Reflections on MK and Hamas

Ariel Goldberg asks what, if anything, the two organisations have in common

An invaluable opportunity to reflect

7 December 2023

On 7 October 2023, the world silently watched scores of militants from the Islamic Resistance Movement, aka “Hamas”, maim and massacre hundreds of innocent civilians across Southern Israel. Videos, pictures, and witness testimonies further corroborated the massacres, as well as the kidnapping of over 200 innocent people taken hostage in Gaza. Among the victims are citizens of over 15 countries, including South Africa, America, France, Germany and Mexico.

The massacre led to global outcry and to a plethora of world leaders and governments condemning Hamas’ actions as unadulterated terrorism. Despite this, several other governments, including that of the South Africa, have not condemned the violence as terrorism, but rather as acts of resistance and a justifiable reaction of an oppressed national liberation movement. This difference of global opinion has granted an invaluable opportunity to reflect on the nature of terrorism and national liberation.

A comprehensive and universal definition of terrorism can be difficult to isolate. For the purpose of this discussion, a commonly used definition of terrorism of non-state actors is located in Article 2.1 of the UN’s International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.

This 1999 convention stipulates that terrorism is an “act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act”.

Almost in the same breath, a “national liberation movement” can be understood to mean “armed non-state actors who are defined by their objective (self-determination), the quality of their constituency (peoples) and the conduct and/or quality of the opposing government.” Essentially, “national liberation movements constitute the self-help vehicle of peoples to achieve self-determination”.

Given the nature of conflict, many groups claiming to be liberation movements commit actions which are described as terrorism. The use of violence results in an overlap between the two movements, which appear to be extremely difficult to disentangle. Commonly, terrorism and national liberation appear to be two sides of the same coin, with only perspective being the defining characteristic of the actions or movement in question.

The famous adage of “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” rings true for many historical and current struggles. Furthermore, history has shown that governments understand the power of labels and use the brand of terrorism to demonise national liberation movements to challenge their credibility. A pertinent example relevant to the South African perspective is Mkhonto weSizwe’s (“MK”) armed struggle against Apartheid.

Since liberation groups can be maligned with the label of terrorism, it is essential that one evaluates the legitimacy of the terrorism label, whilst simultaneously analysing the credentials of a liberation movement. Such an analysis requires an understanding of the relevant movement’s founding doctrine and contrasting this with its violent actions. To illustrate this approach, a useful case study is that of MK.

MK’s founding doctrine stresses that its “struggle is to win the active support and participation of all who resist oppression, discrimination, poverty and injustice.”, whilst ultimately fighting to “liberate our oppressed and exploited people.” Furthermore, the organisation uses “the Freedom Charter; it defines the goals of all democrats regardless of colour, race or creed” and even considers the Geneva Convention concerning treatment of prisoners of war and the value of Democracy. Critically, the organisation sought to avoid civilian casualties but recognised that such sacrifices may have to be made in the pursuit of democracy.

Soon after its founding, the South African government, as well as several other foreign governments, designated MK as a terrorist entity and considered its actions as terrorism. This label negatively affected the MK’s financial and moral position in several states and damaged its reputation as a viable avenue of liberation from Apartheid. However, the organisation went on to militarily combat the Apartheid regime and the historical record testifies to the aims and consequences of its armed resistance.

After 1994, the MK’s submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (“TRC”) highlighted that over the course of 1,555 attacks documented by the Apartheid Police Services, approximately 52 civilians and 17 non-civilians were killed. An alternative Police report lists up to 100 civilians killed between 1976 and 1986.

Both testimonies and records of MK and the Apartheid authorities highlight the organisation’s deliberate targeting of government property and personnel, as well as the unfortunate outcome of civilian casualties. MK openly admitted that sowing fear among the general populace was an important psychological weapon in its arsenal; however, it reminded the TRC that it remained committed to the ultimate goal of the Apartheid’s demise and subsequent birth of Democracy.

Critically, both the MK’s founding principles and behaviour throughout its fight against Apartheid matter when evaluating the validity of its initial “terrorism” label. As shown above, the MK demonstrates clear properties and characteristics of both terrorist and liberation groups. However, its behaviour and founding principles clearly highlight its true aim and credentials as a national liberation movement, over a terrorist entity. The MK’s example perfectly illustrates the usage of the terrorism label as an effective political tool and not necessarily a reflection of reality.

However, just as terrorism can be used to malign activities of groups seeking justice and peace, the claim of a national liberation movement can also shield groups from increased scrutiny, responsibility, and accountability for their violent actions.

This is highlighted by the case of Hamas. Since Hamas’ founding in 1987, the majority of the world has embraced the group as a national liberation movement. Its 1988 charter highlights that it will “back the oppressed and support the wronged with all its might. It will spare no effort to bring about justice and defeat injustice, in word and deed, in this place and everywhere it can reach and have influence therein”. It goes on to emphasise the importance of aiding those in need, explaining that “mutual social responsibility means extending assistance, financial or moral, to all those who are in need”. Finally, Hamas’ enshrines its liberatory aim as to “liberate Palestine”.

The above seemingly contrasts favourably with the guiding principles of the MK. A focus on unlocking freedom and justice for all, while simultaneously uplifting the oppressed – the aforementioned lines could easily have been lifted from South Africa’s Freedom Charter. Indeed, the South African government considers Hamas to be the pedigree national liberation movement of the Palestinian people.

However, the events which unfolded on 7 October 2023 has provided the world with a reality check to reflect on the notion of terrorism and liberation movement. Specifically, whether Hamas should be branded as a terrorist organisation, and not merely a national liberation movement.

A key difference between MK and Hamas is the blatant hatred enshrined in Hamas’ founding principles. Hamas’ charter is peppered with religious extremism and emphasises its “struggle against the Jews” and stresses that the “Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews”. Consequently, Hamas’ solution is that Jihad is required to “fight with the warmongering Jews”.

This unashamed antisemitism is a central pillar of the Hamas’ creation and fixation, as well as its core goal of dismantling Israel. This is highlighted by Article 1 of Hamas’ charter where it states that, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it…”, and further demonstrated within Article 32, where the Islamic Resistance Movement draws inspiration from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a viciously antisemitic publication, to support its antisemitic views on Jews.

Finally, unlike MK, Hamas sees a peaceful solution to the question of Palestinian liberation as a “contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement” and will not accept any proposed peace processes, or historical peace agreements with Israel. Notably, it avidly disavows the praised Oslo Accords and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Hamas’ actions also differ significantly from those of the MK. Whereas the MK focused on attacking and sabotaging government personal and property, it simultaneously accepted civilian deaths as an unfortunate consequence of its struggle. Conversely, Hamas has unashamedly targeted civilians. It has openly claimed responsibility for indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians, as well as the proud killing hundreds of Israeli citizens through suicide bombers, shootings, and stabbing attacks over the decades since its founding.

Hamas’ twisted ideology and purpose manifested perfectly on 7th of October 2023. Over the course of 48 hours, the internet was flooded by disturbing images and videos posted by Hamas showing incidents of beheadings, torture, rape, executions of children, women, and elderly Jews, as well as the burning of civilians. Hundreds of civilians were brutally murdered across southern Israel, with Hamas’ sheer brutality being epitomised by the 250 innocent people mercilessly gunned down at a music festival in Southern Israel, while more than 200 people were taken hostage in Gaza. Children as young as 9 months old are included among the hostages.

Notwithstanding the clear and cold-blooded murder carried out by Hamas, October 7 has actually given the world an incredible opportunity: a moment to reflect on who we see as freedom fighters and who we see as terrorists.

If we utilise this critical framework in tandem with the actions of Hamas and liberation movements such as MK, we arrive at a new rubicon - one which unashamedly admits that the label Hamas currently assumes to carry is misleading and dangerous. Despite its claim to be a national liberation movement, Hamas’ purposeful destruction of civilian life and clear rejection of peaceful processes for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shatter its credibility. Crucially, admission of Hamas as a terrorist organisation does not result in one disavowing the Palestinian struggle for self-determination or the Two-State solution. It is merely acknowledging a terrible reality of this decades long conflict.

What does this realisation mean?

It encourages and guides us as a society to forge a new perspective of the conflict, as well as a different source of peace without the perverting force of terrorism. As individuals’ part of the global community, we all need to play our own unique role in being a force for good and justice. Although the current situation in the Middle East is complex, and the prospects of peace seemingly dissolving with every fresh incidence of violence, perhaps a new approach is required to unlock an agreement.

And since no exact recipe for peace exists just yet, perhaps a first step is recognising terrorism for what it truly is.