Showing posts with label Syria. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Syria. Show all posts

Friday, January 14, 2011

Twin Threats of Protests and Cessation Set Stage for Change in MidEast and North Africa

By James M. Dorsey

A rare wave of protests across the Arab world against widespread economic mismanagement, unemployment, corruption and lack of civil liberties as well as the probable partition of Sudan potentially set the stage for the redrawing of the political map of the Middle East and North Africa.

The protests and referendum likely to establish oil-rich southern Sudan as an independent state spotlight the failure of most Middle Eastern and North African regimes to provide economic prospects for their populations and guarantee security and equal rights for religious and ethnic minorities. A spate of recent deadly attacks targeting Christians in Iraq and Egypt has further focused attention on inflamed religious and ethnic tensions and the region’s lack of minority rights.

Middle Eastern governments fear, according to officials and Western diplomats, that an independent southern Sudan will fuel nationalist aspirations of rebels in Darfur, secessionists in southern Yemen; Shiite rebels in northern Yemen; non-Islamist controlled parts of Somalia; Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey; Berbers across North Africa and Azerbaijanis in northern Iran. The region’s military and security dominated regimes also worry that the protests will further embolden their populations to vent boiling anger and pent-up frustration with long-standing authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent rule. Last week’s warning by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that record food prices are likely to increase even more as a result of erratic global weather patterns threatens to further tempers and tensions.

Several Arab states have moved to curb commodity prices in a bid to prevent the riots from spreading to their countries. Libya abolished taxes and custom duties on wheat-based products, rice, vegetable oil, sugar and infant milk. Morocco has begun subsidizing imports to ensure that the price of soft milling wheat does not rise in tunes with hikes on world markets.

Jordanian King Abdullah in a bid to prevent an escalation of mounting tension between Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians this week ordered his government to reduce prices of commodities, particularly rice and sugar, freeze plans to raise public transportation fees and accelerate initiation of job creation projects. The order came as Jordanian trade unions called for nationwide demonstrations on Friday to demand better living standards and the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Jordan’s Islamist opposition said it had yet to decide whether it would support the protest, but warned that price hikes would spark “an unprecedented explosion” similar to the turmoil in Tunisia and Algeria.

“The government is seeking to contain mounting public resentment. Events in Tunisia and Algeria are forcing it to act because Jordanians have seen that protests produce results,” says Mohammed Masri, an analyst at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. Masri was referring to Algeria’s weekend decision to reduce commodity prices in response to sustained daily protests that left at least three people dead, the Tunisian government’s inability to quell a month of demonstrations in which so far up to 50 people are believed to have been killed and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s bid this week to meet some of the protestor’s demands by announcing that he would not again run for office when his term ends in 2014, firing his interior minister, promising to release detained demonstrators and launching an investigation into corruption. “Price hikes are certain to increase anger at the government’s policies,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, a Jordanian Islamic Action Front spokesman.

While the demonstrations in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt as well as recent soccer riots in Jordan and Iran and human rights-related protests in Kuwait are unlikely to immediately overturn governments, they signal a growing popular refusal across the region to continue to accept the status quo. Even in Saudi Arabia where public protests are particularly rare, unemployed teachers are publicly protesting government job creation policies. Tunisian trade unions have said they would continue their protests despite Ben Ali’s announced concessions.

The hardening of the region’s social and economic battle lines creates stark choices for both Middle Eastern and Western governments. Desperate to cling to power, Middle Eastern regimes are likely to increase repression coupled with window dressing measures that create the impression of responding to widespread discontent rather than opt for real political, economic and social reform. This week’s concessions by Ben Ali come after the president’s efforts to squash the protests by charging that the protesters were being manipulated by foreign terrorists failed. Ben Ali’s assertion contrasted starkly with the fact that Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been conspicuously silent about the ongoing turmoil in its theater of operations and the fact that the protests were void of any Islamist tint.

Western diplomats say that the fact that a majority of the dead in Tunisia were killed by security forces after the Obama administration, the European Union and the United Nations called on Tunisia to exercise restraint in the use of force and respect fundamental freedoms point to a sense of alarm within the government that makes it less susceptible to US and European pressure. “It’s inconceivable that they are not worried that this is the beginning of the end,” one diplomat said.

On a visit to Qatar this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nonetheless signaled that the United States and its European allies may be less persistent in their long-standing preference for stability in the Middle East and North Africa rather than democracy that could initially bring Islamic and more nationalist forces to power – a policy that has fueled anti-Western sentiment among large segments of the region’s population.

Addressing the Forum for the Future launched in 2004 by the G-8 group of industrial nations as a way to promote growth of nongovernmental civil group, Clinton bluntly challenged Middle Eastern leaders to open their political systems and economies and warned that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand." Clinton said the region's governments need to share power with civic and volunteer groups to tackle issues like exploding populations, stagnant economies and declining natural resources. Pointing to unemployment rates of 20% and up, the secretary said "people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and are demanding reforms, including eradication of corruption.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

World Cup 2022: A Middle East Game Changer?

By James M. Dorsey

With its winning of the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar may face both its greatest challenge and biggest opportunity in positioning itself as a maverick regional peacemaker and agent of change.

Soccer constitutes for Middle Eastern regimes a double-edged sword. Only soccer commands the kind of deep-seated emotion evoked by Islam. And in a world of predominantly repressive regimes, soccer together with Islam provides the only public space for pent-up anger and frustration. Managing the national, ethnic, religious and social fault lines that soccer in the Middle East highlights could make cooling down football stadia in temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius the least of Qatar’s worries.

A look at the Gulf Cup that ended in Aden on Sunday as well as Middle Eastern soccer’s walk up to this year’s World Cup in South Africa tells all. To many residents of southern Yemen, which united with the north in 1990, the Gulf Cup highlighted the very reasons why southerners support cessation. It also highlighted the effect of political control of the game by regimes bent on retaining power. To southerners, Yemen’s national team represented the country’s most powerful government-aligned tribes rather than the nation. That sense was reinforced by the fact that southerners were virtually excluded from participation in the organization of the cup.

The picture is no better elsewhere in the Middle East where spectators in Lebanon have been barred from soccer games since the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; Palestinians can’t compete because of Israeli travel restrictions; Iran and Iraq’s performance has been hampered by political interference; players on Egypt’s national team have to prove not only their soccer skills but also their religious devotion; and Saudi players struggle to maintain international standards because the government discourages players from joining foreign clubs. The world’s most violent derby between Cairo archrivals Al Ahly and Zamalek constitutes an epic struggle over nationalism, class and escapism. Women’s soccer is a continuous fight for its existence in a chauvinist, male dominated world in which women playing the game is at best controversial and at worst blasphemous.

If anyone can rise to the challenge a World Cup in the Middle East poses, it is Qatar, a maverick oil-rich Gulf state that maintains close ties to Islamic radicals while hosting a US military base and has rewritten the Middle East’s heavily controlled media landscape with Al Jazeera’s often no-holds barred reporting. Qatar’s successful bid could prove to be with FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s help the monkey wrench that forces Middle Eastern rulers to recognize opportunities offered by sports to manage the region's many fault lines.

The Middle East is riper than ever for a contribution by Blatter, who has successfully imposed his will on notoriously intransigent Middle Eastern leaders seeking to control the game. Take Middle East peace for example. Blatter could engineer Israel’s return to playing World Cup qualifying games in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) against Middle Eastern teams rather than as it does against European squads in UEFA since the Arabs four decades ago forced its ouster from the AFC.

International tennis has paved the way for Blatter to force the issue. Three Israeli tennis players appeared this year at the ATP World Tour and World Tennis Association tournaments in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates despite the two countries’ formal ban on sports encounters with Israel and Israeli passport holders crossing their borders.

If Israel drew for example Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen or Iraq, governments would be hard pressed to prevent their teams from playing. Stopping their teams would cost their squads valuable points and reduce, if not eliminate, their chances of reaching the Asian and World Cup finals.

The teams would face censure from FIFA, which in turn could spark riots as soccer did in Tehran in 1998 and 2001. So deep-seated is soccer passion that governments would be acting at their own peril and would likely conclude that they have no alternative but to allow their teams to play Israel. By doing so, they would effectively recognize the Jewish state and offer Middle Eastern soccer fans a picture of Israelis that differs substantially from widespread preconceptions.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Oil and Gas Finds Fueling Tension in Eastern Mediterranean

By James M. Dorsey

(In)Coherenci / World Politics Review

Oil and gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean are ratcheting up tensions in a region that already has its fair share of pernicious disputes. Rival communities on the divided island of Cyprus, as well as Turkey and arch-enemies Lebanon and Israel are staking claims in one of the world's newest oil frontiers.

The region's deposits are minor compared to the Persian Gulf, but for small nations like Israel and Cyprus they hold substantial promise. But rather than providing an opportunity for stability through economic cooperation, the discoveries raise the specter of renewed conflict as the parties push ahead with deals to start exploration.

Complicating matters is the fact that the deposits are in international waters, historically a reason for nations to call in the gun boats in the absence of a production-sharing agreements. The potential threat is heightened by the state of war between Israel and Lebanon and tension between Turkey and Cyprus over Turkey's backing of Turkish Cypriots in their dispute with the island's Greek Cypriot majority.

While Israel and Lebanon have warned that their economic rights in the eastern Mediterranean may constitute a casus belli, Turkey and the two Cypriot communities have so far steered clear of military threats in their perennial disputes over oil and gas.

Turkey's announcement last month that it will soon begin to explore for oil in a 288,000-square-kilometer area between the southeastern Turkish city of Mersin and the northern coast of Cyprus has nonetheless fueled tension. Turkey maintains an estimated 40,000 troops in northern Cyprus since its invasion of the island in 1974 and is the only country to have recognized the north's self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

The internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government, the Republic of Cyprus (ROC), which represents the island in the European Union, accuses Turkey of acting as a "bully" in disputes over oil-exploration licenses that are a continuous point of friction in two-year-old peace talks aimed at ending one of the world's most enduring conflicts.

Turkey and the TRNC have denounced ROC negotiations of oil-exploration deals with Lebanon that will also include Syria, arguing that it lacks the authority. Lebanon and the ROC signed an exclusive-zone agreement in 2007 to demarcate an undersea border that would determine the areas in which each may grant oil- and gas-exploration licenses. ROC signed a similar agreement with Egypt, and in September it concluded a memorandum of cooperation with Israel for the surveying and mapping of joint-research energy projects.

ROC initially licensed companies in 2007 to explore blocks in a 20,000 square-kilometer area. Texas-based Noble Energy, an independent oil company, together with its Israeli consortium partners, Delek Drilling and Avner Oil and Gas, acquired a license, but Turkey's opposition persuaded majors such as ExxonMobil, BP, China National Petroleum Corporation and India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation not to participate. Noble, as well as Libya's National Oil Company, are expected to participate in a second ROC licensing round next year.

Turkey has warned the Lebanese and the ROC governments that it is "determined to protect its rights and interests" and will "not allow attempts to erode them." Turkish officials, however, believe that Lebanon and the ROC will not start exploration any time soon. Amid mounting tension in Lebanon over the proceedings of a United Nations investigation into the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Ankara believes that parliament is unlikely to focus on the agreement once it is presented for ratification.

As a result, Turkey and Israel may be laughing all the way to the bank. Israel has completed preliminary exploration and is preparing to begin extracting gas in 2012. Israel hopes the oil and gas finds will make it energy-independent, but its preliminary efforts have Lebanon up in arms. Staking its claim on the potential reserves, Lebanon sees newly found oil and gas wealth as its ticket to paying off its $50 billion national debt.

Lebanon accuses Israel of intending to siphon the gas from reserves off the northern Israeli coast that it says are rightfully Lebanese. Israel denies the claim and says that the three fields it has invested in lie between it and Cyprus.The largest of the fields, Leviathan, is estimated to hold 16 trillion cubic feet of gas worth billions of dollars.

The fields are in international waters between Israel and Cyprus, beyond the maritime borders that extend 12 nautical miles off the coasts of both countries. Under international law, Israel or Cyprus could declare an exclusive economic zone that extends 200 nautical miles beyond their maritime borders, but so far neither has opted to do so. Israeli officials say they see no need to make such a declaration because the reserves lie under Israel's continental shelf.

The conflicting Israeli and Lebanese claims have both countries rattling their sabers. Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau has warned that Israel "will not hesitate to use force" to protect its investment. In response, Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri called for speedy approval of proposals for oil and gas exploration off the coast of Lebanon as "the best way to respond to Israeli threats."

It will take years for Lebanon to prove its claims that Israeli exploration and production would violate Lebanese territory. Even if it does, Beirut lacks the military muscle to do anything about it. That frustrating realization is likely to complicate efforts to reduce tension in a region that already has enough flash points.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Oil Deposits Fuel Tension in Eastern Mediterranean

Oil and gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean are notching up tension in a region that already has its fair share of pernicious disputes. Rival communities on the divided island of Cyprus as well as Turkey and arch enemies Lebanon and Israel are racing to stake their claims in what is one of the world’s newest oil frontiers.

The deposits may be minor compared to those of the oil-majors in the Gulf, but for small nations in the eastern Mediterranean they promise to be substantial. Yet, rather than providing an opportunity to enhance stability through economic cooperation, the discoveries are raising the specter of renewed conflict as the parties strike deals to start exploration.

Complicating matters is the fact that the deposits are all in international waters, historically a reason to call in the gun boats in the absence of a production-sharing agreement. The potential threat is heightened by the fact that Israel and Lebanon are locked into a state of war while Turkey backs its Turkish Cypriot brethren in their communal dispute with the majority Greek islanders. While Israel and Lebanon have warned that their economic rights in the eastern Mediterranean could constitute a casus belli, Turkey and the two Cypriot communities have so far steered clear of military threats in their perennial disputes over oil and gas.

Tension is nonetheless mounting with last week’s Turkish announcement that it is about to start exploring for oil off the coast of northern Cyprus, the breakaway Turkish Cypriot states that hosts an estimated 40,000 Turkish troops. For its part, the internationally recognized government of Greek Cyprus is negotiating oil exploration deals with Lebanon.

For now, Israel may be the party laughing all the way to the bank. Lebanon has yet to achieve agreement with Cyprus and Syria on its economic boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Israel has completed preliminary exploration on the back of an agreement with Cyprus and is preparing to begin extracting black gold. Lebanon will no doubt assert that Israel is drilling in Lebanese territory, but will need years to prove its claim and given Israeli military superiority is unlikely to be able to do much about it.

Nonetheless, the race for resources will only complicate efforts to reduce tension in a region that already has sufficient flash points.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Turkish-Syrian Cooperation Sparks Crackdown on PKK

Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has expressed surprised at the speed at which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyeb Erdogan is pushing cooperation between the two erstwhile enemies, one a member of NATO, the other Iran’s closest ally and a supporter of militant Islamic groups.

Close cooperation between Turkey and Syria, which almost went to war a decade ago because of Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), is fueling mounting concern in Western capitals about a newly-found Turkish foreign policy focus on the Arab and Islamic world.

But closer ties with Syria have already produced results for Turkey: Syria is cracking down on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been waging an intermittent guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey since the early 1980s that has cost some 40,000 lives. Syrian authorities have arrested hundreds of Kurds in recent months on suspicion of ties to the PKK, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Erdogan paid a visit to Damascus this week to discuss cooperation between the two countries with Iran and Iraq in a bid to persuade them to join the crackdown on the Turkish Kurdish militants. Turkey has rewarded Syria with trade and tourism agreements and the lifting of visa requirements for Syrian nationals travelling to Turkey.

Stepped-up Turkish-Syrian cooperation comes as the Turkish parliament discusses extending the government’s mandate to conduct cross-border raids on PKK bases in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq. Turkey has vowed to continue its fight against the militants despite the declaration in September of a unilateral ceasefire by the PKK.

The Turkish refusal and the raids are straining relations between Turkey and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and threaten to undermine Turkish efforts to normalize relations with the Iraqi Kurds and ensure stability on its southeastern border.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dispute over U.N. Tribunal Puts Lebanon at a Crossroads

By James M. Dorsey

World Politics Review

An increasingly vicious battle that has broken out between pro- and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon is likely to determine the country's ability to resist Syrian interference in its internal politics.

Also at stake in the conflict is the future of a United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The assassination sparked a protest movement that blamed Syria for Hariri's killing and forced Damascus to withdraw its troops after a nearly 30-year presence in Lebanon. The anti-Syrian groundswell paved the way for Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son, to become prime minister. Syria and its ally, the Shiite militia Hezbollah, have both denied involvement in the former prime minister's death.

The latest battle erupted when Saad Hariri refused to cave in to demands by Hezbollah and Syria to withdraw his support for the U.N. investigation, which has polarized Lebanese politics from the outset. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem cautioned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a meeting in New York on Monday that Syria would oppose the issuing of indictments by the U.S.-backed U.N. Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL). Speaking after the meeting, Moallem charged that the tribunal had been irredeemably "politicized" and risked plunging Lebanon into a new round of sectarian strife.

Hezbollah, concerned that the tribunal will accuse some of its operatives of involvement the assassination, believes that a withdrawal of support by the prime minister would all but thwart the inquiry. Hezbollah officials maintain that the investigation's expected conclusions are based on false testimony by key witnesses, a claim backed by the Lebanese judiciary and Prime Minister Hariri. The Shiite militia says it has evidence that Israel killed Rafik Hariri, and it wants the tribunal to investigate its assertion.

Hezbollah and Syria appeared to have won their battle earlier this month when Hariri, giving in to pressure from the militia, backed away from his accusation that Syria was responsible for the death of his father. In a stunning statement that infuriated many of his followers, Hariri apologized to Syria, saying his previous repeated accusations had been "politically motivated."

For Hezbollah and Syria, however, that was not enough. "We gave Hariri and the coalition until September to bring the STL down," a Hezbollah official said. "That has not happened. We will now deal with the STL differently. There will be no cooperation, no acceptance, and no funding." Hezbollah, which has two ministers in Hariri's cabinet, urged the government last week to stop funding the tribunal.

Hezbollah and Syria tightened the screws on Hariri by encouraging Brig. Gen. Jamal al-Sayyed, the former Lebanese security chief, to publicly denounce the prime minister as a liar and accuse him of paying witnesses to make false statements. Al-Sayyed demanded that Hariri take a lie detector test. Hezbollah officials privately claim that former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, former President Amin Gemayel and the head of the Lebanese Forces party Samir Geagea are among those who gave false testimony. Al-Sayyed, known for his close ties to Syria and Hezbollah, was released from prison last year along with three other officers, all of whom had been held for four years without charges on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's murder.

Al-Sayyed issued his statement three days after meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Few in Lebanon doubt that Al-Sayyed would have picked a fight with Hariri without Syrian endorsement. The statement came only days after Hariri visited Syria for talks with Assad, which the Lebanese prime minister described as "excellent" and as "opening a new phase in our relations."

A shift in relations between the two countries could well be underway, although not as Hariri envisioned when he left Damascus. By raising the stakes, Syria and Hezbollah appear to be driving a wedge between Hariri and some of his key supporters. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father is believed to have been killed by Syria in 1977, cautioned last week that "if the STL is creating a crisis, let us all agree on canceling it."

For now, however, Hariri is playing hardball. Lebanese state prosecutor Said Mirza has ordered an investigation of Al-Sayyed on charges that he threatened Hariri and state institutions. Sources close to Hariri say Al-Sayyed attempted to blackmail Hariri, demanding that he be paid $7.5 million in exchange for not going public with his accusations against Hariri. Al-Sayyed has countered by filing a lawsuit against the Lebanese state prosecutor in a Syrian court and at the UN tribunal.

The crisis heated up when Hezbollah, which also accuses the tribunal of being "politicized," said that it would not allow Al-Sayyed to be questioned by the Lebanese judiciary and warned that it would "cut off the unjust hand" threatening the general. Hezbollah raised the temperature further by sending an armed escort to pick up Al-Sayyed from the Beirut airport on his return from Damascus.

Hezbollah's show of force and Al-Sayyed's allegations leave the prime minister on the horns of a dilemma. To preserve Lebanon's fragile balance of power, Hariri may have to cave in to Syria and Hezbollah's demands on the tribunal. But doing so could split his ruling coalition and put him at odds with the Obama administration. On the other hand, should he refuse to disavow the tribunal or arrest Al-Sayyed, Hariri risks increasing tensions and raising the specter of renewed sectarian violence. Either way, Lebanon is at a crossroads.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Arabs and Iran Battle for Hearts and Minds

As Arab leaders prepare for an emergency summit on Friday, their inability to achieve an end to the Israeli offensive is defeating the very offset some Arab leaders had hoped would emerge from a cutting down to size of Hamas. To key Arab leaders, including those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestine Authority, a short and surgical Israeli operation would have contributed to putting Islamists across the region on the defensive and countering Iranian efforts to exploit widespread public discontent.

Instead, Iran, despite spewing primarily theatrics and rhetoric rather than real support for the Palestinians, is benefiting from the prolonged horror of the carnage in Gaza and the perceived Arab inability to have an impact on international efforts to silence the guns. Its imagery strikes an emotional chord with an angry and frustrated Arab public, something Arab governments have so far been unable to achieve. The stature of the summit has further been undermined by the decision by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia and Egypt not to attend.

Egypt, which is in the lead of Arab efforts to end the fighting, is seeking to reverse the credibility gap stemming from its refusal to fully open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza in a bid to alleviate Palestinian suffering and its desire to prevent the country's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot, from capitalizing on the crisis. Public anger and frustration with Arab impotence plays into Iran's hand even if Sunni Islamists like the brotherhood are standoffish towards Iran at best. For his part, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is fighting a legitimacy battle of his own. His term expired five days ago, yet the war in Gaza makes a Palestinian election not only physically but also politically impossible. Israel, the United States and conservative Arabs fear that Hamas would win an election with another landslide as it did in 2006.

In describing the gap between Arab governments and Arab public opinion, Karma Nabulsi, a former Palestinian representative to the United Nations, noted on Al Jazeera that Latin American nations like Venezuela and Bolivia had taken steps against Israeli like breaking off diplomatic relations while Arabs have yet to act. "The protests make it clear that Arab leaders will have to move or will be left out of the process," Nabulsi said.

In the battle for Arab public opinion, Iran and assorted Islamists, many with no links to Iran appears to be winning on points. Iranian statements and paper tiger moves like signing up volunteers for the fighting in Gaza who don't have a hope in hell of making their way to the strip or establishing a court to try Israelis for war crimes, capture the headlines. Arab backroom diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire play less well in the media. "IIran's political success from this episode, even if it proves to be only short term, could prove to be a political embarrassment for the Arab regimes in the long term and may possibly bring wider and more dangerous political repercussions and domestic instability," warns Leila Nadir in an analysis published by The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

In a bid to stir the pot, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in early January that Gazans were justified in their belief that some Arab countries had "betrayed" them. While Arab leaders have little to show for their efforts beyond a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire that has been ignored by both Israel and Hamas, Iran does not have the clout to push a substantial diplomatic initiative of any kind. Its call for an Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) summit has been ignored. It can together with Syria, however, influence whether the conflict spreads to other parts of the Middle East, particularly Lebanon through its ally, Hizbollah. Yet, there it like Arab governments has been careful to ensure that the fighting is restricted to Gaza.

Some analysts warn that Iran's strategy is not without risk on the eve of President-elect Obama Barack taking office. "…the criticism (Iran) is leveling at the Arab world will prove to be a setback to the diplomatic links Iran has been working hard to cultivate in the face of US pressure on the Arab world to keep Iran in isolation," Nadir says. Iranian and Hizbollah attacks on Egypt's refusal to open the Rafah crossing wipe out a cautious improvement of relations Iran had achieved in the course of the last year. Iran's vocal support for Hamas will also not play well in any Obama effort to engage Iran in a bid to realign its posture and policies through diplomacy rather than confrontation.

For pro-American Arab governments battling Iran for the hearts and minds of the Muslim Middle East, the tone the Obama administration strikes from day one is of crucial importance. A US engagement that strikes a note more sensitive to Arab sentiment while maintaining support for Israeli security would help vindicate their position. Media in pro-Western nations responded positively to Hillary Clinton's initial statements in Congressional hearings on Tuesday to confirm her as Secretary of State. In stark contrast to the Bush administration, Clinton while stressing Israel's right to self-defense expressed concern about the "tragic humanitarian costs" of the conflict not only for Israelis but also Palestinians and the price being paid by civilians on both side of the divide. "Gone was the tone of confrontation and ideological rhetoric that characterized the foreign policy of the United States during the past 8 years," said the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper.

As pundits debate whether Israel will want the war in Gaza to still be ongoing when Obama takes office, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Hamas, despite the Israeli pummeling, is not willing to settle for a ceasefire at any price. Hamas does not need to defeat Israeli troops to emerge victorious from the fighting. The longer it holds out and the longer it is perceived by Palestinians and Arabs as acquitting itself well, the bigger the chance that the war will allow it to strengthen its claim to Palestinian leadership and strengthen opposition to Arab governments seen as having failed the people of Gaza.

So far that strategy may be succeeding. Israeli intelligence officials briefing journalists according to The New York Times said they had damaged Hamas' military wing “to a certain extent” but that the group’s military capability was still intact. However, the officials suggested that the offensive so far had been more successful in undermining Hamas’ political cohesion and that cracks were appearing in the group’s political leadership.

That could ultimately result in a for Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza even messier situation in which the military wing enjoys greater autonomy. The intelligence officials noted that the leadership in Gaza was more eager to reach agreement on a ceasefire than their colleagues in exile in Damascus. The New York Times, apparently corroborating the Israeli assertion, quoted Egyptian officials as saying that Hamas representative had openly disagreed with one another during ceasefire negotiations in Cairo. Tariq Alhomayed in Asharq Al-Awsat says Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mashaal rejects a permanent truce and negotiations with Israel as well a proposed agreement to reopen the border crossings to Gaza based on a 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Authority because that would prevent the movement from procuring arms in Gaza. By contrast, Alhomayed quotes Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniya as arguing in favor of a ceasefire, saying that “we will work positively with any initiative that aims to bring [Israeli] aggression to an end, to bring about withdrawal, to end the siege and to open the crossings.” While Mashaal was calling for an uprising in the Arab world, Haniya refused to criticize Arab governments, Alhomayed said.

In figuring out who won what in the Gaza war once the guns falls silent, the devil is likely to be in the details. Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer predicts that Israel will likely have to concede to lift the siege of Gaza as part of ceasefire agreement. "After the military campaign is over, Israel's control of Gaza's economy will be its principal lever for translating its military achievements into political gains—above all, the continued degradation of Hamas control. Gaza will be desperate for all material things. Whoever controls their distribution will effectively control many aspects of daily life in Gaza. This is a card Israel must be careful not to trade, either for a cease-fire or for international anti-smuggling cooperation on the Egypt-Gaza border. ... Israel should be willing to ease sanctions only if an international consortium for reconstruction is established, which has the legitimate Palestinian Authority as its sole agent within Gaza. In any cease-fire agreement, Israel should agree to open the crossings only to emergency food and medical aid—as it has during the fighting itself," Kramer says.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Kramer’s colleague at the Washington Institute, David Schenker, argues that the key to achieving that control lies in Egypt’s ability and willingness to shut down the underground tunnels linking Egypt with Gaza. The tunnels have been a major target of the Israeli air force in the offensive. Israel asserts that Hamas uses the tunnels to replenish its military stockpiles. “As pressure mounts for a cease-fire, the disposition of these tunnels -- and specifically, what actions Cairo is prepared to take to close them -- seems likely to prove the difference between war and peace,” Schenker says. He says that Hamas had smuggled “some 80 tons of weapons from Egypt, including longer-range Iranian-made rockets that brought 10 percent of the Israeli population within striking distance" during the six months of the Israel Hamas ceasefire that ended last month. Egypt has asserted it could not properly police the border because it was hamstrung in its efforts as a result of restrictions imposed by the Israeli Egyptian peace treaty on its ability to deploy troops in the Sinai desert. Some Israelis charge that corrupt Egyptian civilian and military officials benefit from the lucrative trade through the tunnels; Schenker says Egypt may have turned a blind eye to demonstrate support for the Palestinians and build goodwill with Hamas.

Despite political infighting notwithstanding within Hamas, among the Palestinians and in the Arab world at large, Palestinians may be winning a key battle. "Palestinians are winning the legitimacy war and that might be more important than winning the military war. That's what defeated the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan… it is also what defeated apartheid in South Africa ," United Nations Special Human Rights Rapporteur Prof. Richard Falk told Al Jazeera earlier this week.

The anti-Israel demonstrations in Western capitals, anecdotal evidence and opinion polls in the United States suggest that Palestinians may not only be winning the legitimacy battle in their own backyard but in the West too. Author Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing in the International Herald Tribune recounts a story recounted by historian Tony Judt several years ago. Judt was discussing with his class at New York University the emotional resonance of the Spanish Civil War the fact that Franco's had long remained "a land of shame that people boycotted for its crimes and repression." Judt told the class he could not think of a contemporary equivalent of a country so disliked and despised. To which a young woman responded: "What about Israel?" To the surprise of Judt, who grew up supporting Israel and has since become a critic of the Jewish state, most of the class including many Jews nodded in approval.

"Those college kids were the next generation of adult American citizens, and we can now see the times a-changing in polls. A majority of Americans still endorse the Israeli action in Gaza, over those who don't and think Israel should have pursued a diplomatic path - but only by 44 to 41 percent, a much slimmer margin of support than Israel enjoyed quite recently. More to the point, Democratic voters oppose the Israeli attack by a margin of 22 percent, and a Democrat is, after all, about to be inaugurated as president... For more than 60 years Israel has shown that it can win every battle by military might. But there is also what the Declaration of Independence calls "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind," and the battle for opinion cannot be won by brute force alone," Wheatcroft says.

Steve Rosen, writing on Obama Mideast Monitor agrees with Wheatcroft’s 44 percent of Americans supporting Israel’s use of force, but quotes a McClatchy/Ipsos poll that found that only 18 percent considered Hamas' use of force appropriate; 57 percent thought that Hamas was using excessive force, while only 36 percent said Israel was.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gaza: More Lessons Not Learnt

The 2006 Lebanon war hovers like a ghost above Israel's offensive against Gaza. The war 2.5 years ago against Hizbollah constituted a watershed in the history of military confrontation between Israelis and Arabs. An Arab military force for the first time stood its ground against Israel, the war ended without a military victor. That in and of itself constituted a military victory for Hizbollah and a defeat in Israel. Israel sees perceptions of its military superiority and invincibility as key to its national security.

Reasserting itself as the superior military force, capable not only of defeating conventional military but also guerrilla forces deeply embedded in a local population is certainly an Israeli goal in Gaza although that is unlikely to have been the driving motive in deciding to strike at Gaza. Yet, Hamas recognition that military resistance and low-intensity conflict is futile and exacts a heavy price is the key to Israel achieving its goal in Gaza: taming the Islamic resistance and reducing it to a state in which it feels that playing ball with Israel is its best option.

Comparisons in recent days between the 2006 Lebanon war and the offensive in Gaza come a dime a dozen these days. Israeli leaders insist that they have learnt the lessons of the Lebanon war and drawn conclusions from the Winograd Commission, which concluded in 2007 that Israeli political and military leaders had gone to more with no plan, proper consultation between the civilian and the military leadership and no exit strategy. For one, they note that unlike Lebanon, where the declared goal had been to destroy Hizbollah, Israel has set its sights lower in Gaza and aims only to stop Islamist rockets from threatening the south of the country.

One significant lesson however has certainly not been learned. Both Hizbollah and Hamas are to a significant degree, products of political, economic and social environments that Israel helped shape. Both were founded in the 1980s as a response to Israel's occupation of and intervention in Palestinian territory and Lebanon. Israel's use of force and to impose its terms on the Palestinians and Lebanon its unwillingness to accept what the most moderate Palestinian forces need to conclude peace has consistently boomeranged. Israel's Palestinian negotiating partner, the Palestine Authority, is struggling to salvage credibility, and reliant on outside powers – Israel, the United States and the Arabs – to help it succeed. Instead of secular nationalists, Israel's most formidable adversaries are Islamists who have proven to be militarily far more inventive and skilled that their secular predecessors and enjoy wide spread popular support.

"…destruction and body counts are not the most useful criteria to use in this analysis. The real measure of what matters politically is the nagging Israeli sense of vulnerability and the Palestinian sense of empowerment, defiance, and capacity to fight back," writes journalist Rami G. Khouri in The Daily Star. "It is a gruesome but tangible victory for Hamas simply to be able to keep firing 30 or 40 rockets a day at southern Israel, while Israel systematically destroys much of the security and civilian infrastructure in Gaza. The David and Goliath story is being reversed - in exactly the same region in southern Palestine-Israel where the story took place in the Bible."

A second lesson not learnt that Israelis and Arabs share more in common than perhaps they would like. The opposite of the Israeli notion that Arabs understand force is true. The advent of live satellite television broadcasting images of dead innocent civilians, including women and children strengthens resolve among Palestinians to fight and widens the wedge between Arab public opinion and rulers. Israelis support the offensive in Gaza and accept the devastating effect it has on the civilian population as a means of self-defense in much the same way that Palestinians and Arabs view rocket attacks on southern Israel. The birth of Hamas and Hizbollah and their effectiveness is rooted in Israel's inability and unwillingness to recognize the symmetry.

A third lesson yet to be learned is that part of the strength of Hamas and Hizbollah is that their popular roots stem from their ability unlike their secular predecessors to cater to a multiple needs of local residents, including governance rather than corruption, local security, a sense of national defense and resistance and delivery of basic services. In its attempts to undermine and discredit them, Israel focuses exclusively on one aspect of their operations, be it violence, relationships with Syria and Iran or their Islamist agenda, rather than on the totality of what they represent. It is that totality that makes it difficult to isolate Hamas or Hizbollah from the environment they operate in and thus hard, if not impossible, to defeat. Hamas "is nothing tangible that you can knock down, it is not a building," says Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence agent and European Union adviser and founder of the Conflicts Forum that seeks engagement with groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.

Ironically, this last lesson is one that others alongside Israel have yet to learn. Deep seated animosity between the Palestine Authority in the West Bank and Hamas persuaded the authority to effectively reinforce Israel's stranglehold on Gaza by withholding funds and basic goods as documented by Sara Roy of Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies in the London Review of Books. Starting in June, the Ramallah-based Palestine Water Authority (PWA) refused to pass on World Bank funds earmarked for Gaza's Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), an entity not controlled by Hamas, that would enable it to pay for fuel to run the pumps for the strip's sewage system. The Palestine Authority's Health Ministry, responsible for procuring and delivering most of pharmaceuticals and medical disposables for Gaza, was throughout November turning shipments away because it had no warehouse space, yet not sending supplies on to Gaza in adequate quantities, according to Roy. Banks in Gaza, suffering from Israeli restrictions on the transfer of banknotes into the territory were forced to close on 4 December. A sign on the door of one read: 'Due to the decision of the Palestinian Finance Authority, the bank will be closed today Thursday, 4.12.2008, because of the unavailability of cash money, and the bank will be reopened once the cash money is available.'

As the Israeli offensive drags on, the Palestine Authority, increasingly on the defensive is being forced to reverse course and seek a rapprochement with Hamas. Both Hamas and officials of Fatah, the Palestinian group dominating the authority, have in recent days acknowledged the need for renewed dialogue. In a concession to Hamas, Authority officials say Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to release hundreds of Hamas activists imprisoned on the West Bank, a condition Hamas has set for the restart of talks. Hamas in November boycotted talks with Fatah mediated by Egypt because Abbas was holding the Hamas supporters. Abbas, says Middle East analyst Robert O. Freedman "has to be concerned about a sympathy vote for Hamas in the forthcoming Palestinian Legislative Council elections (if they are held, as tentatively scheduled in April 2009) - … in what has become a zero-sum-game struggle between Hamas and Fatah for leadership of the Palestinian movement."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hizbollah: Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

For the past two years, Lebanon's Hizbollah Party of God has basked in its status as the only Arab military force to have stood up to Israeli military superiority and foiled Israeli military attempts to defeat it on the battle field. This week Hizbollah exploited its status to organize the Arab world's largest protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah urged Muslims across the Arab and Islamic world to rise in support of the Palestinians.

Yet, as Israeli air strikes on Gaza continue and Israeli ground troops mass along Israel's border with the Strip, Nasrallah risks looking like other Arab leaders unable and/or unwilling to do more for the Palestinians than employ rhetoric and verbal protests and organize political rallies. Recent studies have concluded that Hizbollah remains a considerable military force capable of pouring rockets and missiles into northern Israel. Al Hayat newspaper reports that Egypt and Turkey have decided to warn Israel that a ground assualt could provoke Hizbullah in attacking Israel from southern Lebanon.

It cannot be very long before Hizbollah will have to explain what makes it different from Arab states fearful that the confrontation in Gaza could escalate into wider regional conflict and therefore unwilling to grant Palestinians more than moral and humanitarian support? Hizbollah's dilemma is likely to be increasingly highlighted as Arab leaders fail to effectively respond to the Gaza crisis. Arab foreign ministers are scheduled to meet tomorrow in emergency session in Cairo, five days after Israel launched its assault on Hamas. Plans for a possible Arab summit in Doha on Friday that would produce only one more statement are politically risky. "Staging an Arab summit could be dangerous and subject to criticism, especially if it does not result in practical measures," news reports quoted Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit as saying. Yet, continuing to be seen as impotent is equally risky. Just how great those risks are perceived is reflected in Jordan King Abdullah's decision to fire in the middle of a regional crisis his head of intelligence, Mohammed al-Thahbi. Al-Thahbi had led in recent months Jordan's rapprochement with Hamas as well as the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The potentially explosive mix of anger at Israel and frustration with glaring Arab impotence coupled with criticism of authoritarian governments unwilling to grant greater freedom was evident at yesterday's demonstration in Cairo, the largest since the 2006 Lebanon war. Egyptian President Hosni Mobarak alongside his foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Arab leaders in general were targets of the crowds anger. "The blood of the martyrs will remain a disgrace on the forehead of (Arab) leaders," read one banner. Protesters shouted: "Aboul Gheit, you are a coward, just shut up." In a rare public appearance, Muslim Brotherhood supreme leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef told the crowd of several thousand: "It's needless to say that the Zionist enemy, which is occupying Palestine, the Arab and Islamic land, wouldn't have been able to conduct these horrific criminal massacres without scandalous international complicity, humiliating silence, shameful impotence and disgraceful Arab collaboration."

Egypt, one of two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, risks being pressured by more radical Arab nations to break off relations with the Jewish state. More level headed leaders are unlikely to want to jeopardize Egypt's role as a mediator between Hamas, Israel and the Palestine Authority. Meanwhile, 81 of the 135 members of Jordan's parliament have urged the government to reconsider its ties with Israel. As pressures on Arab leaders mount, eyes will also be on what Hizbollah does. Al Hayat quoted Turkish sources as saying that Egypt and Turkey would put forward a plan for a ceasefire that would involve opening Gaza crossings, lifting of the siege of Gaza and regional and international guarantees to ensure the ceasefire is honored.

Obviously, neither Lebanon, Hizbollah's home base, nor Syria, together with Iran Hizbollah's main backer, want to be drawn into military confrontation with Israel and Hizbollah may not want to risk being blamed for an all-out regional war. Moreover, Syria, for much of this year, has been engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel mediated by Turkey. Already, Gaza puts those talks in jeopardy. Syria nonetheless is also not spared ridicule. "Whenever Arab governments call for peace, the Assad regime, which has not fired a bullet to liberate its (Israeli-) occupied Golan Heights since 1974, wages its fictional war on Israel through its state-owned media and its proteges in Lebanon, who accuse Arab governments of letting down the Palestinians by not marching to war with Israel.... Perhaps it is the time now for the former strong man of Lebanon, ths Syrian intelligence officer Rustum Ghazaleh, to use the 'Rifle of Resistance' that Mr. Nasrallah bestowed on him in 2005," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a visiting fellow at London's Chatham House.

Iran like many Arab states is not holding its breath for a substantial change in US policy when President-elect Barak Obama takes office next month, but may hope that Obama will be more inclined to lower tensions and seek a resolution to the region's multiple conflicts. So far Iran's response has been at best symbolic, only outdoing the Arabs in the shrillness of its rhetoric. Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported that hard line clerics were signing up volunteers to fight in Gaza. But with Israel and Egypt controlling all access to Gaza, those volunteers were unlikely to see action any time soon. Hizbollah leader Nasrallah seemed to suggest in his speech to the Beirut rally that his organization had no immediate intention of becoming embroiled in renewed military confrontation with Israel. Nasrallah went out of his way to deny knowledge of eight rockets aimed at Israel that were discovered in southern Lebanon last week.

Islamist leaders meanwhile walk a tightrope, seeking to exploit the Gaza conflict to their political advantage, while not upsetting a fragile political balance. While Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo called yesterday for continued peaceful demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, but many in the crowd demanded that Arab armies come to the aid of the Palestinians. Hizbollah, with the exception of Palestinian Islamists like Hamas, is the region's only non-state actor with a military capability of its own. Channeling and exploiting public anger while doing little to put its money where its mouth is, could well put a dent in its claim to the mantle of resistance against the Israelis, a mantle that now could well be inherited by Hamas. If anything, Hizbollah's caution proves that Islamists like all political players are mindful of circumstance and operate within the parameters of political realities.

These realities are compounded by facts on the ground. While Nasrallah's and Akef's calls for continued protests are likely to raise temperatures and increase public pressures, little will change on the ground. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al Destour, an Egyptian opposition daily told The National there was little hope that millions of Egyptians would heed Nasrallah's call for demonstrations to force Mubarak to fully open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. "The truth is that the Egyptian people are exhausted and besieged by thousands of security officers who managed to scare the Egyptians. Therefore, no one will respond to Nasrallah's appeal because the nation who can't confront despotism won't be able to combat its enemy or support its brothers," The Nation quoted Eissa as saying.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Double-faced Arab Politics

Arab condemnation of Israeli attacks on Gaza is vocal and universal. For some Arab countries, that condemnation appears more designed to cater to mounting public anger at the attacks as well as Arab inability to do anything real to stop the assault rather than at really forcing a halt to Israeli operations. Arab nations like Egypt, which engineered the six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that ended last week and has been mediating between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian group that controls the Palestine Authority on the West Bank, as well as the Gulf states see Islamists with widespread public appeal as potentially the biggest challenge to their regimes. But mounting public anger in the Arab world coupled with the high death toll in Gaza could undermine the tightrope these Arab leaders are walking. Already, public anger at events in Gaza is spilling into the streets of Arab capitals across the region from Yemen to Mauritania.

For the Islamists, the Israeli attacks are a window of opportunity and they are exploiting it to the hilt. In Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef led demonstrations in Cairo while angry arguments between Muslim Brotherhood and ruling NDP deputies have roiled Parliament. Islamist deputies in Jordan have called for the severance of relations with Israel. Egyptian opposition daily Al-Dustour called for a popular response to Egypt's alleged collaboration with Israel commensurate with the magnitude of events and popular fury.

Details of that alleged cooperation are reported by London’s pro-Palestinian Arab-language Al Quds Al-Arabi. The newspaper quotes Palestinian and Arab diplomatic sources as saying that Egypt and perhaps other Arab states effectively worked with Israel to mislead Hamas about Israel’s plans so that the Islamists would be caught off guard when Israel launched its attack. Al Quds Al-Arabi quotes the sources as saying that Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman informed several Arab leaders that Israel was considering a limited attack on Gaza to force Hamas to renew the ceasefire it allowed to elapse, but that it had not yet formally decided to do so. Suleiman allegedly left the impression that an Israeli decision would not be taken before today’s weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Suleiman’s message followed a visit on Thursday to Cairo by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in which Egyptian leaders tacitly endorsed Israeli plans, according to Al Quds Al-Arabi, but cautioned Israel to avoid civilian casualties in a bid not to provoke Arab public opinion. The paper quoted a source close to Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar as saying that Egypt had advised Hamas on Friday evening, hours before Israel launched its strikes that Israel had agreed to negotiate a new ceasefire and would not attack in the meantime.

Some well-placed Arab sources believe however that Egypt may not have been a party to the Israeli plans and was itself mislead. These sources say that Livni assured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other senior officials that Israel had not yet decided to attack Gaza. Egypt has publicly condemned the Israeli attacks in stark terms as ”murder.” One Arab source told me as he prepared to leave for Muscat for tomorrow’s summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council that comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman and is certain to be dominated by events in Gaza: “If the Egyptians wanted Israel to teach Hamas a lesson because it refused to extend the ceasefire, Egypt will end up learning a lesson. Hamas is a genuinely popular movement, it cannot be destroyed.” The summit has gained importance because it is the first Arab gathering since the Israeli air strikes began after Arab foreign ministers postponed an emergency meeting originally scheduled for today until Wednesday, a move that many in the Arab world see as underscoring Arab impotence. Speaking at a news conference in Gaza on Sunday, Hamas officials said Arab silence had made the Israeli attack possible.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit fueled suspicions that Egypt had played Israel’s game by saying on Saturday that Hamas was responsible for the outbreak of violence because of its repeated firing of rockets into Israel and noticing that both Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had warned Hamas of the consequences if it failed to do so. Al Quds al-Arabi earlier this week quoted intelligence minister Suleiman as telling Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad that the “Hamas leadership must be reined in, even in Damascus” where part of the Hamas leadership resides after the Islamists refused to restart talks aimed at bridging differences with Fatah. The paper quoted Suleiman as saying the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ Politburo, Khaled Mashaal, was responsible for the decision to continue firing missiles at Israel. It said Suleiman described Hamas leaders as ‘thugs’ and a ‘gang’ that would pay a heavy price for its intransigence. "Hamas' leadership is guilty of hubris. It snubs Egypt. Its leaders must be reined in and must wake up from their dream," Al Quds al-Arabi quoted Suleiman as saying.

Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, caught between a rock and a hard place, also placed the blame for the Israeli air strikes while on a visit to Cairo squarely on the shoulders of Hamas. In doing so, he aligned himself with Egypt and the Bush administration, the only member of the quartet seeking Middle East peace – the US, UN, EU and Russia – not to condemn the Israeli attacks, calling instead on Hamas to stop its rocket attacks and on Israel to avoid civilian casualties. Despite the fact that Hamas TV today appeared to confirm Israeli assertions that a majority of the dead in Gaza were Hamas fighters by reporting that 180 Hamas fighters had been killed since the beginning of the Israeli attack, Abbas posture is unlikely to enjoy much popular Palestinian support.

Abbas said Hamas could have averted the attacks by extending the ceasefire. He said he had contacted Hamas leaders directly and pleaded with them to extend the ceasefire to avoid bloodshed. If any Arab leader sees his position threatened by the situation in Gaza, it must be Abbas. Israeli sanctions on Gaza have served to strengthen popular support for Hamas rather than persuade public opinion that Hamas’ intransigence is the reason their lives are so difficult. That support for Hamas is further enhanced by the boycott by Israel and much of the international community despite the fact that Palestinians democratically elected Hamas in 2007. It is Hamas rather than Fatah and the Palestine Authority that today is seen to be standing up to Israel. The siege of Gaza and the Israeli attacks are accelerating popular rallying around the Islamists, who had made the lifting of the siege a precondition for extension of the ceasefire. Sanctions have historically proven ineffective in persuading populations to revolt asserting that the powers to be are the reason that their lives are being made miserable. Instead public opinion invariably puts the blame on those imposing sanctions. Gaza is no different.

Speaking from Damascus, Khaled Mashaal called for renewed suicide attacks and for Palestinians to revolt in a third Intifada. The Israeli air strikes make reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas virtually impossible as such as unification of Palestinian ranks would put Hamas back in the driving seat with Abbas as an adjunct. As a result, Abbas, foremost among Arab leaders, can only hope that Israel’s military offensive will succeed and succeed fast with not too much further bloodshed. The longer the attacks continue the more blood is shed, the more popular Hamas becomes across the Arab world and the more difficult it becomes for moderate, pro-western leaders. West Bank Palestinian opposition leaders are already calling on Abbas to stop peace talks with Israel and close ranks with Hamas in the face of the Israeli aggression. "Forget about Palestinian unity. It is a mirage. Tou can't unite with a bunch of collaborators who are seeking to take Gaza back," says Azzam Tamimi, author of 'Hamas: A History From Within,' referring to Abbas.

For Israel, the United States, Egypt and Abbas the end game has to be the restoration of Gaza to Palestine Authority control. Israeli tanks and troops are already massing on Gaza's border for what could be phase two of the Israeli operation with a ground assault. In the short term, months long sanctions against Hamas, including the Israeli Should Israel succeed in defeating Hamas and returning Gaza to moderate Palestinian control, quick, significant and tangible progress in resolving the Palestinian issue would be the only thing that would save Abbas from being successfully portrayed as an Israeli collaborator. For the time being, that seems to be more of a fata morgana. Already, the attack on Gaza is taking its toll on what little is left of the peace process with Syria reportedly having broken off indirect talks with Israel.