Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gaza: A Godsend for Islamists

Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper reports that the humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza this week despite Palestinian rocket attacks served as one of several measures to give Hamas a false sense of security so that an already authorized attack would catch the Palestinian Islamists off guard. Today's air strikes, apparently designed to at least weaken Hamas to the degree that it no longer can complicate or obstruct talks with the Palestinian Authority, inevitably beg comparison with Israel's 2006 attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon.

That attack failed to achieve its target, the destruction of an Islamist group and the liberation of Israeli soldiers held prisoner. If anything, Hezbollah emerged politically stronger, having fought the first Arab war with Israel in which Israeli military superiority was dented and Israel failed to achieve its objective. Granted Gaza is not Lebanon, and Hamas is not Hezbollah. Hamas took a serious beating on the first day of what Israel promises could be a prolonged offensive, a drubbing that appears to be far more punishing than pain inflicted on Hezbollah in the initial days of the war. Hezbollah constitutes far more of a military power than Hamas does.

Israel will certainly have drawn military conclusions from its 2006 experience and taken those into account when its National Security Council last Wednesday unanimously authorized the attacks on Gaza. The devastating effect of the attacks indicates that Israel's effort to deceive Hamas about its plans including statements to the media suggesting that Israel was still discussing and had yet to decide on military moves appears to have succeeded. Hamas police officers were killed as they attended their graduation in Gaza's main policy academy. Yediot quotes Israeli sources as saying that Hamas officials who had gone into hiding reappeared before today's air strikes and resumed normal operations.

Drawing a distinction with the Lebanon war, Israeli sources insist that today's attacks serve more limited objectives and are designed to stop the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel and not the destruction of Hamas or the liberation of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier being held by Hamas since 2006. It would, however, not be the first time that a war has involved Israel expanding its goals as fighting continued. Israel's initial objective in the 1982 war fell far short of expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon or occupation of Beirut but ended with Yasser Arafat and his cohorts setting sail for Tunisia and Israeli troops in control of the Lebanese capital. That is not to say that Israel is likely to expel Hamas. It is however a confrontation that could follow the pattern of Israeli Arab-confrontations since the 1967 Middle East war up to the 2006 Lebanon war: a battle that Israel wins militarily, but looses politically.

That is all the more true in a world where western nations are grappling with the fact that Islamists in the Arab and Muslim world are popular because they are seen as agents of reform and change. They do well in those countries where free and fair elections are held – Turkey or Jordan for example – and would do very well if more authoritarian countries such as Egypt would let the ballot decide. Islamist popularity makes Western support for often politically and morally bankrupt governments more risky and costly. Israel's attacks on Gaza, certainly if they continue for some time with this intensity, could raise that risk and cost.

Within hours of today's Israeli bombing, clashes on the West Bank between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops erupted reminiscent of the second Intifada. At a demonstration of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front (IAF) in the Jordanian capital Amman, an IAF leader warned that Arab leaders who deal with Israel were criminal, a less than veiled reference to Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was in Cairo after talks with Mubarak that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned with reference to Hamas that "enough is enough." The Israeli attacks must put UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah Bin Zayid Al Nahyan, who this week paid a rare official Arab visit to the West Bank, in an embarrassing position. The visit, although to the Palestinian Authority, constitutes a de facto recognition of Israel as the minister and his delegation would have had to pass Israeli passport control. The UAE does not recognize Israel and does not even acknowledge it on maps of the region printed in the country.

Various Arab countries are likely to privately take a much milder view of Israel's attempt to cut Hamas down to size than is evident from their public condemnations. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit earlier today said Egypt had long warned Hamas that Israel would respond to rocket attacks in this manner, and that those who did not heed the warning "should bear the responsibility." Arab governments have privately sought to discourage Western contacts with moderate Islamists whom they view as their most serious challenger. Moderate Islamists to them constitute a political challenge given their public appeal, militant Jihadists are a security problem that can be harshly dealt with by security forces. This is all the more true in an economically depressed world where lower oil prices make it more difficult to create jobs and give legions of unemployed or underemployed youths at least an economic stake in the status quo. Public anger at the Israeli strikes coupled with Arab impotence is likely to fuel the vicious circle in which anger and frustration in the absence of a free media and freedom of expression can only be channeled through one outlet in the Arab world: the mosque.

Although unrelated to the violence in Gaza, the risks were highlighted when Bahrain Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa today accused Bahrain opposition leaders in London of having masterminded Bahrainis arrested earlier this month on charges of planning bomb attacks in the Gulf kingdom. He said the group had travelled this summer to Syria for military training under the guise of visiting religious shrines. Khalifa said Bahrain would have to introduce stiffer punishments in terrorism cases and toughen current legislation. Arsonists set fire to an electricity substation on one of Bahrain’s busiest streets hours before the arrest of the 14 was announced. Bahraini police have repeatedly clashed with Shiite villagers in recent weeks wanting to commemorate victims of unrest in the 1980s and 1990s.

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