Hamas’s Jihad Vs. Arafat’s Struggle – OpEd


By Khinvraj Jangid 

The Israel-Palestine conflict is at the centre of international politics after the Hamas terrorist attack on Israelis on 7 October, the eve of Simcha Torah, following the long week of Sukkot and Kippur. Over 1,400 Israelis were killed, more than 3,000 were injured, and another 246 were abducted by Hamas – a loss not experienced by Israel inside its territory in the last seven decades. Declaring a war, Israel’s army has responded with air strikes and ground operations in Gaza that have killed more than 9,000 people. Israel’s retaliation is supported by the governments of the U.S., Europe and other powers, such as India, Japan and Australia. Simultaneously, thousands from West Asia, Europe and the U.S. are protesting the rising death toll from Israel’s actions in Gaza.

World leaders are conferring on how to bring this terrible situation to a close. But a solution seems distant largely because Hamas has conflated its goals with the Palestinian cause. Hamas, an armed group with an Islamist ethos, is a complex actor in the long struggle of the Palestinian movement for statehood. Founded in 1987-88, Hamas has been more of a rabble-rouser than a responsible liberation mission for the Palestinian cause. Two reasons for this: the Islamic Muslim brotherhood, which seeks the emancipation of the whole of Palestine as opposed to the two-state solution,[1] and the use of violence against Israeli civilians through suicide bombings starting in the 1990s. Hamas rose to fight Israel violently, opposing the authority and political leadership of Yasser Arafat, the quintessential Palestinian guerilla fighter and later, Nobel Peace winner.

In contrast, Yasser Arafat led an armed struggle against Israel through the famous Palestinian Liberation Organization. He was a guerilla fighter in the Middle East, believing that Palestine was lost by the vested interests of the Arab states in 1948 and that he should then fight for it with a gun. He was neither an Islamist nor a leftist, which would, in either case, have limited his outreach. With the blending of Islam, Marxism-Leninism, Arab Nationalism, and Third World radicalism during the 1960s, Arafat succeeded beyond expectations, in impactfully putting the Palestinian question forward for international attention. The United Nations (UN) invited him to address the General Assembly in 1974, an exceptional honour for one not representing a member state. That historic speech is still recalled for his famous sentence, “I have come bearing an olive branch and freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hands”.[2] He accepted the two-state solution in 1988 and joined the Oslo Peace Process, shaking the hand of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. It wasn’t a peace treaty, yet peacebuilding was worth the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994.

The Oslo Peace Process was a complex decision for Arafat. After fighting with guns, he realized that violence would not beget a Palestinian state. But in 1995, Arafat lost his Israeli counterpart: Rabin was tragically assassinated by Yigal Amir, a radical religious Jew who believed the territory of the West Bank was non-negotiable. Arafat was also facing radicals at home. The extremist groups of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad had risen during the early 1990s and did not want the Oslo Peace Process to succeed. The end of the conflict would a) be the end of their political and religious goals; b) a process that did not involve them and therefore had better not do well; and c) threatening the peace process was a shortcut to challenging the hegemony of secularist Yasser Arafat within the Palestinian national movement.

With the promising Oslo peace process of 1993, Arafat was at the pinnacle of his political career. Yet, he was called a traitor and sell-out to American money for sticking to the Oslo process.[3] He wasn’t a democratic leader and worked more like a feudal lord. He left behind a corrupt and notoriously ineffective organization. He was diplomatic and politically savvy and understood that acts of terror wouldn’t make Israel end the occupation. It had to be through dialogue and mutual trust. In Egypt, he spoke against the suicide bombing tactics of Hamas in a speech in 1996: “We are confronting and will continue to confront terrorism and to uproot it from our land, because our dream of freedom, independence, and self-determination cannot bear fruit and be realized amid a sea of blood and tears, but by perseverance in confronting this terrorism and these extremist and dangerous wings of Hamas and the [Islamic] Jihad”[4].

Mohammad Dajani, a well-known Palestinian peace activist and professor from Jerusalem, recently wrote about the failed Oslo peace process, “For his part, Yasser Arafat had adopted an odd Chinese-style military suit for the four decades prior to Oslo. He did not shelve this suit after Oslo and could not shift, as Nelson Mandela did, from his role as a freedom fighter to becoming a suave diplomat. Under pressure from Palestinian extremists, Arafat came to feel that the Oslo Accords failed to fulfill his political ambitions of becoming the Saladin of this era”.[5]

The Oslo Peace Process did not bear much fruit for the Palestinians or Israelis. The spoiler was Hamas, with its jihadi calls for the cause of Palestine and rejection of peace initiatives. Over the last two decades, its radical religious ethos and suicide bombings against the civilians of Israel in the Second Intifada, known as Al-Aqsa Intifada, hardened positions all around and weakened the will for peace.

About the author: Dr Khinvraj Jangid is an Associate Professor and Director Centre for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He is visiting faculty at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, for 2022-2024.

Source: This article was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.


[1] Hamas Charter of 1988 called for the liberation of the whole of Palestine. In 2017, Khaled Mashal as head of Hamas moderated this extremist position when he said Hamas is willing to have full peace with Israel within the 1967 borders (a Palestinian state in West Bank, Gaza and East of Jerusalem). For more see: Hamas: From Resistance to Regime by Paola Caridi (2012).

[2] Yasser Arafat General Assembly Speech, United Nations, 1 January 1974. https://www.unmultimedia.org/classics/asset/C792/C792a/

[3] Judith Miller (2004), Yasir Arafat, Father and Leader of the Palestinian Nationalism, dies at 75, The New York Times, 11 November 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/11/world/middleeast/yasir-arafat-father-and-leader-of-palestinian-nationalism.html Emad Moussa (2021), Martyr, villain, traitor? Yasser Arafat’s complicated legacy, 17 years after his death, The New Arab, 10 November 2021. https://www.newarab.com/opinion/martyr-villain-traitor-yasser-arafats-complicated-legacy

[4] Bary Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin (2003), Yasser Arafat: A Political Biography, Oxford University Press, page 173.

[5] Mohammed Dajani (2023), The Oslo Accords Held Promise; Extremists Derailed them, The Washington Institute for the Near East Policy, 1 September 2023. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/oslo-accords-held-promise-extremists-derailed-them

Gateway House

Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations is a foreign policy think-tank established in 2009, to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs. Gateway House’s studies programme will be at the heart of the institute’s scholarship, with original research by global and local scholars in Geo-economics, Geopolitics, Foreign Policy analysis, Bilateral relations, Democracy and nation-building, National security, ethnic conflict and terrorism, Science, technology and innovation, and Energy and Environment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *