June 27, 2008
Number 06/08 #07
Today’s Update covers the week since the Gaza ceasefire, which has been marked by a lack of fire ceasing. Islamic Jihad fired three rockets into Israel from Gaza five days after the ceasefire went into effect. It said the attack was in response to an Israeli strike on an Islamic Jihad target in the West Bank. However, the ceasefire (for both sides) only includes the Gaza Strip.
Two days after the Islamic Jihad attack, Fatah launched rockets into Israel (articles here and here) in its attempt to undermine Hamas and the ceasefire. After the Fatah rocket fire, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said “we need to respond militarily and immediately to every infraction [of the cease-fire] like this.” Israel responded to the attacks by closing the crossings between Israel and Gaza, though was set to reopen the Nahal Oz fuel depot today. Hamas criticised the closures, saying Israel was in breach of its ceasefire obligations. Hamas also condemned the rocket fire, declaring it ‘unpatriotic‘. Despite this, it has ruled out policing the ceasefire.
Meanwhile, despite the numerous rocket salvos from Gaza, the United Nations has recorded seven Israeli violations of the ceasefire, but only one Palestinian violation. And Egypt said neither the rocket attacks nor the Israeli closures would be likely to derail the ongoing negotiations for the release of captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.
We start off with Ynet’s Alex Fishman, with his wide-ranging essay on Israeli and Hamas attitudes to the ceasefire – what each side wants, what each side is limited by, and the general expectations for peace, about which Fishman is very sceptical. To read why, CLICK HERE.
Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitter Lemons, also gives his two cents on where the ceasefire, successful or otherwise, might lead.
Next, the always useful BICOM has provided an analysis of the impact of the ceasefire agreement on internal Palestinian affairs. With the possibility of renewed Fatah-Hamas talks, the ongoing efforts by Israel to make life better for West Bank Palestinians and ongoing negotiations between Israel and Fatah, this is an important backgrounder. To read it, CLICK HERE.
Another useful background text comes from the Middle East Quarterly’s Denis MacEoin, who clears up the frequent mistranslations of Arabic words, such as hudna, in the English-language press. And while on the subject of background briefings, a BICOM publication from February this year details the rocket threat from Gaza Israel faces. Though four months old, it’s still very useful.
Finally, Prof. Barry Rubin marks the one-year anniversary of Hamas’ brutal coup d’état in Gaza. He writes that Israel and the West want to build up Fatah in the West Bank to make it more attractive to Palestinians than Hamas, but Fatah is so corrupt (and also fairly brutal) that it’s a mostly wasted effort. To read Prof. Rubin’s insights, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- US intelligence officials have suggested al-Qaeda is training “white Europeans” for terrorist missions.
- US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman wrote in the Wall Street Journal how the West can win the war of ideas, in the long war against terrorism, and the Washington Post writes of the demise of the US-funded al-Hurra satellite TV station, which was supposed to be the vanguard in the war of ideas.
- UN weapon inspectors have inspected the suspected nuclear site in Syria that Israel bombed in September last year. Their findings were ‘inconclusive‘.
- A Commentary magazine report about rising antisemitism in Venezuela, while the Jerusalem Report has an article about hate sites on the internet.
- A right-wing Israeli group hacked the Hamas website, leaving nothing but a message in Hebrew.
- Some interesting reports from the Arab press; a Syrian liberal journalist contemplating a day in Haifa; a Kuwaiti columnist denouncing anti-West sentiment in the Middle East; and a former Jordanian government minister lamenting the mass emigration of Arab Christians from the Middle East.
- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview, talking about the ‘Doha Agreement’ that saw Hezbollah gain an effective veto over Lebanese government decisions and the issue of reform – or a lack of it – in Syria. (The Interdisciplinary Centre’s Jonathan Spyer has also given his perspective on the Doha Agreement.) Meanwhile, Syrian Vice President Farouk a-Sharaa has indicated a ‘next step’ might be direct talks with Israel.
- Chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat is still claiming a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel is possible within six months.
- A UN session set to condemn Israel was delayed because the Russian delegation wanted to watch its team in the Euro 2008 semi-final against Spain.
- An Israeli transsexual pop-singer has topped a Lebanese radio station’s song list with her hit, “Say No More.”
By Alex Fishman
Ynet News, June 26, 2008
Israel doesn’t believe in the Gaza ceasefire, but it’s unable to decide on a large-scale strike in the Strip and needs some quiet time in the south. Hamas doesn’t believe in it either, it just needs a break. At this point, says Alex Fishman, any truce is likely to be followed by a severe escalation in Gaza
Hamas is no longer smuggling huge amounts of weapons into Gaza Strip. It simply doesn’t need to. Since the Gaza pullout in 2005, more than 120 tons of explosives have made their way through the underground tunnels running beneath the Philadelphi Route; more than 1,000 machine guns, 32, 000 Kalashnikovs, 4,000 RPG launchers, hundreds of rockets, dozens of anti-aircraft missiles and several hundred mortar shells have all made it through the tunnels.
These are astronomical quantities for a semi-military organization, which has only 11,000 or so people who can operate weapons, to have. It’s no wonder smuggling rates have dropped drastically. They simply don’t need any more weapons. Gaza Strip’s cup has runneth over.
The defense establishment, however, was quick to applaud. The declining number of smuggling incidents were perceived as something they could use to convince the public that between the military operations in Gaza and the Egyptian crackdown on the smugglings from their side, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
World wide (weapons) web
But let’s not get confused: With all due respect, both to Israel’s and Egypt’s efforts, this is nothing more than a form of self-deception. Smuggling rates are down simply because Hamas has decided to opt for quality rather than quantity. They’re busy acquiring weapons which could be used as tie-breakers in a confrontation with the IDF, the likes of advanced anti-tank missiles, or SA-18 missiles, portable anti- aircraft missile systems dubbed IGLA. There have been reports of Hamas trying to get their hands on mini remote-piloted vehicles (MRPV), in order to upgrade the quality of attacks the group carries out, and on Katyusha rockets.
It only gets worse: When you envision the Gaza weapons smuggling operation, you see a few Bedouins on camelbacks riding in the Sinai Desert, or two men secretly negotiating in the back of a dark ally in Khartoum. Well, that’s hardly the case. Today’s weapon smugglings in Gaza are a professional, state-run business, sponsored largely by Iran.
Iran is perceived as the strategic branch supporting Hamas’ armament efforts in the Strip. Tehran sees Hamas as a long-term investment – much like Hizbullah. It has taken upon itself to see the organization is well armed and has no intention of letting it fall. This is a huge, well-oiled machine which cannot be stopped by a verbal agreement with Egypt. Stopping the operation would entail vast, simultaneous intelligence gathering in various countries, along with some physical warfare. This kind of web cannot be untangled by a one-time military strike.
The occasional reports detailing a train crash in Turkey, often tell of derailed weapon shipments, meant for Hizbullah. Someone is obviously working on those accidents and still – weapon smugglings are only under partial control. As for Hamas – that train left the station a long time ago.
Hamas does not acknowledge the concept of weapons smuggling per se – whatever goes on in those tunnels is strictly business and is irrelevant to the conflict. If the Egyptians wish to put a stop to it, they’ll have to take it up with Iran – and they are unlikely to do so just for Israel’s sake.
The procrastinating strategy
The National Security Cabinet chose to adopt, yet again, a strategic concept hailed by the various Israeli governments over the years – never put off for tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow. It’s called the procrastinating strategy.
When Amos Gilad, Head of Defense Ministry’s Security-Diplomatic Bureau, left for Egypt to discuss the tahadiya – temporary ceasefire – he came bearing an offer with just a few minor revisions to the original Egyptian proposal. The release of Hamas captive Gilad Shalit was not on the list. As far as Hamas is concerned, Shalit is an emergency bargaining chip. His release would require a long, delicate process. Linking it to the ceasefire agreement would delay it substantially.
The Prime Minister’s Office categorically denied reports suggesting that Shalit’s release has been omitted from the tahadiya agreement. Gilad Shalit’s release, stressed Jerusalem is a prerequisite to any future ceasefire agreement with Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. The de facto truce reached, did not include Shalit’s release. Instead, it opted for “making viable progress” in the matter.
Strangely enough, the two people pushing for a ceasefire with the Gaza militias are Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi is the one asking the tough questions: What does the government think the ceasefire’s political result should or would be? What is it hoping to achieve by launching a military operation in Gaza? And should an operation be launched, which will it be – a narrow or a wide-scale one? Every achievement has a price, Ashkenazi told the cabinet. The question is whether or not you are willing to pay it.
As far as the military is concerned, all options are viable. The battle plans have been drawn, the troops are ready and all necessary orders have been written. One battle plan – the one everyone wants and hopes to avoid at all costs – calls for Israel to retake the Strip.
Planning Gaza campaigns is part of the day-to-day operations of the General Staff. All that is needed now is for the government to outline the specific goals; but breaking Hamas’ hold on the Gaza Strip is a long, complicated mission.
Both the political and the military echelons agree that crushing Hamas must be the main goal of any future operation in Gaza. The military knows how to tear down structures, arrest operatives, seize weapons and take out the heads of Hamas; but once all that is done – who would Israel give the reigns of the Strip to? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? He doesn’t want Israel handing him the strip on a lance-made platter. An international governing body? No such body wants it. The Egyptians? They want nothing to do with it.
The only entity who can equally assume the responsibility and be accepted by the Palestinian people is that of Hamas. But there is no talking to them. So what can Israel we do?
Both the political and the military echelons know that any medium-scale operation would probably fail to yield any significant results. The rocket fire will persist and some sort of an agreement would have to be reached in order to make it stop. So why not give the truce a try before civilians, from both sides, end up getting hurt? And so, round and round they go, where they stop, nobody knows. The choice is between the bad and the worse; and the goal, more often then not, is fuzzy at best.
To strike or not to strike
Within the cabinet, military and the defense establishment there are those who think differently. The ceasefire, they say, is nothing more than a trick palyed on Israel to render it weak. Hamas, its heads and its infrastructure must be pounded over and over again, if there is any real chance of toppling its regime.
Those supporting the move say that any operation in Gaza would require mobilizing the IDF’s reserve units, which would have to be called in to the field in order to periodically relieve regular military forces. Beyond that, any confrontation in the Strip has the potential of turning into a long-term operation which would draw the IDF deeper and deeper into Gaza, while the situation in the northern front remains unclear.
One also must remember, say those supporting the move, that any ceasefire has its momentum, and no one knows knows if it will or won’t be successful. As long as there is a 1% chance of a truce working out, Israel must grab it before sending its troops to their possible death.
Those rooting for a military operation say that Israel must be the one to choose the time and place in which to strikes in Gaza, in order to reduce the number of potential casualties. A military strike, they add, may also force both the Egyptians and the international community to step in and assume responsibility for the Strip.
This difference of opinion has resulted in the continued postponement of the military strike. Neither the defense minister, nor the chief of staff or anyone else in the IDF for that matter, knows for sure what good an incursion would bring.
Postponing the inevitable
Everyone knows a military strike in the Gaza Strip is inevitable. Any ceasefire would only allow for a little more breathing room, for preparation, for the Gaza vicinity communities to improve their fortification.
Hamas has little faith in the ceasefire as well. They are convinced Israel will try to deceive them.
The original agreement called for Israel to increase the amount of goods allowed into the Strip by 30% – should the ceasefire last a certain period of time. Hamas wants more: It wants dates, times and numbers, and it wants them now.
As far as Hamas is concerned, the ceasefire is not supposed to lead to a permanent agreement with Israel. It seea it as a hiatus from fighting; a chance to reevaluate and close the gaps in their defenses.
Hamas’ top priority is to have the crossings reopened. Having the Erez and Karni crossings open and relieving the suffering of the people is important, but not as important as the long-term goal of having the Rafah crossing – their gateway to Egypt – reopened and kept open. Sources in Hamas said that the organization’s agreement with Egypt ensures the eventual opening of the crossing, as long as Hamas agrees to the tahadiya – regardless of whether or not is abides by it.
More importantly, Hamas knows Gazans are at their wits’ end. Always attentive to its public, Hamas is constantly on the lookout for traitors: Its people open letters, bug telephones and keep their eye open for anyone suspected of being a foreign agent or a collaborator. Anyone could turn out to be a snitch and Hamas’ interrogation facility, dubbed “the greenhouse,” is said to be operating nonstop.
Hamas knows Gaza has never known such dire straits. Some 80% of the population is living under the poverty line, entire economic avenues have collapsed, the fishing and agricultural industries have come to a near-complete halt and unemployment has reached record numbers. Sure, you can walk the streets at night, but other than that – life sucks.
Hamas has recently marked the first anniversary since it took over the Strip. To mark the occasion, Hamas prime minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh named six new ministers to offices previously held by Abbas’ Fatah representatives. This was a clear indication that Hamas is no longer open to forming a unity government with Fatah.
The Palestinian population is aware of Hamas’ preparations for war. The organization has been able thus far to channel the Gazans’ anger, frustration and fear towards Israel and the West, but that could change any day now. If Hamas wants to launch a full-fledged attack on Israel it needs the people’s support; but the people need a break and so Hamas is willing to temporarily hold its fire.
Nevertheless, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, is preparing for war. Their inner-city defenses are most likely made out of sniper units, anti-tank missile launchers and heavy machine gun arrays. An emergency medical service has been formed, fortified rooms have been built, a telecommunications system has been put in place and various ammunition caches have been spread across Gaza, to enable a fighting continuum, should parts of the Strip become separated from one another. Just in case, buildings have been rigged with explosives and so have several tunnels.
Hamas is doing all it can to recruit new operatives, approaching police officers, Popular Front (PFLP) and Democratic Front (DFLP) militants and Army of Islam gunmen. Huge strips of jute fabric have been stretched across alleys and streets, to hide them from the IAF’s prying eyes and training is at its peak.
Hamas is capable of firing between 50 and 60 rockets a day at Israel, for several weeks, from deep within Gaza; which would make the IDF launch deeper incursions into the Strip and use heavy aerial artillery. The military wing is oozing confidence, as evident by videos of its training sessions, that it so eagerly releases.
Hamas warns of the impending “graveyard” awaiting Israeli soldiers who enter the Gaza Strip, and boasts of Israel’s weak stance when entering the tahadiya. Recent rocket salvoes designed to test the new rockets’ range, they promised, were just the preview of coming attractions.
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Implementation of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last Thursday morning is among the most significant developments for Palestinian politics since Hamas took over control of the Gaza Strip by force in June 2007. Juxtaposed against the ceasefire with Israel (more accurately understood as a ‘tahdiya’, or temporary “period of calm”)[i] is the possibility of a new national dialogue between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, with a view to the potential restoration of a national unity government. However, the considerable gulf between the two movements will not be easily bridged. With the prospect of presidential and parliamentary elections early next year, Hamas’s overriding political objective is to extend its power base beyond the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.
Doubts about the durability of the ceasefire notwithstanding, this paper focuses on its possible implications for the balance of domestic power (between Fatah and Hamas) and examines whether it can help facilitate a broader peace deal (between Fatah/the Palestinian Authority and Israel). Owing to the nature of Palestinian aspirations, these two issues are often contingent on each other and always interrelated. Whilst there is some debate about how the ceasefire might impact upon Hamas’s ability to influence the Israel-PA talks, Hamas is widely perceived to be better placed politically for talks with Fatah as a result of the ceasefire. Finally, the ceasefire has emerged amid evolving regional trends which underscore the broader context of Hamas’s recent calculations and the perennial nature of the Hamas threat.
President Abbas’s challenge of national reconciliation
On 4 June 2008, the anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a surprise announcement of his intention to try to reconcile the rift between his Fatah movement and Hamas, which manifested one year ago following the latter’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip. In so doing, Abbas effectively discarded his preconditions for such talks, including a return to the situation as it existed prior to the coup and an apology for the bloodshed.
It is too early to tell whether the ceasefire and Abbas’s prior initiative will lead to the re-emergence of a national unity government.[ii] The last such power-sharing arrangement, following a deal forged by Saudi Arabia in Mecca between Fatah and Hamas delegates in February 2007, lasted less than four months as internecine violence brought it down and Hamas consolidated its rule. Characteristic sticking points, for instance about the restructuring of Palestinian security services and the integration of Hamas into the PA (as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO) are now compounded by Hamas’s refusal to relinquish Gaza. Nonetheless, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih initiated a basis for reconciliation earlier this year, which has Saudi support and that of other Sunni Arab states with close ties to the West. A renewed national dialogue and internal process seem increasingly likely to be steered by the Egyptians following their successful closure of the ceasefire deal.[iii]
A combination of domestic and external considerations are behind Abbas’s move in this direction, which in turn shed light on the sorts of domestic rifts and alliances to look out for in coming months.
Abbas’s initiative may have been timed to quell the notion that it is a mere reaction to Hamas’s increased leverage following the truce. He can expect Hamas to try to use the tahdiya to shore up an internal political front with other militant groups which are integral to the ceasefire’s workability. But Abbas and the international community will be keen to press home the advantage of the ceasefire to try to dislodge Hamas’s grip – because some militant splinter factions will react with increasing disdain to Hamas and the constraints forced upon the ‘resistance’ movement through the deal it has made. The ceasefire contains many potential breaking points that could cause it to collapse at any time. This raises another factor, which is that if the tahdiya fails and the conflict escalates sharply, Abbas will want to be seen as having reached out to Palestinians in Gaza rather than deserting them.[iv]
Abbas’s call for renewed dialogue might also help to contain a power struggle which is quietly re-emerging within Fatah.[v] Fatah is characterised by deep-seated tensions between its ‘old guard’ (who returned from Tunis with Yasser Arafat in the 1990s) and ‘young guard’ (who obtained grassroots Palestinian support during the First and Second Intifadas). But Abbas’s term of office is due to expire in January 2009, and although it may be extended until Palestinian Legislative Council (parliamentary) elections are held, a number of prominent figures are thought to be discreetly positioning to succeed him. Potential candidates include independent Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, former prime minister and current head of negotiations Ahmed Qurei, veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat, jailed Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti and former Fatah security commander Mohammed Dahlan.[vi]
A March poll showed nearly identical levels of support for Abbas and Gaza’s Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in a hypothetical presidential election, though notably, it came in the wake of a major Israeli military operation in Gaza which is likely to have inflated Hamas’s standing. Abbas has fared better in a subsequent poll conducted since his call for renewed dialogue.[vii] Still, Fatah is not faring as well as it would wish because Palestinians perceive that violence works and are sceptical about a negotiated peace deal being forged. Whether Fatah manages to capitalise on the faint but perceptible internal fissure presented by the ceasefire, to put a bigger dent in support for its main rival, remains to be seen.
Secular Palestinians (as well as Israel, key Sunni Arab states and the West generally) are most sensitive to the real danger that Hamas will eventually extend its control over both parts of the Palestinian Territories. This would create an unprecedented security situation for Israel – and Jordan (King Abdullah, like President Mubarak of Egypt, would have to find a way of containing his new neighbour) – and leave no partner for bilateral or international diplomatic progress. Last week, Haniyeh commented of the tahdiya, “[i]t will begin in Gaza, and then spread to the West Bank.” He might just as easily have been stating Hamas’s political intentions.
The key external players in Abbas’s thinking are Israel and the United States. His primary objective remains Palestinian statehood, which requires advancing peace talks with Israel, though scepticism in the face of Olmert’s personal strife and consequential political crisis in Israel may have left Abbas feeling that he has little choice but to try and reconcile the Palestinian factions. In any case, sooner or later, a domestic understanding would have to be reached, but due to the considerable gulf which exists between Fatah and Hamas, it is likely to entail a protracted process. Reopening such contacts with Hamas could act as an indirect means of pressure on Israel, via Washington, for a much-needed diplomatic achievement that he can present to Palestinian society.[viii]
The Gaza ceasefire and post-Annapolis peace talks
A ceasefire in Gaza has been widely seen as a necessary precursor to diplomatic progress following the Annapolis summit last November, which set the stage for renewed bilateral peace talks between Israel and the PA. It is hard to conceive of a greater challenge facing the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships than the violence emanating from Gaza.[ix] Despite the negotiators’ attempts to distance the daily clashes and rocket attacks from ongoing talks, essentially to nullify Hamas’s veto over them, it was equally understood that a deal on final status issues – a ‘shelf agreement’ to be drawn up now but implemented when feasible – would be impossible amid daily reports of rocket fire and conflict. In that vein, the ceasefire does potentially facilitate the advent of preferable, though far from optimal, political conditions in which consensus between the parties on an agreement – more likely a minimal ‘declaration of understandings’ – ought not to be completely ruled out before the end of the year. Paradoxically, Hamas’s domestic gain provides an extra incentive for Abbas vis-à-vis the peace talks because they increasingly seem to be the only hook on which to improve his public standing. Taking the ceasefire at face value, Ziad Asali, head of the American Task Force on Palestine, argues that because it demands that Hamas stop the ‘resistance’ and rein in other militant groups, it “will in fact strengthen the position of the PA and the PLO factions who will be negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians.”[x]
On balance, however, most analysts remain sceptical about the extent to which the ceasefire will facilitate the Annapolis process. “Under normal circumstances”, Daniel Levy writes, “a cease-fire, far from undermining parallel peace talks, would actually enhance their prospects. But these are not normal times, Olmert is unfortunately too politically handicapped and Abbas presides over too divided a Palestinian polity for either of them to cut a deal.” Clearly, in such circumstances, no one ever imagined that even a stable ceasefire would be a panacea but, as indicated above, the tahdiya is characterised above all by fragility and uncertainty about how long it will last. Such precariousness threatens prospects for diplomatic progress, least not because Hamas is in a position to dictate its fate. Most readers will be aware that ever since its inception twenty years ago, Hamas has sought to undermine peace overtures through carefully timed terror attacks on Israeli civilians and targeting rival Palestinians. If Hamas perceives either that Fatah stands to gain substantially from a peace deal or that the deal itself contains unacceptable compromises with Israel, it can act politically to present Abbas’s concessions as a bad package to the Palestinian public in the run up to elections and militarily, with urban rocket fire, in order to try to derail the initiative.
If the ceasefire collapses within the next few months, the parties will be unable to return to the status quo ante. Hamas has made plain that its failure would be tantamount to war.[xi] A fresh escalation of violence to a level beyond that which has been witnessed in the last year would not only kill the current round of peace talks but could also precipitate a Palestinian leadership crisis.
Hamas, the ceasefire and the broader regional picture
There is a danger that outside observers will perceive the ceasefire or the prospect of factional talks as evidence that Hamas has ‘moderated’ its positions. How else, it might be asked, can a radical Islamist terror movement have come to an accommodation (indirectly, through Egypt) with its archenemy, Israel? How else might it be willing to sit down with the pragmatic president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and other secular Fatah rivals?
The short answer is that Hamas’s manoeuvring is entirely tactical. Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshaal, was explicit about this in an Al Jazeera interview in April, stating that it “is not unusual for the resistance…to escalate sometimes and to retreat a bit sometimes as the tide does….The tahdiya creates a formulation that will force Israel…to remove the siege…and if it happens it will be a remarkable achievement….We are speaking of a tactical tahdiya….As long as there is occupation, there is no other way but resistance.”[xii] His deputy, Musa Abu Marzouq, made a similar statement. Governing Gaza over the last two and a half years has not taken the sharp edge off the radical Islamist movement’s ideology, nor has it led to a reverse of its historic rejectionist stance as some hoped or anticipated. Hamas remains intransigent in the face of clear international demands and its rhetoric is intended to undermine both secular Palestinian politics and the framework within which Israeli-Palestinian peace is considered possible.[xiii]
Of course, Hamas does not exist in a vacuum and is influenced not only by perceptions about its rivals in Fatah and Israel but also by broader regional dynamics, about which several views exist. Haaretz journalist Yoav Stern argues that the timing of the ceasefire coincides with Hamas’s need to show greater “flexibility” in light of the new Turkish-brokered peace track between Syria and Israel.[xiv] Although Khaled Meshaal has declared that Hamas is unaffected by these talks, he is based in Damascus and he is undoubtedly sensitive to the Allawite regime’s strategic approach (about which President Bashar Assad either remains undecided or prefers to maintain policy ambiguity). In former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross’s view, Syria “could hold the key to a broader strategic shift if it decides to reach a deal with Israel.”[xv]
A more circumspect view stresses the broad ascendency of radical elements in the Middle East, primarily of Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, questions why Syria would break with this historic alliance of more than 25 years, and sees Hamas’s self-interest in agreeing to a ceasefire within this context.[xvi] The truce bolsters Hamas’s status in the Arab world and provides a breathing space during which it will try to strengthen its position: (a) militarily, by continuing to build a Hezbollah-like model in Gaza (for instance, Iran recently increased financial sponsorship to $250 million a year and Jane’s Defence Weekly reports this week that Hamas operatives have acquired sophisticated communications technology for avoiding detection by the IDF);[xvii] (b) politically, both in advance of dialogue with Fatah and by increasing its popular appeal in the West Bank in the run up to elections; and (c) socially, by pushing its extreme religious agenda and chipping away at the secular nationalist cause.[xviii] Both of these perspectives are insightful for reading the regional strategic map at present.
Hamas’s victory at the ballot box in the January 2006 national parliamentary elections, its military victory in Gaza last June, and its subsequent consolidation of control of the Gaza Strip have transformed the face of contemporary Palestinian politics, but from Hamas’s perspective, each step represents only the start of a long journey towards achieving total power. From Israel’s point of view, the ceasefire strengthens Hamas more than ought to be the case given its purpose, which by definition negates its use of terror. But as with so many scenarios in the Middle East, threat and opportunity go hand in hand, and the many competing forces in the domestic Palestinian sphere will not have escaped President Mahmoud Abbas’s thinking about how best he can handle Hamas and safeguard the Palestinian national interest. Only in the course of time, and as the tahdiya either becomes more firmly locked down for the short term (six months) or unravels even more imminently, will its consequences for the political constellation, and ordinary Palestinians, be clear.
[i] For a detailed linguistic analysis, see: ‘The Hamas Interest in the Tahdiya (Temporary Truce) with Israel’, Jonathan D. Halevi, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 19 June 2008, www.jcpa.org
[ii] ‘Ten Comments on the Gaza Cease-Fire and What Next’, Daniel Levy, Prospects for Peace, 17 June 2008, www.prospectsforpeace.com
[iii] For more details, see, for instance: ‘The Palestinian Unity Government: What Next?’ Shlomo Brom, The Institute for National Security Studies, June 2007, www.inss.org.il; ‘Reconciling with Hamas? Abbas’s Hedge Against a Failed Peace Process’, Mohammed Yaghi, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 18 June 2008, www.washingtoninstitute.org; ‘Ramifications of Palestinian reconciliation efforts’, Bitterlemons, 16 June 2008, www.bitterlemons.org
[iv] ‘Ten Comments on the Gaza Cease-Fire and What Next’, Daniel Levy, Prospects for Peace, 17 June 2008, www.prospectsforpeace.com
[v] ‘Reconciling with Hamas? Abbas’s Hedge Against a Failed Peace Process’, op. cit.
[vi] ‘Palestinian Affairs: Abbas’s perceived failures and potential successors’, Khaled Abu Toameh, The Jerusalem Post, 14 June 2008, www.jpost.com
[vii] The March poll showed that 47 percent favoured Haniyeh and 46 percent preferred Abbas. Following Abbas’s call for dialogue, his poll numbers rose to 52 percent while Haniyeh’s fell to 40 percent. See Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll # 28, 5-7 June 2008, www.pcpsr.org
[viii] ‘Reconciling with Hamas? Abbas’s Hedge Against a Failed Peace Process’, op. cit.
[ix] See, for instance, ‘Rice, Gaza and Annapolis: what next?’, Daniel Levy, Prospects for Peace, 5 March 2008, www.prospectsforpeace.com
[x] ‘Analysis: Small steps a way to broader Mideast peace?’, CNN, 18 June 2008, www.cnn.com/world
[xi] ‘Hamas warns of harsh response if truce is violated’, Ali Waked, Ynetnews, 19 June 2008, www.ynetnews.com
[xiii] ‘Hamas and the world, one year later’, Bitterlemons, 5 February 2007, www.bitterlemons.org; ‘Professor Asher Susser talks to BICOM about recent Israeli-Palestinian developments’, BICOM Podcast, 22 February 2008, www.bicom.org.uk
[xiv] ‘Gaza ceasefire: virtual symposium with Yoav Stern and Dr. Jonathan Rynhold’, BICOM Podcast, 18 June 2008, www.bicom.org.uk
[xv] Paraphrased in ‘Analysis: Small steps a way to broader Mideast peace?’, CNN, 18 June 2008, www.cnn.com/world
[xvi] Ibid.; see also: ‘An empty package’, Jonathan Spyer, Haaretz, 30 May 2008, www.haaretz.com
[xviii] Ibid.; see also: ‘Why Hamas Needs Its Cease-Fire with Israel’, Pierre Heumann, Spiegel Online International, 18 June 2008, www.spiegel.de/international
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Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA), June 24, 2008
Hamas celebrated its first anniversary of power in the Gaza Strip amidst massive misinterpretations regarding the situation there.
Ironically, Hamas’s victory and survival has less to do with Israel than the rotten strategy of Yasir Arafat. He ruled the Palestinian movement for 35 years by establishing a weak, anarchic, corrupt, and factionalized structure which he played like a violen. After Arafat’s death, Fatah paid the price by collapsing in the Gaza Strip, first electorally then militarily. Having proved a failure in government, Fatah then showed itself a failure as an opposition.
Hamas’s power rests repression, radical ideology, international protection and an incompetent enemy. A Palestinian storeowner told an American reporter, “What can we do? Hamas is even stronger than a year ago. They can take me and put me away whenever they want.” This is the kind of situation which elsewhere makes the West, especially the left, sneer at dictatorships that–as was once said of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini–take away freedom but take credit for making the trains run on time.
Yet while the world prevents Israel from defeating Hamas through military action and very tight sanctions, Fatah is its own worst enemy in combating Hamas.
President George Bush recently stated that a Fatah-ruled Palestinian state should be quickly developed since, “It will serve as an alternative vision to what is happening in Gaza.”
This is rubbish. No matter how much money the West pumps in, the nationalists are not going to offer an attractive regime. Fatah’s lower level of still-considerable repression is counterbalanced by the corruption and anarchy included in the package. Jawad Tibi, a former Fatah cabinet minister, explained, “Hamas is Fatah with beards.”
True and that lack of differentiation is the problem. Moreover, Fatah continues its own old tricks. When it does arrest those involved in terrorism, they are quickly released. Incitement to commit violence continues on the Palestinian Authority (PA) media, and the PA is far more eager to reconcile with Hamas than to make peace with Israel.
Yes, the PA’s survival is a U.S., Western, and Israeli interest but let’s not get sentimental or naÔve about these weak, corrupt, and largely radical allies of necessity.
As for Hamas, it possesses three key weapons.
· The mainstream appeal of extremism and terrorism. “Hamas is strong and brutal but very good at governing,” Eyad Sarraj told the New York Times, which describes him as a British-trained psychiatrist and secular opponent of Hamas, After all, he continues, it’s distributing gas coupons, getting people to pay electricity bills, and keeping the city clean.
Suddenly, people considered “progressive” see the up side of having a police state. Imagine this kind of thinking applied to other dictatorships all over the world: they are brutal but boy do they keep law and order! Sarraj also forgets that Hamas’s war policy resulted in reducing the gas and electricity supply.
But Sarraj is no moderate. In 1999, he wrote that Palestinians were better off without the peace process. Refusing to recognize Israel had been a “nuclear weapon” and armed struggle a great asset. Giving these up was a mistake, Sarraj insisted, and might lead to ending the conflict without eliminating Israel.
Sarraj, while a member of Gaza’s tiny left, advocated a strategy parallel to that of Hamas today. Perhaps that’s why he protested Arafat’s repression but now seems content to accept Hamas’s, however much he dislikes its Islamism. The continued extremism of mainstream Palestinian activist opinion makes Hamas’s rule seem an acceptable tradeoff because of its militancy.
· The success of ideological demagoguery. One Hamas supporter told a reporter: “Israel is trying to pressure us to make us forget that the real problem is the occupation.” Of course, there is no Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip, which is one reason why Hamas was able to seize power. “We can take it,” she continued, “The Koran teaches that in the end we will be victorious.”
This expresses widespread sentiments: Israel is the only enemy; everything else is irrelevant, suffering isn’t important, victory is inevitable. Shortly after Hamas seized power, Sarraj told a Canadian reporter about how Hamas threw Fatah men off the tops of buildings, murdered them in hospital beds, and tortured them in a “horrific” manner.
But that isn’t important. Whether Hamas brutalizes Palestinians, creates conditions that destroy living standards, drags people into endless war, turns Gaza into a mini-Iran, or causes numerous casualties, its militancy and refusal to compromise is what counts. That may seem irrational to Western observers but that’s how Palestinian politics work.
· Pretended moderation as a scam. Since Westerners can’t understand the culture of ideology and extremism, they’re sure Hamas will moderate. This is supposedly proven when Hamas leaders say that if Israel only returns to the 1967 borders; gives the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip to a Hamas-ruled state; and lets millions of Palestinians live in Israel, they’ll make a truce until they decide otherwise.
This is a very silly evaluation, reminding me of an American high school textbook which said Israel should try this idea and if that didn’t work we would all know better.
Finally, there’s the strange conclusion that since Hamas isn’t about to fall from power, this proves sanctions have failed. One could say it shows economic and military pressures should be raised further. But at least it should be understood that the sanctions’ purpose is to make Hamas less able to kill even more people, take over the West Bank, damage Israel, or turn Gaza into–to stand Bush’s view on its head–an “attractive alternative.”
Any policy that prevents those things seems pretty valid; any Westerner favoring a strategy that strengthens Hamas should be forced to live under its rule.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin’s columns can be read online.