me because of the great similarities that I find between the traumatising propaganda and conduct of Daesh, and the Zionism of the 1940s.

The concept of jihad

There are major differences in understandings of the concept of jihad, as there are with many other ideas which become misused in the service of ideology. Within mainstream Muslim understanding, jihad can be understood as an internal struggle against one’s ego and selfishness; this is referred to as “major jihad” in classical Islamic texts. The duty to defend people against oppression or act in self-defence is known as the “minor jihad”. The Qur’an states: “And what is [the matter] with you that you fight not in the cause of Allah and [for] the oppressed among men, women, and children who say, ‘Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from Yourself a protector and appoint for us from Yourself a helper?’” (4:75)

READ: Palestinians need reconciliation to reject ‘deal of the century’ says Islamic Jihad

The Salafi jihadi perspective departs from these mainstream Muslim concepts. While Al-Qaeda took pains to manipulate Qur’anic scripture to legitimatise its terrorism as jihad, Daesh does not even bother to provide such justification.

Image of Daesh militants [file photo]

Daesh militants [file photo]

However, the main understanding of relationships with “the other” in Islam comes from the Qur’an: “Allah does not forbid you from dealing kindly and fairly with those who have neither fought nor driven you out of your homes. Surely Allah loves those who are fair.” (60:8) On such a basis, influential Islamic thinkers such as Shaikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Malek Bennabi and Rached Ghannouchi have affirmed that pluralism, democracy and Islam are not incompatible. The traditional notion of Islamic jihad does not imply a conflict with democracy.

Conflating legitimate Palestinian resistance with transnational jihadism

Conflating legitimate Palestinian resistance with transnational jihadi groups is a common objective of multiple actors, each activated by different motives: Israel’s goal, for example, is to recruit further Western support of its occupation of Palestine and to portray itself in the US and Europe as the victim of terror attacks, and thus an expert in fighting “terrorism” whereby it exports military and security expertise to the world.

In Egypt, unfounded claims that Hamas cooperated with jihadi groups in Sinai were exploited to incriminate political opponents, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the Palestinian Authority took to smearing Hamas with a #Hamas=Daesh campaign to incite people against the PA’s political opponents.

Israel’s claims

Israel never misses an opportunity to link legitimate Palestinian resistance to its military occupation to jihadism and global terrorism, even when such links are patently false. In January 2017, for example, Israeli police officers shot and killed educator Yaqoub Abu Al-Qiyan and injured several others during a demolition programme in the Bedouin village of Umm Al-Hiran. The Israeli media manufactured a story depicting Abu Al-Qiyan as a Daesh activist who struck a policeman with his vehicle; this contradicted all eyewitness accounts, which reported that he had left his house in order to avoid witnessing it being demolished. Only later was a video released exposing the Israeli fabrication; the ramming took place because Abu Al-Qiyan lost control of the vehicle after he had been shot.

READ: Israel killed 29 Palestinians, wounded 312, arrested 370 during May

In a 2014 speech at the UN, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that, “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” He made this claim even though these two organisations are very different to the point of antagonism in doctrine, jurisdiction and practice. In that same year, a report from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) revealed that Israel has been collaborating with Salafi jihadi groups in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights; this collaboration was not restricted to offering medical aid to the injured members of Jabhat Al-Nusra. On the contrary, reports described the transfer of unspecified supplies from Israel to the Syrians, as well as incidents when Israeli soldiers allowed free passage to Syrians who were not injured.

Israeli soldiers at an army base in the Israeli-annexed Syrian Golan Heights look out across the southwestern Syrian province of Quneitra, visible across the border on July 7, 2018. (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli soldiers at an army base in the Israeli-annexed Syrian Golan Heights look out across the southwestern Syrian province of Quneitra, visible across the border on 7 July 2018 [JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images]

Yet more striking in its implications is the fact that in April, 2017, Moshe Ya’alon, a former Israeli Defence Minister, pointed to a possible collaboration with ISIS. “Firing comes occasionally from regions under the control of the Syrian regime,” he explained. “But, once the firing came from ISIS positions–and it immediately apologised.” Nobody apologises to a supposed enemy, so we are left wondering whether Daesh views Israel as its friend.

Trans-jihadist discourse on Palestine

Groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh which use violations in human rights in the name of Islam are also generous in using Palestine in their rhetoric. Rather than a genuine solidarity, they invoke it because of the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause and its popularity among those targeted by the propaganda for transnational Jihad.

According to Lawrence Wright’s account of the rise of Osama Bin Laden, his mother observed that Osama had stopped watching Western films by the time he was 14. She described him as concerned, sad and frustrated by the situation in Palestine, with tears streaming down his face as he watched TV and news reports from the occupied land.

READ: Iraq court sentences Daesh member to death for kidnapping, killing Yazidis

Thomas Hegghammer and Joas Wagemakers, authors of a 2013 study on “The Palestine Effect in the Transnational Jihad Movement”, found that Palestinians are not over-represented in Al-Qaeda at either the leadership level or as followers. Only one out of three prominent Palestinian jihadist ideologues therein is focused on Palestine: Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. The others, Al-Maqdisi and Al Falastini, consider Palestinian nationalism antagonistic to the objective of establishing an Islamic state. In the founding declaration of “The Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders” (February 1998), Palestine was mentioned only as the third issue justifying transnational jihad against Americans, after the US military presence in Saudi Arabia and the sanctions against Iraq. The statement suggests a religious rather than a humanist interest in Palestine: “If the goals of the Americans in these [Middle Eastern] wars are religious and economic, then it is serving the interest of the Jewish state, and to distract attention from its occupation of bayt al-maqdis, [an Arabic name for Jerusalem] and its killing of Muslims there.”

Palestine is only one among several issues put forward to convince Muslims to join the jihad, usually stirred up by well-publicised atrocities and political tension in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Palestinian cause was mentioned not only to lament Israeli oppression but to criticise Palestinian politics, especially when Hamas decided to participate in the 2006 elections. For example, in that year, Al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri said, “Palestine is under occupation and its constitution is man-made and pagan, and Islam has nothing to do with it.” This was his way of criticising Hamas for taking part in the elections. In March 2007, he repeated his criticism, stating that, “The Hamas leadership has sold out Palestine, and earlier it had sold out referring to Sharia as the source of jurisdiction.”

Further jihadi quotations indicating how the Palestinian cause has been used

“The American people have given their consent to the incarceration of the Palestinian people, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the slaughter of the children of Iraq. This is why the American people are not innocent. The American people are active members in all these crimes.” Osama Bin Laden, 14 October 2002.

“Has Shaikh Osama Bin Laden not informed you that you will not dream of security until we live it in reality in Palestine?” Ayman Al Zawahiri, 4 August 2005.

READ: Saudi Arabia revokes citizenship of Bin Laden’s son

“Jihad in Palestine and Iraq today is a duty for the people of the two countries and other Muslims.” Osama Bin Laden, December 2004.

In April 2007, Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi stated that the conflict in Iraq has “paved the way for invading the Jewish state and the restoration of Jerusalem.”

Palestine in the Daesh discourse

Daesh has a less elaborate discourse on Palestine than Al-Qaeda. It often uses images depicting Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock Mosques in its propaganda videos, especially in a context of growing assertions among a pro-regime false intellectual elite in various Arab countries who raise doubts about the Muslim claim to Jerusalem. Daesh also dignifies some leaders with pseudonyms suggesting ties to Jerusalem and Palestine.

Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who attacked a kosher store in Paris, 2015, is reported by French BFM-TV journalist Sarah-Lou Cohen that he had deliberately chosen to target Jews “ to defend oppressed Muslims, notably in Palestine.”

READ: America is anything but an honest broker in Palestine-Israel

In October 2015, Daesh issued videos embracing knife attacks and making suggestions to Palestinians about how to carry them out more effectively. Like the Israelis, the group also makes false claims about lone-wolf attacks by adolescent Palestinians, against all available evidence. As with Al-Qaeda, Daesh attacks the Palestinians’ framing of their cause: “Your struggle is not about land, but about right versus wrong. It’s about religion.” Daesh videos show ritual burning of the Palestinian flag and have been merciless with Palestinian refugees in Syria. The group’s reaction to Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem came late and was irrelevant. In an editorial that appeared in Al-Naba newsletter, it made use of the occasion to blame other Islamist groups for their “hypocritical and self-serving statements.”

The universal dimension of the Palestinian cause

British historian Arnold Toynbee once said that, “The tragedy in Palestine is not just a local one; it is a tragedy for the world, because it is an injustice that is a menace to the world’s peace.” The Palestinian cause has universal echoes, not only because of the religious value of the Holy Land, but also because Palestine is the location of a current, concrete, protracted area of friction between the dominant, imperialistic West and the Orient. The power relationship manifested in Israel’s military occupation of Palestine is an important part of the psychological and social make-up of many people around the world, and the symbolic meaning of Palestinian resistance to the occupation has the potential to liberate many people from their immediate oppression at home.

A Palestinian woman in tears after her home was destroyed after Israel carried our air strikes in Gaza on 26 March 2019 [Hassan Jedi/Anadolu Agency]

A Palestinian woman in tears after her home was destroyed after Israel carried our air strikes in Gaza on 26 March 2019 [Hassan Jedi/Anadolu Agency]

In the context of this global awareness, it is perhaps inevitable that there has always been a dangerous and violent misrepresentation of the Palestinian plight, from that put forward by the Japanese Red Army (1970) to jihadi groups.

The Palestinian and Arab reaction to jihadist claims

Global jihadi groups have contributed nothing whatsoever to the legitimate Palestinian resistance against Israel’s occupation. The reason for this is that Palestinian grievances, narrative and resistance are wholly human, grounded in universally recognised human rights, and emerge from a brutal political reality, not from a perceived promise by God.

It is not surprising that jihadi groups receive little popular support in Palestine and among Arabs generally. Palestinians do not share their political ideology and do not imitate their tactics, since these entail severe human rights violations. A public opinion poll conducted in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 2015 by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) demonstrated that an overwhelming majority (91 per cent) believes that Daesh is a radical group that does not represent true Islam. In 2018, Arab Opinion Index conducted by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar revealed the following: Almost all respondents (98 per cent) indicated that they were aware of the “Islamic State” and an overwhelming majority (92 per cent) had a negative view of it, with two per cent expressing a “positive” view. Interestingly, among the favourable views, answers were not correlated with religion; respondents who identified themselves as “Not religious” were just as likely to have favourable views of Daesh as those who identified as “Very religious”. The researchers concluded that public attitudes toward Daesh are generated by present-day political considerations and not motivated by religion.

READ: Daesh recruiter sentenced to 4 years by US judge

When asked for conjecture about the factors which might drive citizens of Arab countries to join Daesh, 42 per cent said political instability in their home countries; 24 per cent said economic conditions; and six per cent cited social circumstances such as inequality, marginalisation and social exclusion. A further 18 per cent credited “brainwashing” and “propaganda”, while a final six per cent described the chance to fight foreign powers and/or sectarian militias in Syria and Iraq. Just under 30 per cent of respondents believed that the group’s existence resulted from the internal conflicts extant in the Middle East, compared to 59 per cent who attributed it to the policies of foreign powers. When asked to suggest the best means by which to combat Daesh, resolving the Palestinian conflict ranked third among five most commonly reported answers: military means (18 per cent), ending foreign intervention in Arab countries (17 per cent), resolving the Palestinian conflict (13 per cent), supporting democratic transitions (12 per cent) and solving economic issues (nine per cent).

Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, cross over to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. [KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images]

Syrian refugees at the makeshift camp between Syria and Jordan on 1 March 2017 [KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images]

In early 2018, Daesh issued a 22-minute video in which it launched a war on Hamas and described its fighters as “apostates”. At the end of the video, Daesh fighter Hamza Zamli ordered a masked man to execute a kneeling Hamas captive, Musa Abu Zamt. The video exposed the ferocious enmity between Daesh and Hamas; the former has been understood generally by the Palestinian public as but another tool to crack down against the Palestinian resistance.

Hamas also distances itself from Salafi jihadists. After a Salafi suicide bomber killed Nidal Ja’afri, a member of the Hamas military wing, on the border with Egypt in August 2017, the resistance movement called Salafi-jihadist views “a perverted ideology” and “a foreign implant”. Hamas believes that it is facing at least two adversaries, Israel and Salafi jihadists, with the latter trying “to shift the compass of holy jihad against the Zionist occupiers.” The so-called Islamic State accused Hamas of abandoning the Islamic path, capitulating to tyranny and focusing exclusively on the Gaza Strip, thus abandoning the rest of Palestine. It has even gone as far as calling on its supporters to act against Hamas and its people, a statement backed by the organisation’s Sinai-based Mufti, Qazem Al-Azawi.

Commonalities between the ‘Jewish state’ and ‘Islamic State’

Palestinians might be expected to be most repulsed by Daesh because of the similarity in objectives and methods used by the group and the Jewish state established in 1948. I made this comparison in a previous article — “In the aftermath of Paris, the Israeli way is not the answer” in which I argued that, “Both Daesh and the ‘Jewish state’ were established through horrible massacres leaving a population of refugees in their wake. Both display expansionist ambitions. The strategy of Daesh is to attack the West, with the goal of provoking further discrimination against Western Muslims to get them out of the ‘grey zone’; Israel’s Mossad was behind terror attacks against Jews in Iraq, Egypt and Morocco intended to induce them to move to Israel. Similar is Operation Sushana, in which Israeli spies planned bombing attacks against Egyptian Jews; the deliberate and sustained attack by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats against the USS Liberty, killing 34 crew members and wounding 171 others, and various false-flag operations around the world are further examples of heinous crimes committed by Israelis for which blame was pinned elsewhere.”

READ: ‘Israel does not want peace’, former Mossad chief says

And yet, Salafi jihadists share with today’s Zionists the delegitimisation of the Palestinian nationalist narrative as well as the targeting of Palestinian resistance fighters. Both advocate religious supremacy over fundamental values of society, the principles of democracy and universal human rights. One important difference between the leaders of Zionist terrorism and the men of Daesh is that the former became statesmen and some were awarded the Nobel prize for peace while the latter are condemned to death universally.

Tackling the psychological and the contextual

Commitment to Salafi jihadism is an individual process of developing extremist beliefs, emotions and behaviour, but it does not only develop in the mind; it is also influenced by a socio-political context. Research and interventions are so far focused on the “mind of the jihadis”. Discrimination, socioeconomic crises, political repression and blocking the way for political and social change through non-violent means all shake people’s beliefs in human rights and democracy. These pressures create an opening for certain vulnerable and receptive individuals to engage in binary, absolutistic thinking and perceived in-group superiority. These cognitive distortions serve to resolve their personal feelings of uncertainty, absence of meaning, lack of focus in life and a subjective sense of a fragmented worldview.

We cannot underestimate the effect of the attack on moderate Islamic political organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in understanding the radicalisation of certain individuals amongst Muslim youth. It is at such moments of maximum vulnerability that Salafi jihadism appeals to people deprived of their identity to offer a “different solution”. Group identification solves the problem of uncertainty and self-doubt (Tajfel, 1979).

Like a few other Western countries which also support oppressive Arab regimes and demonise moderate Islamic groups, France is making efforts to delegitimise efforts to challenge Zionism ideologically. Two months after getting sworn into office, French President Emmanuel Macron declared, “We will not give in to anti-Zionism because it is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism.” Last February, Macronsaid that he was considering pushing forward legislation that equates anti-Zionism with the crime of anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Manuel Valls added, “There is, in the very heart of Islam, this disease that devours Islam, which is anti-Semitism, the hatred of Israel.”

READ: Why Zionism has always been a racist ideology

France has also used the Lellouche Law, which bans “discrimination” based on national origin, to restrain the BDS movement, a Palestinian-led, international civil society campaign to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure the state to comply with international law. Last January, Paul Furia, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said that, “Calling [for a] boycott of Israel is indeed illegal in France.” Several decisions of the highest criminal court (the Court of Cassation) confirmed that calling for such a boycott breaks the law and constitutes an incitement to discrimination or hate based on national origin or religion. This, though, was not the position of the French government on the boycott of Russia over its action in Ukraine.

Protest outside the David Cup tennis match between Israel and South Africa, in Pretoria, South Africa on February 3, 2018 [Facebook / bdssouthafrica]

Protest outside the David Cup tennis match between Israel and South Africa, in Pretoria, South Africa on February 3, 2018 [Facebook / bdssouthafrica]

Like the exclusion of Islamists from political life in the Arab world, delegitimising solidarity with Palestine in France and spreading Islamophobia threaten to push people towards radicalism, playing into the hands of jihadi groups. Jihadist ideologue Abu Musab Al-Suri’s 2005 manifesto The Call to Global Islamic Resistance argued that conducting attacks on European soil — the “soft underbelly of the West” — would reveal rightist politics there and convince European Muslims that coexistence is not possible in a racist, xenophobic continent.

The moral responsibility of Palestinians

Individuals involved in the Palestinian resistance have a different psychological profile to transnational jihadists: unlike many among the latter, they are not ex-felons, nor are they motivated by supremacy theories, dichotomous thinking or alleged promises from God. The Palestinian resistance accepts democracy, pluralism, political accountability and the concept of the civil state. In occupied Palestine, legitimate resistance strives to hold accountable those responsible for their political oppression, not to harm innocent third parties. It aims to minimise occasions for offence, put forth a modest reaction to attacks initiated against them, and seek opportunities for problem solving and truces. Hamas has neither targeted nor called for targeting any entity other than the Israeli occupation. It has intervened to stop any aggression against foreigners, as in the kidnapping of British journalist Alan Johnston, and has not boasted about the treatment of Israeli prisoners, such as Gilad Shalit.

OPINION: Gantz, Zionism and the two-state compromise

Palestinians have the moral responsibility to be concerned about how their cause is being used by those outside Palestine. Events in Palestine have stimulated a solidarity-based sense of grievance in non-Palestinians that inspires them to be agents of change. Palestinians have invented avenues and opportunities for global resistance to Zionism and solidarity with Palestinians that do not conflict with either universal human rights or the culture of democracy as stipulated by the Council of Europe in 2016. Some of these resistance movements are BDS, We Are All Mary and the Global Mental Health Networks.

The people of Palestine can provide a conceptual clarification and an alternative international activism that challenges unjust decisions through peaceful civil engagement. This activism embraces political decisions that prevent violent radicalisation and achieve genuine acceptance of the self and the other; it increases rather than diminishes the sense of belonging to a larger human group of socially and morally responsible citizens.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.