Somdeep Sen’s introductory observation in his book Decolonising Palestine: Hamas Between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial (Cornell University Press, 2020) is a telling statement that also reflects on the realities that Palestinians have faced in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords when the illusion of state-building within a colonised context is still battling with the ramifications of Zionist erasure of the indigenous population. Since 2007, he writes, Hamas “oscillated between the images of the postcolonial state and an anticolonial movement.”
Hamas’s electoral triumph in 2006 brought the movement to global prominence as a result of its foray into politics. Its incorporation of resistance in governance brings relevance to it, despite its inability to defeat the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Drawing upon Frantz Fanon’s writings, Sen argues that liberation from colonial rule is a struggle that exists simultaneously within the anticolonial and the postcolonial contexts. The Oslo Accords constitute an illustration of the process; while state-building is promoted, the existence of colonialism “ensures that its institutions lack the resources, sovereignty, and political mandate to operate like a ‘real’ state.” The absence of autonomy reflects the settler-colonial narrative that depends upon perpetuating the myth of the colonised population’s non-existence.The book outlines the processes that contribute towards liberation in the contradictions evoked by the simultaneously existing anticolonial and postcolonial realities. With settler-colonialism still intent on eliminating the Palestinian population, Gaza exemplifies the potential to neutralise the settler-colonial process due to the enclave’s association with resistance and the existence of Hamas, which employs a strategy to protect the resistance through governance.
Israel frames its settler-colonial elimination of Palestinians as “neutralising”, alongside the erasure of the indigenous population from history and memory. Gaza reflects Palestine’s erasure, with its population dominated by refugees from historic Palestine as a result of the 1948 Nakba. Sen refers to the late Edward Said’s reflection on how understanding Palestine is equivalent to understanding the Palestinian struggle.
However, it is in the settler narrative that Hamas is synonymous with Gaza, and that the Palestinian resistance is described through the movement’s parameters by Israel as instigators. There is a more complex framework that entrenches Palestinian resistance due to the fact that the liberation process, as Sen writes, starts before the postcolonial era. With the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were left with the Palestinian Authority which proved incapable of halting settlement expansion, even as it presided over the bureaucracies of state institutions without having control over the land.
Sen describes the Accords as “aimed to cultivate a new Palestinian political subjectivity that veered away from an anticolonial identity and towards a more postcolonial mode of political conduct.” In this regard, the PA fulfilled the obligations which the international community set out as agreements, while Hamas engaged in armed resistance in opposition to Oslo.
In this postcolonial framework wrought by the Oslo Accords, Hamas embodies resistance, even as the diplomatic process introduced post-coloniality in an anticolonial reality. On the other hand, the PA has remained synonymous with bureaucracy and corruption, a process which started with the late Yasser Arafat’s renunciation of resistance to become a signatory to the diplomatic agreements which jeopardised anticolonial resistance.
By contrast, as the author portrays, Hamas’s anticolonial resistance is “intimately informed by Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights.” In terms of governance, Hamas’s role in the postcolonial situation post-Oslo distinguishes itself from that of the PA, through its approach that retains resistance while functioning as a state authority in Gaza. Hamas has also legitimised anticolonial resistance through necessity, given that Israel’s obstacles to proper governance leave resistance as an alternative. For the people, resistance is linked with indigenous adherence and persistence, “especially when faced with a settler-colonial narrative that insists that Palestinians do not exist.”
Sen explains how the PA relates and adapts to post-coloniality by identifying with the actors hindering liberation. Its position is supported financially by international donors, facilitating its posturing as a state entity.
Hamas, on the other hand, is imbued with greater responsibility in terms of politics and resistance. With the expectation of liberation falling upon the resistance movement post-Oslo, Hamas governance is also involved in protecting the resistance, despite the fact that its branches operate separately. “We have remained in government because the people want us to rule and fight,” says Hamas official, “…In the end, we have shown that there is no resistance without governance and no governance without resistance.”
The book devotes ample space for criticism of Hamas gleaned from Palestinians, some of whom claim that the movement is good at fighting but bad at governance. While misgivings about Hamas violence against Palestinians in opposition to their governance has some people pondering over the concept of “the enemy” — especially among Palestinians who have experience of both Hamas and Israeli violence — Sen makes an important assertion that, “For the colonised, the post-coloniality becomes a means of emphasising the existence of Palestine,” and thus compels Palestinians to recognise Hamas governance in Gaza.
Delving into various concepts of anticolonial resistance in a postcolonial framework, Sen’s argument that liberation does not end with a declaration of independence holds truth, particularly in a colonial context. With the identity of the colonised lying in anticolonial resistance, Palestinians are still battling the trauma of erasure. “Since we have no memory of a precolonial independent existence,” Sen relates, “we persist with the struggle for liberation, irrespective of the presence or absence of the oppressor.” It is also in this context that Hamas gains relevance, due to resistance being a component that protects Palestinians from the erasure inherent in the settler-colonial enterprise.