Tareq Baconi, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Tareq Baconi (TB): I decided to write this book in the summer of 2014, against the backdrop of Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip. I was in London and had just completed my PhD in International Relations, which I had been working on as a part-time project alongside my career in management consulting. I had embarked on the PhD as a personal intellectual endeavor to learn more about Israel/Palestine, and through that, my family history. Until that point, I had not entertained any thoughts about turning my PhD, which focused on Hamas’s politicization over the course of the decade 2000-2010, into a book.
That summer (of 2014), I remember a feeling of crippling helplessness at the tragedy befalling, yet again, the Gaza Strip. I struggled to both find meaning in the research I was doing and to connect that research with the urgency of the suffering on the ground. I spoke with my supervisor about what I felt was the futility of the academy, and he patiently reminded me about the importance of “bearing witness.” His words resonated deeply. I decided to expand my project into a book that might play some role, however small, in balancing the mainstream narrative on Hamas and the Gaza Strip. I left my job at the end of that summer and embarked on the research and writing that culminated in this book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
TB: Hamas Contained positions Hamas as a constituent part of the Palestinian national movement, and as such, engages primarily with literature around the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and the Israeli occupation.
However, given Hamas’s particular nature, the book also converses with literature beyond Israel/Palestine. Hamas’s dual Islamism and dedication to armed struggle for liberation complicates discussions around Political Islam and terrorism, and the book engages with literatures around both of these topics directly as well.
The book also draws on the theoretical fields of discourse analysis as it interrogates the relationship between representation and reality. Given Hamas’s nature as a secretive movement, where there is little access to its internal deliberations, insight into the movement was drawn from its publications as well as interviews across its rank and file members. Engagement with critical discourse analysis theory provided the underpinnings for drawing insight into Hamas from its public self-representation.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
TB: My work has primarily focused on the contemporary geopolitics of the Middle East. For the majority of my non-academic career, I have been active in the field of energy, and involved in projects relating to oil, gas, and renewable energy across the Middle East and North Africa. My interest in current affairs arose from observing how the energy landscape shapes state foreign relations and the domestic politics between governments and their citizens.
Hamas Contained, in that sense, is less directly connected to my area of professional expertise but rather to my academic training and graduate research, which began in the field of International Relations, and Israel/Palestine specifically.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
TB: I wrote Hamas Contained with one goal in mind: to recount Hamas’s thirty year history on its own terms. The book uses, almost exclusively, primary Arabic archival material that was published by Hamas over the course of its existence with the goal of presenting, deciphering, and understanding Hamas’s own thinking on various milestones in its history. The objective was to sidestep the increasingly toxic and polemical context in which any conversation on Hamas unfolds and to offer a thorough and rigorously researched account that is grounded in Hamas’s own self-perception. The hope, which is far from certain of course, is that such an analysis could inject a greater level of understanding and spur productive thinking around the current reality on the ground. This is a reality where Hamas is used as a fig-leaf to justify an illegal Israeli-Egyptian blockade that imposes collective punishment on the two-million Palestinian inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.
With that goal in mind, my ideal readers include both scholars and an informed public conversant in any of the disciplines around the modern Middle East, Israel/Palestine, Political Islam or terrorism studies. It was my goal in the book that readers, from undergraduate students to policymakers, would be able to step beyond the reductionist narratives that dominate the media and reflect on the broader context in which Hamas exists in order to develop an understanding of the movement that is grounded in reality rather than propaganda.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
TB: This is a very interesting time to be working on and engaged in the question of Palestine. Palestinians are currently living in a moment of transition as they enter into the next phase of their struggle for liberation. While the international community still has to adjust to the present post-Oslo reality, developments on the ground—within the occupied territories, within Israel and throughout the Diaspora—are already signaling the future trajectory of this shift. Is the Palestinian quest for self-determination transitioning into a rights-based struggle? What are the implications of such a shift? How might Palestinian political institutions adjust to demands that move away from the core goal of national self-determination towards calls for equality, justice, and freedom? How can institutions be developed that might harness the power of grassroots mobilization into an effective liberation strategy? These are some of the questions that I am currently preoccupied with.
In the longer term, I continue to be interested in the contemporary geopolitics of the wider Middle East. I’m currently in the early stages of conceptualizing a new project that looks at the intersection between natural resources and conflict. In particular, I’m interested in exploring how challenges such as energy insecurity or water scarcity become themselves drivers of instability and conflict both within and between states. What are the implications of the fundamental flux taking place in the global oil and gas markets on regional politics? How might various states respond to the rising challenge of water scarcity, which may become a major source of conflict in the medium term?
J: How does your work speak to contemporary dynamics in Gaza and within Palestinian politics?
TB: For the past decade, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been experiencing increasingly horrific living conditions as a result of the hermitic sealing of the coastal enclave. The blockade that has been imposed on the Gaza Strip has ostensibly been placed as a reaction to Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007. In reality, however, the blockade follows from systems of enclosure and separation that Israel began enacting officially on the Gaza Strip since the early 1990s. Hamas’s takeover merely provided Israel with the justification it needed to formalize Gaza’s separation from the remainder of the Palestinian territories, a prerequisite for its goal of maintaining a Jewish-majority state while sustaining its control of the territories in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
When studying Hamas and the Gaza Strip, it is imperative to place both these subject matters within the broader context of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, rather than studying them as separate standalone entities. The Israeli occupation framework has been depressingly effective at instituting systems of fragmentation among the Palestinian people. Such fragmentation has also made its way into the academy, where movements such as Hamas are often studied in a silo, as if their role within the Palestinian political establishment is anomalous or tangential. While working to address the humanitarian suffering in the Gaza Strip, in whatever capacity, we must continue to see this as merely one facet of the broader Palestinian predicament, and to understand Gaza as one microcosm of the Palestinian experience.
Excerpt from the Book:
Gaza’s reality can be jarring to any outsider wading in. Tragedy has become routinized, almost mundane, particularly for a younger generation, many of whom know no other life outside this imprisoned land. Initially, one could be forgiven for being lulled into a sense of relative normalcy. During the short time I was allowed to spend there, Gaza bustled with life. Streets were filled with vendors. Cafés teemed with patrons breaking the fast. College campuses heaved with students and faculty attending summer courses. Traffic crept slowly. Night markets and thoroughfares came to life on piers that jutted out over the water from Gaza’s sandy beaches. Hotel lobbies were filled with journalists and filmmakers. Yet this illusion of life was shattered far too easily and often. Collapsed buildings sprung into view and humming drones interrupted conversations. Proud flags declaring Hamas’s military training sites fluttered as one drove through various cities. Life unfolded against a physical and mental backdrop of destruction. The daily hive of activity that one walked into was little more than a testament to what Gaza could be, in an alternate reality. The quotidian goings-on of Palestinians there spoke of the human spirit of survival and appeared to me, at least, to be a tragic manifestation of endless motion in stillness. Students graduated into unemployment. Vendors sold to cover their costs. Families shopped to survive.
Gaza is held in time, contained from the outside world, nurtured just enough to subsist, never to grow. My time there coincided with the anniversary of Israel’s 2014 operation on this narrow coastal enclave. Thousands of Palestinians had been killed. Major swathes of land had been bombed so thoroughly that whole neighborhoods were reduced to mounds of rubble. Infrastructure that was already depleted by years of deprivation under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade was wiped out. Walking through the remnants of neighborhoods, I saw how reconstruction had barely commenced. The landscape of chaos and devastation that had filled news screens a year earlier had given way to a state of controlled collapse. Debris had been swept aside, piled into empty plots of land or dumped in landfills where people hoped it would eventually be used as raw material for rebuilding. Rickety bombed-out houses reverted to homes for families who had nowhere else to go. Vanished walls were replaced with colorful cloths to give the illusion of privacy.
I stood in an open plain in north Gaza and looked over at Sderot, a town in southern Israel. If ever there was a reminder of the political nature of Gaza’s tragedy, it was that snapshot. The juxtaposition of Sderot’s manicured tree lines and white houses with Gaza’s postapocalyptic landscape elucidated the stark discrepancy in what constituted “life” across the few kilometers that separated those two places. I was one of the privileged handful able to move between those vastly divergent worlds. Standing there, I thought of the little boy whose classmates had been killed in 2014. I recalled speaking with an Israeli woman in a town north of Tel Aviv a few days earlier. As we sat around a dinner table, she bemoaned Israel’s militarization and compulsory army service. The woman was heartbroken that her eighteen-year-old son had been forced to participate in Israel’s operation that summer. He had returned a changed man, a hardened one, she cried. “Being forced to kill and to see death is a terrible burden on one’s conscience,” she protested.
“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister, is rumored to have said. “We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
On both sides of the Erez crossing (known to Palestinians as the Beit Hanoun crossing), the main civilian border separating the Gaza Strip from Israel, dehumanization was rampant. I sat in the passenger seat of a speeding and poorly maintained car hurtling across Gaza’s traffic lights in an effort to reach my host’s home before the mosque’s muezzin announced the end of the fast. I was speaking with my driver, a teenager too young to be driving, who was coming up to his last year at school. I asked him what he wanted to do postgraduation—always a fraught topic in a place like Gaza. He said he “was thinking of joining the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades,” Hamas’s military wing. I had seen posters throughout the city and on mosque walls announcing that registration was open for their summer training camps. A few of his friends had apparently signed up. Why, I asked. He replied that he wanted to “fight the Jews.” He’d never seen one in real life, he added, but he had seen the F-16s dropping the bombs.
Almost a decade into the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which had begun in earnest in 2007, “Jew,” “Israeli,” and “F-16” had become synonymous. A few years prior, this boy’s father would have been able to travel into Israel, to work as a day laborer or in menial jobs. While it would have been structurally problematic, that man would have nonetheless interacted with Israeli Jews, even Palestinian citizens of Israel, in a nonmilitarized way. This is no longer the case. One could see in my driver how the foundation was laid for history to repeat itself. Resistance had become sacred, a way of living in which he could take a great deal of pride serving his nation. On the other side of the Erez crossing, he and his schoolmates were deemed terrorists. Gaza was viewed as a backward and enemy-ridden enclave, heavily populated and disintegrating under the weight of its own misery, loathing, and incompetence. An Israeli man reacted with horror when I told him I was going into Gaza. “Where will you stay? They have hotels there?” They do. Beautiful hotels. He shrugged. “They got what was coming to them last summer.” Against the backdrop of flares and explosions lighting up Gaza’s night skies during Israeli military incursions, some Israelis trek up to raised viewing points, sit on couches, and eat popcorn while watching the “fireworks” over the beleaguered land.
More than two million Palestinians now live in the Gaza Strip. That makes it an urban population larger than most American cities. But the human dimension, so visceral to anyone who walks the streets of any city in the strip, is almost an afterthought, if a thought at all, to many who think of this place. The image of Gaza as a terrorist haven has been all-consuming. As has its image as a war-torn pile of rubble, sterile and devoid of life. The collective punishment of millions has become permissible, comprehensible, and legitimate. Destroying schools and targeting UN shelters, as Israel did in 2014, are military tactics that have been justified as essential for Israel to defend itself against terror. The killing of more than five hundred children during that same operation for many becomes little more than an unfortunate necessity.
Sitting at the heart of this perception, indeed the catalyst that produces it, is Hamas, the party that has ruled over the Gaza Strip since 2007. Given prevalent media discourse, one might be forgiven for thinking that Israel has besieged and bombarded Gaza because it has been faced with a radical terrorist organization in the form of Hamas. But as this book shows, the reality is more complex and is one in which the fates of Gaza and Hamas have been irreversibly intertwined in the Palestinian struggle for liberation from an interminable occupation.