Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Talking to the Devil

While Hamas portrays a unified face to the outside world and so far appears to be surviving the Israeli offensive in Gaza severely battered but intact, it consists of multiple factions divided by differences in vision of the identity of a future Palestinian state, tactics and strategy and personal and regional rivalries. The shifting balance of power among those factions is to a significant extent determined by Israeli policies that reinforce the views of one faction and weaken those of others. Just how divided Hamas is was evident in the run-up to the Israeli offensive when some leaders rejected extension of the six-month ceasefire with Israel while others publicly advocated renewal. Ultimately Hamas rejected extension in a victory for the hardliners. The question is whether a different Israeli policy in the period preceding the rejection, including an adherence to Israel's pledge to lift the siege of Gaza as part of the ceasefire would have produced a different power of balance within Hamas.

To some analysts, Matthew Levitt, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow, who publishes frequently on Hamas, seeking to engage with moderate elements with Hamas is "counterproductive." Levitt argues that differences within Hamas regarding U.S. policy are merely tactical and that engaging more moderate Islamists would undermine efforts by the U.S., Israel and conservative Arab governments to strengthen the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Levitt's rejection assumes that the various positions taken by the different Hamas factions are cast in stone and unlikely to develop in the course of a political process that gives them a stake. It also assumes that violence rather than a political process that shows that Abbas can delivery tangible political and economic results will serve to position the Palestinian president, whose Fatah movement lost an election to Hamas, as the leader with the most credibility among Palestinians. Those are two assumptions that so far have been defeated by the history of Arab Israeli conflict and Middle East peacemaking.

On that premise, an analysis of the shifting balances within Hamas points to potentially lost opportunities to bring at least parts of the Palestinian Islamist movement to the negotiating table. If successful that could have significantly altered the balance of power within the movement, to a break-up of Hamas into various groups and a segmentation of public support. The most significant fault line in Hamas is between those whose priority is to solve the Palestinian problem and those motivated by religious zeal. Proposals by the more nationalist faction, which garnered much of its support from the West Bank and the Palestinian business community, to halt military action and focus exclusively in line with the path followed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan on political and social activity constituted one opportunity for Israel and others to draw parts of the Islamist movement into the peace process. Those proposals culminated in the fall of 2004 in an internal memorandum drafted by a senior Hamas leader to dismantle its underground military apparatus. The proposal was defeated by the Hamas leadership in Gaza as well as the exile leadership in Damascus.

The move to call a halt to military activity came months after Israel had killed Gaza-based Hamas founders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in separate operations. The killings prompted splits within the Gaza leadership. Hamas' Gaza political wing was inherited by deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar. Haniya has not been seen in public since the Israeli offensive began but Hamas' Al Aqsa television earlier this week broadcast a taped defiant statement read by Zahar. Supporters of Al-Rantissi joined Muhammed Diaf, head of the group's military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Haniya's willingness to cease attacks on Israel in response to pressure from the business community were denounced by another Rantissi supporter Nizar Rayyan, who is the most senior Hamas leader to have been killed in the current Israeli offensive. In a bid to thwart Haniya's move, Rayyan paraded armed through the streets of the Jabalya refugee camp. Flanked by masked Qassem Brigade fighters, he dismissed Haniya's plan, distributed pamphlets describing Hamas' military operations and announced that the group was developing Qassem rockets capable of reaching deeper into Israel.

Hamas' 2006 victory in Palestinian elections on the West Bank and in Gaza strengthened the position of the leadership in Palestine versus the exile leaders in Damascus, whose influence stems from their control of Hamas' finances and relations with Syria and Iran, and initially appeared to reinforce more moderate forces within the group. That began to change with the split between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian group defeated in the election, and Hamas takeover of Gaza. The Israeli and Western boycott of Gaza imposed after the takeover shifted power led by Zahar and Said Siam, a proponent of suicide attacks who served as interior minister in the unified government, through control of the group's Executive Force and Qassem Brigades. Last summer, the position of the radicals was reinforced when hardliners emerged from secret balloting dominant in Hamas' Gaza Consultative Council or Shura Council on a slate dominated by younger members of the Qassem Brigades and headed by Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. The Gaza council answers to is Hamas' highest decision-making body, the Majlis a Shura, which incorporates representatives from all Hamas constituencies: Gaza, the West Bank, Israeli prisons and Damascus. The slate, many of whose members opposed reconciliation with Fatah because they feared it would lead to an end of the armed struggle and acceptance of a two-state solution, prompted more moderate figures like Ghazi Hamad – a Hamas veteran who served as spokesman and editor of Hamas weekly Ar-Risala and was imprisoned by both Israel and the Palestine Authority -- and Ahmad Yusuf, a political advisor to Haniya, not to stand in the election. The Shura Council victory is believed to have undermined the position of moderates like Haniya. It is reasonable to assume that the tightening siege of Gaza played into the hardliner's hands.

If the Gaza leadership is divided, so are their rivals in Damascus split between Gazans led by second-in-command Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzouk, who was sentenced in the United States on charges of financing Hamas, and political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, whose supporters hail from the West Bank and studied or worked in Kuwait. Their differences result from competition for influence rather than ideology. The Gazans views the Kuwaitis as too dominant. Palestine Authority officials say internal Hamas correspondence that they seized in November shows that the Damascus leadership together with Hamas leaders on the West Bank favored continued dialogue with Fatah and was critical of the hard line Gaza leadership's moves to thwart Egyptian mediation efforts.

It is ironic that Israeli and Western policies towards Gaza appear to have reversed the traditional relationship between exiles and those that have remained in the homeland with the exiles usually able to afford a more radical position because they run less personal risk and are less exposed to the pressures of circumstance that forced them into exile. By the same token, for all its bluster against the failure of Arab states to intervene, Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and the only Arab military force that could be expected to come to the aid of Hamas, has restricted itself to words rather than deeds. Speaking in Beirut on the occasion of Ashura, the Shiite commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein some 1,400 years ago and amid mounting fears in Lebanon that Israel mat strike at Hizbollah, the militia's leader, Sheikh Hassan Narallah, vowed that his men were prepared to counter any Israeli regression. The 2006 "Lebanon war was just a walk in the park compared to what we have in store for you," Nasrallah said. In what has become a tat-for-tat spat between Nasrallah and Egypt following the militia leader's call last week on Egyptian to revolt against their government for not opening the Rafah Gaza Egypt border crossing, Nasrallah today again singled Egypt out. "Yesterday (Tuesday) a senior Egyptian official asked the Security Council if it needed to see more than 650 Palestinians killed and 2,500 injured in order to act responsibly. I ask that same official – does the Egyptian government need more than that in order to open the Rafah crossing for the sake of Gaza's inhabitants and their firm resistance and triumph? All you are required to do is open the crossing, not to declare war," Nasrallah said.

Israel's conduct of the Gaza war is increasingly drawing criticism not just from the usual suspects but also from those that have traditionally supported its policies, particularly with regard to taking a hard line towards Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. "Tehran has been aiding Hamas for years with the aim of radicalizing politics across the entire Arab Middle East. Now Israel's response to thousands of Hamas rocket provocations appears to be doing just that," writes Reuel Mark Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and Foundation for Defense of Democracies fellow in The Wall Street Journal. Gerecht, arguing that Sunni Hamas far more than Hizbollah, offers Iran the opportunity to train its sights on stirring the pot in Egypt, in his words 'the ultimate prize' in the geo-political power chess game playing out in the Middle East, notes that Iran has been careful never to respond to conservative Sunni anti-Shiite rhetoric. For starters, Iran's support for Hamas positions the Islamic Republic as a more reliable supporter of the Palestinians than the conservative Arab states. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation straddling Asia and Africa that was once ruled by a Shiite dynasty, may be potentially volatile than it has been since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Gerecht points to the fact that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is aging and questions exist about the state of his health, but that it is unclear who will succeed him. The grip of Egypt's security forces is pervasive but whoever succeeds Mubarak, his jet-setting son or a military officer, is unlikely to resuscitate the regime's credibility and weaken the Muslim Brotherhood which most likely would win with a landslide in a free and fair election. "A turbulent Gaza where devout Muslims are in a protracted, televised fight with the cursed Jews could add sufficient heat to make Egyptian politics really interesting. The odds of Egypt cracking could be very small…but they are now certainly enough to keep the Iranians playing," Gerecht writes.

Marc Lynch, a George Washington University political science professor better known by his nom de plume Abu Aardvark, argues that irrespective whether Hamas wins or loses, Al Qaeda is certain to emerge a winner from the Gaza crisis. If Hamas wins, it benefits from the setback for the West and its Arab allies, if it loses, one of its major rivals is seriously weakened. “Either way, the Gaza crisis guarantees that a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration”, Lynch says. He notes that the way the crisis is developing demonstrates “the bankruptcy and strategic dangers of trying to simply reduce Hamas to part of an undifferentiated ‘global terrorist front.’” In fact, Hamas, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, a major Al Qaeda rival, played a key role in preventing the Jihadis from getting a real foot on the ground in Palestine. “…the doctrinal and political conflict between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda's salafi-jihadism has become one of the most active fault-lines in Islamist politics. As Abu Qandahar’ wrote on al-Qaeda's key al-Ekhlaas forum in October 2007, the ‘Islamic world is divided between two projects, jihad and Ikhwan [Brotherhood],’” Lynch says. “From al-Qaeda's perspective, therefore, Israel's assault on Gaza is an unmitigated blessing. The images flooding the Arab and world media have already discredited moderates, fueled outrage, and pushed the center of political gravity towards more hard-line and radical positions… Governments are under pressure, most people are glued to al-Jazeera's coverage..., the internet is flooded with horrifying images, and people are angry and mobilized against Israel, the United States, and their own governments. That's the kind of world al-Qaeda likes to see.”

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