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Even the Oppressed Have Obligations

After the Hamas attack on Israel October 7, an old, bad argument resurfaced. In the streets of New York, London, and Paris, and on American college campuses, protesters who consider themselves leftists took the position that oppressed people—Palestinians in this case, but oppressed people more generally—can do no wrong. Any act of “resistance” is justified, however cruel, however barbaric, however much these protesters would rage against it if it were committed by someone else.

I remember the same argument from the days of the Algerian struggle for independence from France, when the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched terrorist attacks against European civilians. The movie The Battle of Algiers shows a bomb being planted in a café where teenagers met to drink and dance. This really happened, and figures as eminent as Jean-Paul Sartre defended such attacks. Killing a European, any European, the famous writer announced, was an act of liberation: “There remains a dead man”—the victim—“and a free man”—the killer.

By this same logic, the murder of young and old Israelis has been justified, even celebrated, by people who, again, consider themselves leftists. For them, the Hamas murderers are not ordinary mortals, responsible for what they do; they are agents of resistance, doing what must be done in the name of liberation.

Framed this way, the issue is simple: Oppressed people have a right to resist; the Palestinians have a right to struggle against the Israeli occupation. But rights come with obligations. What are the obligations of the oppressed and, most immediately, of those who act in their name? This may not seem like an urgent question, given the horrors of the war now unfolding. But it is a question for all time; it is about the moral and political health of all those who fight for liberation—and of everyone who wants to support them.

The Hamas terrorists claim to be acting on behalf of the Palestinian people. At the same time, Hamas is the government of the Gaza Strip—a strange situation: a terrorist organization that also rules a territory. The anomaly explains why Hamas terror leads to actual conventional wars, whereas Irish Republican Army or FLN violence against civilians never did. Hamas’s government is substantial, the real thing, with a civil service and a system of social provision that includes welfare and schooling. It has, therefore, the same obligations that any government has to look after its citizens or, as in Hamas’s case, its subjects. It must secure their rights and protect their lives.

But much evidence suggests that the government of Gaza does not meet these basic obligations. Despite the large funds that Hamas has accumulated, chiefly for its military wing, some 80 percent of Gazans live in poverty. Hamas rejects the very idea of civil rights and liberties; it imposes a harsh religious discipline (though short of the Iranian version), and it does not seem overly concerned with Gazans’ general well-being. Instead of protecting the lives of its people, it exposes them to attack by embedding its military communication and storage centers in the civilian population and firing its missiles from schoolyards and hospital parking lots. It spends much of its money on the manufacture of rockets and the construction of an elaborate network of tunnels for military use. Knowing the wars it plans, it doesn’t build shelters for its people.

Insofar as anyone genuinely cares about Gazans’ well-being, it is the foreign governments that send money (Qatar pays the salaries of the civil service) and the United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations working on the ground. One might also mention the state of Israel, which, until October 8, supplied half of Gaza’s electricity. (Cutting off the electricity was, I believe, morally wrong and politically stupid, but those who call it so should acknowledge the years of electric service, even while rockets were fired at Israel.)

What would Gaza look like if Hamas was a normal government? That’s hard to say, because normality is hard to come by in the Middle East today. But when Israel withdrew from the Strip (taking Jewish settlers with it) in 2005, there was excited talk of a Palestinian Hong Kong, with a seaport, an international airport, water-desalination plants, and much else—all of this funded with investment from abroad, chiefly from Western Europe and the Persian Gulf states. Hamas was not interested in anything like that, and all these projects faded with the first major barrage of rockets aimed at Israel in 2006. The definitive end came a year later when Hamas, having won a narrow election victory (the last election in Gaza) seized total power and murdered its opponents. What it wanted was not a prosperous Gaza but a base for a long-term war against Israel—and, later on, against Egypt’s control of the Sinai. Hamas’s rise to power, coupled with the group’s Islamist ideology, is what led to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, designed (not very successfully) to prevent Hamas from bringing weapons into the Strip.

In light of all this, to cast Hamas solely as an agent of resistance is to overlook a lot. It is a government that has failed its people. It is also a movement for Palestinian national liberation with a significant, but probably minority, following in Gaza and considerable influence throughout the Arab world. It is, finally, a movement that has chosen terror as its means of struggle—not as a last resort but as a matter of policy from its beginning. What are the obligations of a movement like that? I should say right now: Its first obligation is to reject terrorism.

Let’s pause here and look at a classic argument first worked out in a different liberation struggle—the class war of Europe’s and America’s workers. Lenin famously distinguished between “revolutionary” and “trade union” consciousness among the workers, the first directed toward the distant achievement of a communist society, the second aimed right now at higher wages, better working conditions, and the end of the factory foreman’s tyranny. Lenin favored the first and worried that any advance along trade-union lines would make revolution more difficult. Most workers, it turned out, favored the second approach. Revolutionary consciousness ended in dictatorship and terror or in defeat and sectarian isolation; trade-union consciousness led to the successes of social democracy.

That old distinction holds for national liberation too. In the case of Palestine and Israel, revolutionary consciousness aims at a radical triumph: Greater Palestine or Greater Israel “from the river to the sea.” That aim is often expressed in messianic language—the religious version of revolution. By contrast, trade-union consciousness is represented by those who work for a division of the land—two states, sovereign or federated or confederated. That may seem utopian right now, but it isn’t messianic. One can imagine it as a human contrivance, worked out by Palestinians and Jews who are committed concretely to the well-being of their people. We should judge Hamas, I would argue, by the standard of trade unionism because that kind of politics is genuinely responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people it aims to liberate.

Hamas has never been interested in the kinds of political work that follow from a “trade union” commitment. Begin with the obvious: Hamas should be making Gaza into a model of what a liberated Palestine would look like (perhaps, sadly, that’s what it has done). And then it should be organizing on the West Bank to achieve a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It should be working with Israeli opponents of the occupation and with other Palestinian groups for that version of liberation—which is achievable short of war and revolution. Two states (with whatever qualifications on their sovereignty) would be the most beneficial outcome for both Palestinians and Israelis. So Hamas should be building a mass movement with that end in view, a movement that would stand behind or, better yet, replace its revolutionary vanguard. It should be educating people for civil disobedience and planning marches, demonstrations, and general strikes. It should be working to strengthen Palestinian civil society and create the institutions of a future state.

Of course, Israel will make this work difficult; the current Israeli government will make it extremely difficult, because it includes religious messianists and ultranationalist settlers. Settler thugs regularly attack Palestinians living on the West Bank. Against the thugs, self-defense is required—force against force. But the goal of Palestinian “trade unionists,” a state of their own alongside Israel, requires a mass movement. Fatah, Hamas’s rival, produced something like that in the First Intifada, from 1987 to 1993; it wasn’t entirely nonviolent, but in some ways it resembled the nationalist version of a union strike. It played a large role in making the Oslo Accords possible. Hamas can’t claim any similar achievement; indeed, rockets from Gaza helped undermine Oslo.

There are people on the ground in the West Bank committed to nonviolent resistance and to constructive work of exactly the sort I’ve just described, but Hamas does not look at them as allies. Nor does it regard Palestinians in and around the Palestinian Authority who support the idea of two states as allies. It is committed to a revolutionary, totalizing politics. It insists not only on the replacement of the state of Israel by a Palestinian state but also—equally important to Hamas—on the end of any Jewish presence on what it regards as Arab land.

Hamas is not doing anything in a “trade union” way to build a liberation movement with more limited goals—a movement that might actually succeed. That kind of political work requires an organization less Bolshevik-like, less repressive, less rigidly ideological, more inclusive than Hamas has ever been. Hamas is a vanguard that isn’t looking for an organized rear guard. It is an elite of ready-to-be-martyrs who plan to liberate Palestine and eliminate Israel—not by themselves but only with those allies who won’t challenge their supremacy. They seek the help of the Arab street, excited by Hamas’s violence but not capable of replacing Hamas’s rule—and the help of movements and states that share Hamas’s zealotry and will never question its authoritarianism. The resort to terror follows. It is the natural expression of this kind of politics.

The most succinct argument against terror as a strategy for liberation comes from the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Although he wrote the essay “Their Morals and Ours”—one of the earliest versions of the bad argument that I began with—Trotsky also wrote critically about terrorism, arguing, accurately, that terrorists “want to make the people happy without the participation of the people.” The terrorists, Trotsky continues, mean to “substitute themselves for the masses.” Some on the left view that ambition as heroic and admire terrorists for that reason. But the politics of substitution is an authoritarian politics, not a leftist politics, precisely because it does not look for popular participation. Its end cannot be a democratic state: Algeria, long dominated by authoritarian FLN leaders, is a useful example of how things are likely to turn out. So is Gaza itself.

Terrorism is a betrayal of the oppressed men and women whom its protagonists claim to defend—and plan to rule. Because they substitute themselves for the people, they will, if victorious in their struggle, simply replace the oppressors they defeat. But this is only part of the story. What about the people the terrorists kill? Terrorism is the random killing of innocent men, women, and children for a political purpose. But its worst and most common form is not random in a general way but random within a group: the killing of Black people in the United States by police or by white men with guns, or of Europeans in Algeria, Muslims in India, or, as in the recent attacks, Jews in Israel. This kind of directed terror needs to be called out—as American activists did with the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” Remember the counter-slogan, “All Lives Matter,” that many people—including me—took to be a denial of the specific politics, the racial hatred, that drives the killing.

For similar reasons, we should give the attack of October 7 its right name: It was a pogrom, a massacre undertaken for the purpose of murdering Jews. People who refuse the term, saying instead that all killing of civilians is wrong, are right in the general way that “All Lives Matter” is right, but they are avoiding the crucial moral and political point.

Still, precisely because all lives do matter, we must also draw universal moral lines. What about you and me, random individuals, who are sitting in a café or attending a music festival and are suddenly blown up or machine-gunned by attackers who are deliberately trying to kill us? I can’t understand anyone on the left or the right who, when thinking of themselves in the café or at the festival, would say that such violence is all right. Surely we are all innocent: ordinary folk, going about daily business, thinking of politics only occasionally, worrying about money, looking after kids—or just being kids.

But aren’t men, women, and children just like these also the victims of war? Yes, and terrorism—the deliberate killing of innocent people—is often enough a military strategy, as it was, I believe, in the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. But that is not always true: Many armies and many soldiers aim only at military targets and do what they can to avoid or minimize civilian injury and death. That is especially difficult when the enemy deliberately exposes its civilian population to the risks of combat.

Civilian casualties are obviously much easier to avoid in the course of a political struggle. Those who resist oppression can focus and therefore have to focus narrowly on the oppressors. No good society, no liberated state, can be produced by denying life and liberty to the ordinary folk I have described. No good society without them. No good society without you and me! That is the fundamental principle of a decent politics. Terrorism is a deliberate, overt denial of that principle, and so the defenders of terrorism are the betrayers first of the oppressed and then of the rest of us. Like the terrorists, they may think that they are advancing the cause of liberation, but they have forgotten their obligations to you and me.

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