(June 7, 2021 / JNS) Following another round of violence, terror and destruction in which the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israeli citizens, oversaw the destruction of its own infrastructure and brought unimaginable pain to citizens in the Gaza Strip, the Resistance Axis declared victory. Observers were rightly shocked by such infantile and irresponsible behavior. Yet, given the symbolic nature of Middle Eastern life, Hamas did not mean for its victory to be measured by human lives nor dollars, but with significant symbolic gains. Once again, Israelis are the center of Middle Eastern power struggles.
Can Hamas overcome Israel in any military action? I don’t believe anyone would think so, including the leaders of the Iranian-led Resistance Axis. Even those terrorist leaders are mostly intelligent, the goals of their actions are otherwise.
Given the statements by Hamas leaders, Iran and Hezbollah, one should not dismiss their triumphalism as mere fiction. Those statements are meant to capitalize on significant symbolic gains that Hamas achieved in the last round of violence. In the 1950s and 1960s, various regional powers were engaged in intense conflicts over who owned the rights to the symbolic powers of “Arab-ness.” The rise of Islamism since the late 1970s replaced the stumbling Arabist symbolic system with the more powerful and stable symbolic arsenal of Islam. In a previous article, I point to how the Muslim Brotherhood is a project lacking meaningful political substance and completely relies on symbols.
This reality of Middle Eastern politics is the reason many Western experts with professional training in power balancing, military capacity and force projection fail to understand the region. When Hamas leader Khaled Mashal recently stated, “Hamas now leads the Palestinian struggle,” he was not alluding to military capabilities or diplomatic influence, but precisely to the symbolic goal that Hamas is trying to achieve. The Iranian support and the recent remarks by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, were steps towards tapping into recent symbolic gains.
Israelis keep pointing to the fact that events in Jerusalem, Gaza and the Israeli interior were not connected. Although this is empirically true, symbolic activities are by definition transcendent and not bound by empirical reality. Iran and Hamas saw a golden opportunity for a power grab when the events of Sheikh Jarrah and Jerusalem made their way into the mainstream media, particularly given the recent decline of Islamism in the region since 2013, the cancellation of Palestinian elections and the ongoing negotiations in Vienna about the Iran nuclear deal.
Events that take place in Jerusalem are already an extremely powerful symbol, as the city holds value for the Islamic ultimate moral truth. Ramadan, when most of the violence occurred, is the most saturated time of the year for the world’s Muslims as time itself becomes consecrated. Iran and Hamas saw a perfect moment when a sacred space intersected with a sacred time.
Hamas’s domestic goal was to support mobilization against the Palestinian Authority, clearly achieved as West Bank Palestinians and eastern Jerusalem Palestinians rallied around the banners of Hamas and even expelled the P.A.’s imam from the Al-Aqsa mosque during Friday prayers; they had successfully achieved support from the local Muslim population. Likewise, following the 2013 removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, the popularity of the Brotherhood and all its Islamist associates witnessed a sharp decline. Arab regimes declared outright war on Islamism both symbolically and materially; the effects were felt by all of the so-called Resistance Axis.
To start a war with Israel “for Jerusalem,” was, by this logic, not a foolish or ill-calculated step. It was an extremely clever move in which Hamas and the coalition of which it is a part were able to upstage their regional rivals—Egypt and the Arab Gulf—as the custodians of the most valuable symbols in the region and to bring back the “Palestinian cause” to the forefront of the agenda. Middle Eastern power struggles are all about legitimacy and illegitimacy. Seen this way, this indeed was a victory. Egypt was compelled to walk back on its hard-headed anti-Hamas positions: Egyptian TV is interviewing Hamas resistance heroes, something that would have been unthinkable only a year ago; Hezbollah is able to strengthen its position in the midst of the Lebanese economic crisis; and Iran continued outbid the Arabs in the most symbolically consequential cause as the representatives of Islam. This is all in addition to Qatar becoming propaganda headquarters during the crisis. Seen this way, Hamas’s declaration of victory poses serious challenges for the region. Given this culturally frustrating reality of the Middle East, the Palestinian scene is likely to only get more complex.
Internationally, the situation is not much different. Gradual and consequential cultural changes throughout the last decades created a clear shift in American-led global culture from a word-based culture to symbol- and image-based culture, in which politics through symbols is more expedient. In other words, American culture is starting to gradually resemble that of the Middle East.
As such a shift moves further, Palestinian symbolism will become more intelligible to wider segments of Western societies than arguments for Israel. Pro-Palestinian activists and even Palestinians themselves are already capitalizing through the strategic deployment of the name of George Floyd and references to Black Lives Matter, so-called “equality” and so on. If such a trend continues, making any empirical or fact-based arguments for the rights of a Jewish state will be extremely difficult. After all, to be Jewish is to be bookish.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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