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Armed vs. peaceful resistance - What you need to know about Muqawama in Gaza

June 21, 2024 at 8:08 pm

A graffiti on a wall in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis depicting Palestinian children deprived of education by Israel is viewed, on June 14, 2024. [Hani Alshaer – Anadolu Agency]

The word Muqawama in Palestinian lexicon does not need elaboration beyond the immediate meaning it generates among ordinary Palestinians. Only recently, and specifically after the Oslo peace accords and the sudden infusion of western-funded NGOs, did such terms as ‘peaceful resistance’ and ‘non-violent resistance’ begin to emerge within some circles of Palestinian intellectuals. These phrases, however, never truly registered as central to the collective discourse of Palestinians. For them, Muqawama remained: one – indivisible, all encompassing.

This assertion should hardly suggest that Palestinians did not resist, in the various stages of their struggle, using non-armed methods. In fact, they have done so for generations. The six-month general strike of April 1936 was a culmination of civil disobedience tactics that had been used for years prior to that date. It continued to be used, since then, throughout Palestine, for a century.

The difference between the Palestinian perception of resistance and the western-promoted notion is that Palestinians do not see Muqawama as a liability, nor do they seek to explain, contextualise or justify forms of collective resistance they use. Historically, only circumstances determine the type, time and place for armed or unarmed resistance.

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The western notion, however, is predicated on the concept of preferentiality, as in one strategy is better than the other, and that one is ethical, while the other is not. In doing so, this judgmental attitude creates a clear distinction between the ‘peaceful’ Palestinians, dubbed moderate, and the violent ones, dubbed radical.

Moreover, western definitions of resistance are selective. The Ukrainians, for example, are permitted to use arms to repel the Russian army. Palestinians are condemned for doing so when Israel invades and carries out an unparalleled genocide in Gaza.

Though some promoters of certain types of resistance are, perhaps, well intentioned, they seem to fully ignore the historical roots of such language. Yet, by engaging in such condemnatory discourse, they, wittingly or otherwise, reproduce old colonial perceptions of the colonised. Similar language defined colonial Europe’s relationship with virtually all colonised spaces: those who resisted were perceived as savages or terrorists; those who did not, were granted no civil or political rights, only the occasional privilege of not being tortured or killed with impunity.

Gaza: heart of resistance 

To fully fathom the concept of Muqawama in its Palestinian context, one only needs to look at Gaza. Though the Strip has historically served as the centre of Palestinian Resistance in both discourse and action, al-Muqawama here is not entirely an outcome of geography, but rather the collective experience and identity of those occupying this tiny space of 365 square kilometres.

70 per cent of Gaza’s population are refugees. They were ethnically cleansed, along with nearly 800,000 Palestinians, from historic Palestine during the Nakba, the catastrophic destruction and ethnic cleansing of Palestine and her people in 1948. They are survivors of massacres, which were part of a major military campaign that saw the ruin or emptying of whole villages, towns and communities.

Due to Gaza’s small size and the nature of its topography – flat land with little resources – the suffering of the refugees of Gaza was particularly extreme. Trapped between a persisting past of loss, suffering and unrestored rights and a present of siege and grinding poverty, it was only rational for Gaza to be the spearhead of Palestinian Resistance throughout the years. Often, the degree of Israeli brutality determined the degree of Palestinian response, since violence begets violence and deadly sieges and genocidal wars beget Al-Aqsa Flood type of resistance operations.

Though general strikes and other forms of civil disobedience were abundantly used by Gaza’s resisting population throughout the years – especially in the period between the Israeli occupation of 1967 and the so-called Israeli military ‘redeployment’ of 2005 –  armed resistance has always been a critical component of Palestinian Muqawama.

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Despite its geographic isolation, which has long preceded the latest layer of Israeli siege imposed on the Strip in 2007, the Gaza population, as judged by the constant state of rebellion and political discourse, has always viewed itself as part of a larger and more coherent Palestinian whole. One of the reasons behind this is that collective Palestinian memory served as a generational bonding agent that kept Palestinian communities attached to Palestine as a tangible reality, and also as an idea.

The other reason pertains to the relationship that Gaza had with Egypt, the Strip’s former military administrator and once potential liberator.

Though Egypt administered Gaza between 1949 and 1967 – with a brief few months’ exception during the war of 1956 – Cairo did not exactly see Gaza as a territorial or even as a political extension that is permanently linked to the country’s body politic. True, Egyptian President, Jamal Abdul Nasser, was the caretaker of Gaza and attempted to shape its political institutions, in fact, the very armed resistance – for example, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (1964) and the Palestine Liberation Army (1964) – Gaza’s local leaderships and political elites largely embraced Egypt as strategic depth, not an alternative leadership, let alone homeland. If any confusion existed, the matter was resolved, anyway, following the humiliating defeat of Arab armies at the hands of the US-backed Israeli military in the June 1967 war, known as the Naksa or the ‘setback’.

Though the post-war version of the PLO remained largely reliant on Arab support and political validation, with time, it became more Palestinian in terms of decision-making. The PLA, on the other hand, which only operated under the auspices of other Arab militaries, became marginalised, if at all relevant. But even with the sidelining of the Arabs and marginalisation of the PLA, Palestinians continued to resist. Their new resistance, however, was modelled around Palestinian historical experiences. This history of resistance is rife with examples, which started long before the establishment of Israel on the ruins of Palestine, and continued after the Nakba with the rise of the Fidayeen Movement, whose roots trace back to Gaza.

When Gaza fell under Israeli military occupation in 1967, so did the West Bank. Though all historic Palestine was now captive to Israel and its totalistic Zionist discourse, the Occupation, coupled with the defeat of Arab armies, only accentuated a Palestinian identity that had little overlaps with regional Arab priorities – be it Jordanian, as was the case in the West Bank, or Egyptian, as in the case of Gaza.

This new reality did not automatically cancel the historic rapport between Palestine and the Arab world. However, it did underscore a growing sense of Arab political provincialism and a growing sense of Palestinian nationalism that began evolving into a new set of political significances and boundaries.

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Ironically, armed Palestinian resistance, which developed outside the realm of Arab governments and armies, only grew stronger following the Naksa. This was true in the case of Jordan and Lebanon-based Palestinian Resistance. However, this seeming contradiction has been manifested in Gaza since 7 October, more than any other time or place in the past.

Home-grown Palestinian resistance in Gaza has paralyzed the Israeli army to the point of failing to achieve any real military or strategic objective in its war on the Palestinians. Moreover, fighters, manufacturing most of their own weapons, have arguably inflicted more damage on the Israeli army than entire Arab armies in previous wars.

It will take years for the psychological outcomes of this war to be fully appreciated. However, numbers already speak of a changing perception. Over 70 per cent of Palestinians now believe that armed resistance is the way forward, a direct and decisive challenge to the perceptions held immediately after the Oslo Accords and during the early phase of the so-called peace process. Back then, many Palestinians genuinely believed that a negotiated solution is the shortest way to a Palestinian State.

Chances are armed resistance will continue to grow, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well. A nascent armed movement, mostly focused in the northern region of the West Bank, will likely continue to develop as well, modelling itself, whenever possible, around the ideas, strategies and values of the Gaza Resistance. Indeed, a different kind of Palestinian unity is now forming.

Changing Attitudes 

But is this the end of the Palestinian quest for Arab liberators?

In a pre-recorded statement on 28 October, the military spokesman for the Al-Qassam Brigades – the military wing of Hamas – uttered a few words that carried profound meaning. “We’re not asking you to defend the children of Gaza with your armies and tanks, God forbid,” he said, in a sarcastic message to Arab governments. Those few words were some of the most analyzed remarks made by Abu Obeida, whose popularity in the Arab world has soared since 7 October, along with that of Hamas and other Palestinian movements in Gaza.

Though Abu Obeida’s language remained committed to religious, cultural and social values held in common with other Arab and Muslim nations, the masked fighter’s political language is now largely situated within a Palestinian discourse. His statements, however, are an obvious departure from Hamas’s own perception of the responsibilities of mostly Arabs, but also Muslim governments towards Palestine. Hamas’s original charter seemed aimed at mobilising the Arabs as much as it did the Palestinians.

Ya ummatuna al-Alarabiya” and “ya ummatuna al-Islamiyah” are the standard form through which Al-Qassam Brigades and other Palestinian resistance groups call upon Arabs and Muslims. However, considering the growing involvement of non-Arab and non-Muslim countries in standing up to Israel’s genocide in Gaza, a third term is now almost always present in these statements: ‘Ya ahrar al-alem’ – a call to the ‘free people of the world’.

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Equating between Arabs and any other nation anywhere in the world, and the cynical reference to Arab armies – let alone the near complete absence of any demand by Palestinian groups for Arab military intervention – have all signalled an obvious shift in the attitude of Palestinian Resistance. Gaza, the heart of this resistance, is now sending a message to all Palestinians, that liberation can only originate from Palestine itself.

This attitude is a relatively new phenomenon.

Back to the Start 

One of the earliest and most powerful calls for resistance, then referred to as Jihad, was not made by a Palestinian, but a Syrian preacher at his final public sermon at the Al-Istiqlal Mosque in Haifa on 9 November, 1935. Palestinians have been resisting for years. But what made the call by Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam particularly special is that it contributed to the three-year rebellion against British and Zionist colonialism which followed the strike of 1936.

Al-Qassam’s political thought may have matured in Palestine, but it developed in Syria and Egypt. Al-Qassam had fled French colonialism in 1920 only to engage in another anti-colonial struggle, this time involving the British and their Zionist allies in Palestine.

“I have taught you the matters of your religion,” the Sheikh, now actively pursued by British police, said in his last sermon. “I have taught you the affairs of your homeland,” he continued, before raising his voice louder with an impassioned plea, “To the Jihad, o Muslims. To the Jihad.”

A Syrian Arab, urging Muslims from a Palestinian town to engage in a holy struggle was a perfectly accepted and rational notion back then. These layers of identity, since then, however, have fragmented to create alternative identities, thus relationships.

Al-Qassam himself was killed, along with a small band of his Palestinian followers in the orchards of Ya’bad, not long after he left Haifa in preparation for a countrywide revolt – one that only happened after his death.

When Al-Qassam Brigades was officially formed in Gaza in 1991, it may have attempted to model itself after the Al-Qassamite bands of yesteryears. But their lack of means, Israel’s policy of assassination, in addition to the restrictions and crackdowns by the Palestinian Authority – which managed Gaza until the Hamas-Fatah clash of 2007 – made it difficult for such an army to exist.

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Ultimately, the group managed to achieve what Al-Qassam himself could not, forming a resistance army consisting of small units of fighters that was able to fight and sustain a liberation war using guerrilla warfare tactics for a long time.

Unlike Al-Qassam’s old rag-tag army of poorly trained fighters, the new Qassamites are well-trained, make their own weapons and have managed to achieve what standing Arab armies and traditional warfare have failed. The same conclusion can be drawn about the Quds Brigades, the military branch of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine (IJP) Movement.

But even well-trained and equipped fighters cannot fight, let alone survive, the kind of Israeli firepower that has destroyed the majority of Gaza. According to The Washington Post, the number of bombs dropped on Gaza in a single week – between 7 October and 14 October – estimated at 6,000 bombs, was almost as many as what the US has dropped on Afghanistan in one year.

So, how did the Palestinian resistance survive? The answer here has less to do with military technology or tactics and more with intangible values. If this question is asked in Gaza, the answer is most likely to point towards such notions as ‘ruh al-muqawama’ – spirit or soul of the Resistance. Though such intangible concepts cannot easily be qualified, let alone quantified, according to western academia, the truth is that armed resistance in Palestine would have not survived the Israeli onslaught if it were not for the sumud – steadfastness – of the Palestinian people.

In other words, if it were not for the Palestinian people themselves, no group of Palestinian fighters, no matter how well-trained and prepared, would have sustained the task of fighting the Israeli military machine, backed by Washington and its other western partners.

Muqawama for Palestinians is not an intellectual conversation, or an academic theory. It is not an outcome of a political strategy, either. In the words of Frantz Fanon, referencing wars of liberation, “we revolt simply because (…) we can no longer breathe”. Indeed, Palestinian revolts and resistance are a direct outcome of the Palestinian people’s refusal to accept the injustices of settler-colonialism, military occupation, protracted sieges and the denial of basic political rights.

For Muqawama to be fully appreciated as a unique Palestinian phenomenon, it cannot be delinked from history; neither can it be explored separate from the ‘popular embrace’ –  Al-Hadina al-Sha’biyah lil-Muqawamah al-Filistiniyah –  of the Palestinian people themselves, who have always served as the original source and the main protector of Palestinian resistance in all of its forms.

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