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Terrorism and resistance: the Hamas campaign against Israel

The first part of this two-part series examined how extremism, in the form of the ruling Likud party and right-wing settler influence, has permeated the Israeli political establishment. Consequently, the prospect of a viable political settlement has been sorely diminished and that of long-term Israeli security undercut. This second part examines Palestinian extremists' use of violence in pursuit of political ends.

Historically, the use of violence by Palestinians has had strategic political goals and has spanned the gamut from legitimate resistance against colonial and foreign domination to terrorism.

In the "militant" phase from 1948 to 1974, the stated goal was the use of continual and asymmetric warfare against a vastly militarily superior Israeli enemy to achieve the "total liberation" of Palestine and the return of all Palestinian refugees to their homes.

In 1974, on the heels of the Arab defeats in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, a fundamental shift occurred. The PLO, without giving up its right of resistance under international law, adopted a strategy of utilizing political means to achieve its primary goal of statehood.

Rejectionist and fringe PLO groups, often manipulated by Arab regimes, continued to use violence and terror against Israeli and other civilian targets, but by and large, the dominant Palestinian political trend was toward a negotiated political settlement based on two states. This has been official American policy since 1967 and has been endorsed by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel a comprehensive peace and full normalization with every Arab country with the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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Significant progress toward a two-state solution seemed to have been made with the 1993 Oslo Accords, but that agreement left most of the territory and the control of resources, like water and taxes, in Israel's hands. As a result, when relations began to deteriorate, Israel always retained the upper hand, which it used to pressure and subdue the Palestinian territories.

Even more dramatically, Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 still left Israel with life-and-death control of the territory's borders and resources, aggravating an already serious state of destitution.

The rise of Hamas beginning in the late 1980s was initially facilitated by Israel as a way to counter the influence of the PLO and diminish support for it, as well as to weaken the Intifada, the mostly nonviolent uprising Palestinians living under desperate conditions of Israeli domination waged in the occupied territories in 1988.

The blowback from this Israeli policy became apparent when Hamas soon deployed violence in support of its declared aim of destroying Israel as well as in its internal competition with the PLO, from which Hamas hoped to wrest public support and political authority.

Beneath their political rivalries, Hamas and the PLO represent opposed ideologies. Rooted in the Arab Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s, the PLO and Fatah, its leading party, are essentially secular in their outlook, and so relatively more pragmatic in their politics. Hamas, with roots in political Islam, holds to an agenda inspired by the Quran, and so can be more doctrinaire.

For a short time after the 2006 elections, when Hamas controlled the government on the West Bank, it showed moderation, even protecting Christian churches from attacks by radicals. But after the 2007 Fatah-Hamas conflict, where Hamas took unilateral control of Gaza (and the PLO regained control of the West Bank), Hamas has endeavored to impose Shariah law on the territory.

Capitalizing on the continued failure of political negotiations to achieve a Palestinian state, continued Israeli expropriation of Palestinian land and resources for Israeli settlements, and the increasing desperation of Palestinians living under a brutal Israeli military occupation, Hamas conducted a bloody campaign against Israel.

Hamas' armed opposition initially took the form of terrorism with suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Today, this violence has evolved, as seen in the recent Gazan war, to indiscriminate rocket fire against Israeli territory and more conventional attacks against Israeli military targets.

Despite the cycle of conflict, surveys of both Palestinians and Israelis have consistently shown a majority favoring a two-state solution. A June poll of the Palestinian public found a majority still supporting such a solution, as well as wanting the Palestinian unity government between the PLO and Hamas to accept existing agreements with Israel.

Extremism and support for it among Palestinians remains directly related to negotiations toward a viable and independent Palestinian state. Israel's real problem remains, as the New York Times writes, "instability from the failure to negotiate a sovereign Palestinian state and finally fix its borders."

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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