US university protests are more about America's political civil war than Israel and Gaza

The demonstrations are a phenomenon of the country's increasingly divisive election cycles

Dozens of students and other protesters have been arrested across the US in the past month. Getty
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The protesters that have gripped US university campuses over the past few weeks are ostensibly there to oppose President Joe Biden's support for Israel and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially in light of the egregious civilian death toll in Gaza. Protesters are appalled with the way Mr Netanyahu continues to receive billions of dollars in American military and economic aid to help carry out his war. And he receives these things despite his constant embarrassment of the US and the open disregard for Mr Biden.

But while the central focus of these protests is, indeed, Israel's war in Gaza, they have struggled with accusations of political naivety and anti-Semitism. The latter appears to have become a default accusation against those opposing the Gaza war, as if there were no Jewish students among the protesters and as if to say the world must accept crimes against humanity out of fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. This scenario recalls the familiar post-9/11 equation of “you're either with us or you're against us”.

Yet those who have taken to protesting Israel's rejection of a ceasefire without mentioning Hamas militant group's rejection of the same overlook the militants’ own history of hindering the two-state solution alongside Israel. They ignore Hamas policies that have exacerbated Palestinian divisions, and the group’s nature as an Islamic resistance movement rather than a Palestinian national movement.

Indeed, Israel and Hamas are two sides of the same coin when it comes to their stances on the two-state solution, which garners international consensus. Israel helped create Hamas to undermine the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's march towards a two-state solution as envisioned in the Oslo Accords, which Palestinians took seriously while Israel regarded it as a temporary distraction. Therefore, it is both hypocritical and duplicitous when western officials demand Hamas accept the two-state solution without making it a serious condition for Israel as well.

Gaza is the victim of both extreme Jewish right wing in Israel and Palestinian Islamic extremism. Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, knows full well that Israel will not cease its war and will invade Rafah unless he offers significant concessions approaching capitulation. He knows that thousands more of Palestinian civilians will otherwise pay their lives for the sake of his agenda, against their will, if he remains rigid in his negotiations with Israel. Mr Sinwar's battle is existential, as is Mr Netanyahu’s. This battle of extremisms is existential for both the right-wing in Israel and the Islamic resistance in Gaza.

Therefore, those who simplify and reduce it to resistance against Israeli occupation either ignore or deliberately forget that Hamas's agenda is not to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state, but rather to save Hamas from Israel's threats to crush it so that it remains in control of Gaza and continues its Islamic project – the project of the Muslim Brotherhood – and not the project of Palestinian statehood. It is premature to interpret any of Hamas's recent, less combative messages as a turn towards moderation, constructive partnership with the PLO and respect for the principles of the Palestinian Authority's establishment.

Israel and Hamas are two sides of the same coin when it comes to their stances on the two-state solution

This is a reality that student movements in the US do not consider as some of their members raise Hamas flags and focus on protesting Israel. In doing so, they leave themselves exposed because these same students do not condemn Hamas, neither for what it committed on October 7 nor for its ongoing prioritisation of self-preservation over the interests of Palestinians.

Many Arab students from overseas, in particular, who participate in the protests believe they are making history and have risked their academic futures to do so. But it is particularly important for them to be aware that this division in America did not originate on October 7; it has a history of its own. It is an internal American polarisation related to the Republican and Democratic camps in the presidential elections. And their battle is intensifying.

Mr Biden's position is becoming more difficult because the university protests today appear to echo those accompanied the Vietnam War, even if they are not truly of the same nature or scale. What matters is the impression that these protests are affecting the political system in the US. And Mr Biden is concerned.

The woke left within the Democratic Party is gaining strength because of the university protests, and it has found a good rallying point in the Palestinian cause. This strand of the left does not care whether what it is doing will weaken Mr Biden in the face of Trump – what it wants is to change Mr Biden himself. This branch of the left is a problem for the Democratic Party because it compromises the part while doing nothing to weaken Donald Trump.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, draws huge support from the extremist fringe of his own party. He is also inherently unpredictable and easy to provoke; we don’t know, for instance, how he might have reacted if he were in the White House during these protests.

It is hard to say what will happen as the electoral calendar progresses and the extremes of both parties continue to try to push their leaders. Mr Biden may try to stick to winning votes through domestic issues, or he may try to shore up support from his own party by doing something drastic with respect to Ukraine or Gaza. He needs to win the election, and because of that, maybe everything is permissible.

Published: May 05, 2024, 2:00 PM