In January 2008 Hamas militants blew up a section of an 8 meter high metal barrier built by the Israeli army in 2002 along the so-called ‘Philadelphia Corridor’ that constitutes the border zone between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. In reaction to the breaching of the barrier, which had been under Egyptian control since the Israelis withdrew from the border in 2005, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians poured into Egypt to buy unavailable goods.
At a practical level the destruction of the barrier temporarily lifted the economic siege of Gaza enforced by the Israeli state since Hamas took control of the territory in 2006. Yet this action can also be understood as an example of the kind of ‘creative destruction’ that W. J. T. Mitchell has identified as a consequence of particular kinds of iconoclasm. This destruction is creative because it destroys and creates at the same time, annihilating iconic forms such as sculptures and buildings, while at the same time generating new images of these very acts of violence. Thus the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001 destroyed these symbols of American capitalism and also resulted in the proliferation of myriad images of the buildings on fire and collapsing that became the focus of celebration, mourning, and calls for revenge. This is why Mitchell has suggested a symmetry between iconoclasm and idolatry. The iconoclast attacks the idols of the other, but at the same time produces ‘”secondary images” that are, in their way, forms of idolatry just as potent as the primary idols they seek to displace.’ (W. J. T. Mitchell, What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images, The University of Chicago Press, 2005: 21)
By blowing up the barrier between Gaza and Egypt, Hamas sought to destroy an Israeli built structure that was the physical and symbolic manifestation of the enclosure of the Palestinians. A structure that was the subject of Palestinian hatred, but also, one might suggest, the subject of Israeli idolatry for an exclusive nationalist ideology and for the sacred cow of security. The resulting pictures of Gazans climbing over the crumpled metal of the barrier in a brief moment of liberty contested the dominant image of the Palestinians as a people doomed to imprisonment constructed in the media in recent decades. As such, the destroyed barrier functioned as the opposite of the West Bank Wall that has become a symbol of enclosure and division in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2002.
It is in relation to these observations that I would suggest that the blowing up of the barrier is probably one of the most imaginative political actions undertaken by Hamas. Instead of sticking to the tired dogma of armed struggle, that has produced little other than a veneer of legitimacy for the violent actions of the Israeli state, Hamas briefly opted to engage in a kind of creative activism that generated an symbol of freedom. In contrast to the familiar iconography of militias, martyrs, suicide attacks, and rockets, the breach in this physical barrier opened up possibilities for changes in how Palestinian resistance to the occupation might be imagined.
The imaginative potentialities that this action appears to have released was suggested by the statement subsequently made by a senior Hamas official when he threatened that if Israel did not lift the economic blockade, 500,000 Gazans would march on the Erez checkpoint at the northern end of the Gaza Strip. Unlike military attacks upon Israel, this would be a non-violent action that also holds the potential to be a far more effective form of resistance. If rocket attacks on Israeli cities do little but bolster Israeli militarism, non-violent activism on a mass scale at least holds the hope of delegitimising Israeli state policies both amongst international observers and amongst Israelis who currently support state militarism in reaction to a perceived Palestinian threat.
Although not undertaken, the proposition to march hundreds of thousands of civilians to Erez takes us back to the suggestion made in the 1970s by the Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad that the Palestine Liberation Organization should emulate the Civil Rights movement in the US by organizing mass demonstrations of unarmed refugees, who would simply march on the borders of the occupied territories holding banners declaring ‘We want to go home’ (Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire, Pluto Press, 2000: XXIX, 29, 33). Such a turn to non-violence would take away the icon of the Palestinian terrorist that the Israeli state despises, but also desperately needs to maintain the conditions for their veneration of the idol of ‘security’. Consequently political non-violence is itself a kind of iconoclasm.