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."

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gaza Negotiations: On Whose Terms?

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's remarks in Paris after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy were telling in terms of what the Gaza war is really about. Livni left no doubt that Israel's campaign against Hamas is not designed to destroy the organization but to cut it down to size. The Israel-Hamas fight seeks to determine the balance of power in future negotiations that would permanently end violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Despite Israeli rhetoric, Israeli officials across the political spectrum agree that Hamas cannot be defeated militarily, at least not at a price Israel would find acceptable or feasible. To totally destroy Hamas, Israel would have to re-occupy Gaza, a move it is unlikely to make, even as some form of ground offensive seems imminent. As a result, Israel realizes that Hamas is in Gaza to stay for the foreseeable future, and probably would re-win the West Bank in a free and fair election.

Indeed having learnt a lesson in Lebanon where Hizbollah prevented Israel from achieving its goal of destroying the Islamists, Israeli officials limit their announced goals for the military campaign against Gaza to 'creating calm in the country's south' and 'changing the security environment.' Livni made a point in Paris of saying that overthrowing Hamas was not an Israeli goal. "We affected most of the infrastructure of terrorism in the Gaza Strip and the question whether it's enough or not will be according to our assessment on a daily basis," the foreign minister said.

That assessment largely involves a judgment of whether Israel can pound Hamas into submission. That would likely involve Hamas accepting a ceasefire that guarantees a halt to future rocket attacks, in part by Hamas accepting that access to the strip will be controlled by Israel, Egypt and the Palestine Authority. That would be a far cry from Hamas' demand for unconditional opening of all border crossings which would grant it a significant say in what goes in and out of Gaza.

Ironically, Hamas, if it can be contained and subdued, serves Israeli strategy. The split between Fatah and Hamas has weakened the Palestinians and strengthen Israel. Fatah, which dominates the Palestine Authority on the West Bank, has lost credibility because of widespread corruption, it's siding with Israel and the United States in seeking to isolate Hamas and its inability to stop Israeli settlement activity and increasingly harsh restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank as well as its failure to secure a settlement acceptable to Palestinians. Hamas, meanwhile, has inherited the mantle of Palestinian resistance from Fatah.

For Israel, the question is whether it can rob Hamas of that mantle and force it to accept realities on the ground. With other words, the current military campaign aims to tame rather than crush Hamas. Ultimately this would make Hamas a negotiating partner acceptable to Israel, one that would likely enjoy greater popular support and credibility than the Palestine Authority. Israel has long blamed lack of progress in peace talks on the absence of a credible and effective negotiating partner even if its policies contributed to preventing the emergence of such a partner. Israeli leaders moreover realize that destruction of Hamas would leave a power vacuum in Gaza with no credible force to fill it.

Israeli hopes that its blockade of Gaza that started shortly after Hamas took control of the strip in 2007 would spark a popular uprising against the Islamists were dashed, leaving Israel with the choice of engaging with a strong, defiant Hamas or seeking to cut it down to size. Israel's message now delivered through the barrel of a gun is simple: if you want to retain control, forget your popular mandate to resist occupation and hold on to power on our terms and with our consent.

As a result, Israel despite its rhetoric has so far largely refrained in the current campaign from killing senior Hamas leaders. Nizar Rayyan, the most senior leader killed so far, was a hard liner, who advocated the resumption of suicide bombings in Israel and sent his own 17-year-old son on a suicide mission; an act that made him a symbol of personal sacrifice among the Palestinians. A prayer leader, who frequently appeared armed in the company of members of Hamas' military wing, Rayyan, played a key role in coordinating between the group's political and military arms. Rayyan, according to Radio Netherlands, initiated Hamas' human shield tactic when Israel in 2005 began targeting the homes of Hamas activists. He would take women and children to the roofs of threatened buildings to prevent Israeli bombardments, a tactic that saved dozens of activists. The tactic failed today when Rayyan's four wives and nine of his 12 children died alongside him in the rubble of a four-story apartment building in the Gabalia refugee camp. He clearly was not a figure who would fit into Israeli plans for Hamas.

The possibly imminent ground battle is likely to determine the balance of power between Israel and Hamas. Hamas and other Islamist groups, including Islamic Jihad, believe a ground battle will give them a strategic edge despite Israeli military superiority. The ground battle and the struggle for whose terms will frame future negotiations involves a geo-politically equally important battle over the degree of Iranian influence in the region. Hamas and other Palestinian Islamists like Hizbollah, which made its military mark in 2006, enjoy varying degrees of Iranian support. Speaking in a rare interview to The National, Islamic Jihad commander Abu Bilal said Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel were designed to lure Israeli ground troops into Gaza. "We are praying for the tanks to come so we can show them new things. We have made many preparations for the coming battle and all of our fighters wait for the chance to kill them," Abu Bilal said. The National quoted sources close to Islamic Jihad as saying many of its fighters had in recent years been trained by Hizbollah, whose combatants surprised Israel with their ability to ambush Israeli tanks. Hizbollah fighters, however, enjoyed far easier access to advanced Iranian weaponry than do their counterparts in Gaza.

The outcome of the Israel-Hamas battle for determination of the terms of any future negotiation is certain to impact domestic politics in Arab countries. A tamed Hamas forced to tune down its rhetoric and accommodate realities on the ground would provide less of a boost to Islamists across the region than a Hamas that emerges as a perceived, defiant victor capable of withstanding the onslaught of Israeli military superiority.

A majority of Arab governments, fearful that a Hamas victory would strengthen Islamists in their own backyard, have allowed public protests in a bid to channel mounting domestic anger and frustration. Yet, cracks are appearing in that approach as the gulf widens between Arab official impotence and/or unwillingness to effectively on behalf of Gaza and public demands for a response. Egyptian police detained 20 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to security officials, as the group called for mass demonstrations against the Israeli offensive.The Brotherhood said police rounded up at least nine members in four provinces.

The Brotherhood like its counterparts in Jordan and Mauritania, together with Egypt, the only Arab countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel, is calling for a breaking off of ties with the Jewish states. Of the three, Mauritania is the weak link in the chain. Libya and several Gulf states have reportedly offered financial assistance if Mauretania were to cut its diplomatic relations with Israel. Mauritania is walking a tightrope. Breaking off relations would open the impoverished nation to enhanced financial support from its Arab brethren and strengthen its position in disputes with Algeria, but threaten its important security and economic ties to the United States and the European Union.

Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations are legally banned, has opted for a complete clampdown because it fears that anti-Israel protests would open a Pandora's Box that would lead to demonstrations on domestic Saudi issues and demands for greater freedom. A Saudi human rights group, Human Rights First Society, reports that two Saudi activists, Khaled al Omeir and Mohammed al Otaibi, were arrested this week as they arrived for a demonstration in predominantly Shiite Qatif and Safwa. Police dispersed hundreds of protesters with rubber bullets.

The Saudi human rights group also said that authorities had detained a prominent radical Saudi cleric, Sheikh Awad al Qarni, after he had issued a fatwa endorsing attacks against Israelis wherever they may be. "Their blood should be shed as the blood of our brothers in Palestine has been shed. They should feel pain more than our brothers," Al Qarni said. Al Qarni's fatwa came days after Damascus-based Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal called for suicide attacks on Israel.

In what must be a bid to further fuel fears of enhanced Iranian regional influence against the backdrop of the Gaza crisis, Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat reports in a story entitled "A Chilling Report From Paris" that Iran is a "short distance" from securing its needs to make a nuclear warhead. Amir Taheri, a prominent, conservative columnist, who left Iran with the fall of the Shah, quotes a report prepared for the French National Assembly and submitted to President Sarkozy as saying that Iran will join the nuclear club no later than the end of 2011. "…it makes it clear that 2009 may be the last year in which the major powers would be able to persuade the Islamic Republic not to cross the threshold of making the bomb... If it is decided that Tehran should be stopped before the threshold at all costs, bolder diplomatic initiatives and/or military action might be needed," Taheri writes.

Perhaps more immediately, the Israeli attack on Gaza highlights a potentially vexing challenge for the Obama administration: how to deal with Hamas if Israel fails to cut it down to size. Matthew Levitt, a counter-terrorism and intelligence analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warns that acceptance of Hamas despite its advocacy of violence because it controls Gaza would convince radical Islamists across the region that they need not moderate their tactics to gain international recognition. ” The message to violent Islamists throughout the region must be clear: Terrorism and politics cannot go hand in hand,” Levitt says.

Instead, he advocates encouraging political reform within the moderate Palestinian camp dominated by Fatah. Fatah pledged reform after its devastating electoral defeat to Hamas in 2006 but failed to follow through. He further suggests increased US, Israeli and European efforts to improve the day-to-day lives of West Bank residents through development and law-and-order and security assistance. Finally, Levitt advocates a strengthening of the siege of Gaza by pressing Egypt to effectively police its border with Gaza so that Hamas can no longer smuggle funds and supplies into the strip. Fact of the matter is, these policies have all been tried, and their failure is what led to the Israeli assault.

They failed because sanctions and boycotts seldom prove to be effective incentives for populations to revolt against an incumbent authority and perhaps more importantly because Palestinians will remain incapable of putting their own house in order as long as Israel does not demonstrate real commitment to the Palestinian right to a state that is viable and independent. “That such a clear commitment has not been made to this day is far more revealing of Israeli intentions and US/European indifference than any number of confidence-building measures that have left entirely unchanged the Palestinians' status as a people under the heel of a crushing and open-ended occupation,” says Henry Siegman, a visiting research professor at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, writing in The Nation.

Siegman’s argument was recently supported by none other than outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interview with the New York Review of Books. A long time hawk and supporter of a Greater Israel that would incorporate the West Bank, Olmert,conceded that Israel cannot achieve peace without a return of "all, or nearly all," of the territories occupied in 1967 and agreement that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state. Omert’s statement contradict policies he adhered to while in government. Olmert said Israel had achieved peace with Egypt but not with Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Syria because it had advised Egypt in advance of negotiations that it would withdraw from all occupied Egyptian territory and that it was prepared to negotiate implementation of that goal. The Israeli position was conveyed to Egypt during secret talks in Morocco prior to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem between then Israeli Defense Minister and an Egyptian general.

That, Olmert said, is something Israel has refused to say to the Palestinians or the Syrians, and that is why all previous negotiations have gone nowhere. On the contrary, starting with Dayan, Israeli policies were always devised to retain as much of the occupied territories as possible even if that meant not resolving the Palestinian issue. Asked in the late 1970s about a solution to the occupation, Dayan responded: "The question is not 'What is the solution?' but 'How do we live without a solution?'" Geoffrey Aronson director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and a veteran observer of Israeli settlement policy says that "living without a solution, then as now, was understood by Israel as the key to maximizing the benefits of conquest while minimizing the burdens and dangers of retreat or formal annexation."

Given its military, economic and diplomatic superiority, Israel had until now little real incentive to accommodate a weak, virtually impotent adversary. The Israel Hamas struggle to determine the balance of power coupled with the growing Israeli realization that continued occupation poses a demographic threat to the Jewish nature of the state of Israel could however turn solving the Palestinian issue an Israeli vested interest. And that may provide the Obama administration with the opportunity to succeed where past US governments have failed. To do so, the administration would have to help restore a balance between Israel and the Palestinians by leveraging its unquestioned support for Israel to ensure that Israel commits in advance of negotiations to implementation of the international consensus embodied in UN Resolutions 242 and 338, the 1993 Oslo Accords, the 2003 road map and the 2007 Annapolis understandings involving an end to Israeli settlement policy and mutually agreed changes to the pre-1967 borders that would delineate Israel and Palestine. That is a tall order for any US President and certainly for one who comes to office with a multitude of domestic and international crises on his plate.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The War of Words

The battle for public opinion is part of any war. Ensuring that one's terminology is widely adopted is key to that battle. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nowhere is the multitude of conflicting terms employed by both sides greater. The conflict in Gaza is no exception. If in the past this war of words focused at least from an Israeli perspective primarily on public opinion in the West, today it focuses at least as much if not more on perceptions in the Arab and Muslim world.

Leave aside the distinction between terrorist and resistance. The real struggle for the verbal high ground is embedded as Abu Aardvark points out in the very words Gaza and Hamas. Israeli operations are a war against the Palestinians for those who describe them as an attack on Gaza. To those who refer to the attack as an operation against Hamas, the Israeli operation is about more than simply taking sides between Israel, Hamas and the Palestinians.

Gaza means Israel versus Palestine and brings with it the demand for unconditional aid for the Palestinians and demands for an immediate stop to attacks that cause enormous suffering to a trapped civilian population. It puts Arab and Muslim government on the defensive. Significant segments of Arab media with Al Jazeera in the lead, whose coverage of the conflict stands out in the media landscape for its breadth and depth, have largely focused on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict, feeding and catering to widespread sentiment across the Arab and Muslim world.

So far defining the conflict as a war against Gaza is winning hands down against efforts to efforts to define it as a war against Hamas. For those, including Israel, the United States, the Palestine Authority, Egypt and conservative Arab states who define the conflict as one between Israel and Hamas, the issues go far beyond the Palestinian struggle to end Israeli occupation and secure a state of their own. For them, the issue is the growing strength of the Islamist movement across the region.

"Amid the carnage in Gaza, it's not immediately obvious that what is taking place has less to do with Israelis versus Palestinians than with Arabs versus Arabs, principally to define the future of the Middle East. The Gaza conflict has become part of an ongoing confrontation between regimes emerging from the Arab state system established over six decades ago, and, with one exception, new regional players vying to take their place," writes Michael Young, the conservative opinion editor of Beirut's The Daily Star. "What we see developing in the Middle East is an accelerating counterattack by non-state actors such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Islamic Jihad, all backed by a rising Iran, against the majority of Arab states committed to a negotiated peace with Israel. Manipulating the emotions that the fate of the Palestinians invariably release among Arabs, Tehran above all, but also the militant Islamist groups, are attempting to redraw the regional balance of power through a normalization of the armed struggle against Israel and a delegitimization of Arab states opposed to this," Young adds.

The degree to which the moral and human dimension of the Gaza conflict is winning it in the court of regional public opinion is evident from a roundup by Global Voices entitled 'Morocco: We Are All Gaza' of blogger responses in Morocco, a nation 3000 miles away from Gaza. "On ideological grounds I’m not a supporter of Hamas, but like it or not, these are the people who the Palestinians chose to lead them. After all, Hamas has always been cleaner than Fatah (its main political rival) and had a much better record in respecting the democratic process in Palestine since its inception... When in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and even during the 80’s, most of Palestinian militants were secular and mostly fighting a “conventional” war of liberation (i.e. not targeting civilians, and avoiding terror tactics -except the exceptions-), Israel responded with the same brutality and pushed the Palestinians little by little to the extreme," writes Hicham on Al Miraat.

During a visit to a hypermarket in Casablanca last year, I asked the head of sales in the computer department what keyboards sold best, Arabic or French-language ones. French, he said, and went on to say: "Relations with the West are good but they would be even better if the West would solve the conflicts in Palestine and Iraq." For a national, whose nation focuses far more on Europe and is only a stone throw away from a region where wealth is far more evenly distribute rather than on its Arab and Muslim brethren thousands of miles away, the salesman's comment was surprising. His most immediate concern was not commercial and economic improvement, it was the plight of people with whom he barely interacts. The salesman's comment goes a far way to explain why Gaza is winning the war of words and images and why Arab and Muslim anti-Hamas governments need to be seen to be expressing solidarity with the Palestinians and to be acting to achieve an immediate end to the violence and a lifting of the Israeli siege.

Mona Eltawahy, an Egyptian blogger in New York, graphically describes the war on words:

“Why aren’t you as an Arab lady writing about Gaza?

“Where are your columns about Gaza?

“Say the Israelis are wrong!

The messages started to arrive soon after Israel’s bombardment of Gaza killed close to 300 Palestinians. Implicit was the pressure to toe the party line, Hamas is good, Israel is bad. Say it, say it! Or else you’re not Arab enough, you’re not Muslim enough, you’re not enough,” Mona writes.

“But what to say about a conflict that for more than 60 years now has fed Arab and Israeli senses of victimhood and their respective demands to stop everything else we’re doing and pay attention to their fights because what’s the slaughter of anyone else – be they in Darfur, Congo or anywhere else – compared to their often avoidable bloodletting? Hasn’t it all been said before? Has nothing been learned? And then the suicide cyclist in Iraq made me snap and I had to write, not to take sides but to lament the moral bankruptcy that is born from the amnesia rife in the Middle East. On Sunday, a man on a bicycle blew himself up in the middle of an anti-Israel demonstration in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The technique legitimized and blessed by clerics throughout the Arab world as a weapon against Israel had gone haywire and was used against Arabs protesting Israel’s bombardment of Gaza,” she responds.

The war of words and images is likely to outlive the fighting on the ground. What will remain once the guns fall silent are the images of the civilian wounded and dead and a perception of who the ultimate winner is. The question is whether that will really have tangible political fallout in the region. If recent history is anything to go by, probably not. The war of words and images during and after the 2006 Israeli war against Hizbollah, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank in 2002 and the second Intifada two years earlier all had embedded perceptions that public anger could topple Arab regimes and rewrite the region's political map. Yet, nothing changed; the same Arab rulers remain in office today, often having successfully blunted demands for greater political freedoms with improved economic performance.

Analysis of the casualty figures in Gaza illustrates just how ideological the war of words and images is. From what can be derived from open sources, casualty figures have dropped substantially as the Israeli attacks drag on. In the first 24 hours civilian deaths were the highest, some 100 out of 282 dead. The total number of dead since then over a period of four days climbed much slower reaching just under 400 at the end of the fifth day of the fighting, with civilians accounting for a proximately 60 of those killed. The proportion of civilians among the 2000 wounded is less clear with medical aid workers in Gaza putting it at approximately 40 percent. Those figures could change dramatically if Israel launches a ground offensive in Gaza.

With a population of 1.5 million, Gaza is one of the world's most densely populated regions. Hamas no doubt has at least some of its military and certainly its political infrastructure embedded in heavily civilian populated areas. While Israel argues that this makes civilian casualties inevitable, Hamas' civilian neighbors even if they voted the Islamists into office had no say in whether they felt comfortable living next to potential Israeli targets and are certainly paying a heavy price. How decentralized Hamas' infrastructure across Gaza is becomes apparent on a UNOSAT map of Israeli targets in the strip so far published by the Olin Institute's Middle East Strategy At Harvard blog.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Iran Plays in the Background

Concern mounted in the weeks prior to Israeli strikes against Gaza that Iran was stepping up efforts to exploit tension in Palestine. That concern coupled with fear that a Hamas victory in Gaza would strengthen Islamist forces across the Middle East has driven a wedge between Arab public opinion demanding assistance to the Palestinians and Arab governments' inability to effectively respond to the crisis. Some analysts believe Iran earlier this month was stoking Shiites to embarrass Arab governments by demonstrating already before the Israeli strikes against the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

In what seemed to be a coordinated move, Shiites demonstrated on December 19 in Beirut, Bahrain and Qatif, a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shiites have more often defied a ban on public protests. With Hizbollah organizing the rally in Beirut, the Iranian connection was obvious. In Bahrain, the gathering of some 3,000 people ended in clashes with police, Three police officers were injured. Days earlier Bahrain arrested 15 people accused of planning to set off a series of bombs on Bahrain's national day. Saudijeans quotes the website Rasid as saying that several hundred demonstrators in Qatif waved posters of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasarallah and chanted anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans. Police did not intervene but arrested tens of participants several days later. When protesters gathered again on Monday in Qatif in the wake of the Israeli strikes, police fired rubber bullets to break up the protest. Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki, denied that Monday's demonstration took place. "Street protests are banned in the Kingdom and security forces will intervene to enforce the ban," Reuters quoted Al-Turki as saying. Saudijeans said several petitions to allow for demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians were rejected by the Interior Ministry, which fears that lifting the ban on public protests could set a precedent for demonstrations in demand of more rights in Saudi Arabia itself.

Reflecting Saudi concerns immediately after the demonstrations in Beirut, Bahrain and Qatif, Tariq Alhomayed, editor in chief of Saudi-owned Asharq Al Awsat wrote: "If the West fears the missiles that Iran claims it is developing, then we fear the Iranian bombs that are planted among us! The simplest example of this lies in last Friday's demonstrations in Bahrain. (Hamas political leader) Khalid Meshal repeatedly called for Arab demonstrations and received no response. Yet, when Hassan Nasrallah made similar calls for demonstrations in support the people of Gaza, even some Bahrainis took to the streets. Furthermore, the Bahraini protestors went so far as to pelt security officers with stones. What happened in Bahrain cannot be described as anything but a demonstration of power by the high-commissioner of Iran in our region, Hassan Nasrallah! It is so odd that the King of Bahrain [Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifah] instituted reforms in his country and relinquished some powers for the sake of his country and people, whilst some people [in Bahrain] are surrendering their decisions and freedom, not to mention their country's constitution, for the sake of the high-commissioner of the Wilayat Al Faqih," Iran's model of political guardianship of the clergy.

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.

Lessons Not Learnt

Ten-year old Mahdi al Dajani like his brother Ahmed, his mother and his grandmother sits glued to the television in Cairo watching events in Gaza unfold. "These scenes make me very sad and angry… I don't blame Hamas. I encourage Hamas to do more. I'm pro-resistance and martyrdom operations. Sometimes I feel this is what I want to do when I grow up," Mahdi tells a reporter of The National. "The more the Israelis strike, the more the victims, the more we love resistance. We have to resist by our minds, souls and bodies," adds Ahmed who attends a British international school in Cairo.

Those are stark words for two kids born and raised in Egypt who have never set foot in Palestine. Knowing who their grandfather was makes his grandson's views even starker. Ahmed Sidki Dajani was a soft-spoken historian, writer, diplomat, human rights campaigner and co-founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization who died in 2003. Within the PLO, a coalition of nationalist Palestinian guerrilla groups, some of them stooges of radical Arab states, Dajani cut an elegant and intellectual figure. More importantly, he was in the 1970s an early advocate of Palestinians abandoning their dream of a 'secular democratic state in all of Palestine' that would replace the State of Israel and incorporate the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Instead, he argued for a two-state solution long before that was a concept to which Israel, a majority of Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community paid lip service. At the time, he was one of several PLO officials who risked their lives to meet with the only Israelis, left-wing doves on the fringe of Israeli politics, in the hope this would persuade Israeli and US public opinion to support what was then a controversial utopia.

The worldview of Dajani's grandsons paints a micro picture of the likely outcome of Israel's military effort to bring Hamas to its knees. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, two years ago, Hamas will probably emerge from the fighting temporarily wounded but intact, politically strengthened and capable of hitting Israel. Their worldview is as much formed by the militant nationalism of their parents and grandparents as it is by graphic pictures of destruction and death beamed into their Cairo home 24 hours a day. They highlight a lesson Israel has failed to learn in more than 40 years of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza: using its vast military power to military and civilian infrastructure in a bid to convince Palestinians that coming to the negotiating table on Israel's terms has only led to Palestinians regrouping, becoming politically more determined and willing to use whatever violent means they have at their disposal to fight Israel. Similarly, Israeli attempts to position groups as it viewed as moderate or at least less nationalistic as viable counterparts have consistently failed.

Forty years ago almost to the day, Israeli commandos raided Beirut airport, blowing up 13 jets of Lebanon's Middle East Airlines. The raid, in retaliation for a Palestinian attack on an El Al airliner in Athens, was designed to persuade Arab nations to crack down on the emerging Palestinian guerrilla movement. Jordanian King Hussein acted two years later, expelling in a bloody civil war Yasser Arafat and his PLO, including Ahmad Sidki Dajani, to Lebanon from where Palestinians struck at Israel with even greater furor. Israel responded initially by destroying the infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza of Al Fatah, the largest guerrilla group within the PLO led by Arafat, whose heirs today control the Palestine Authority. Ironically, to counter the PLO's nationalism, Israel tacitly supported and gave financial aid to Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which endorsed armed resistance to Israel but initially on building a social, religious, educational and cultural infrastructure to ease the hardship of Palestinian refugees, confined to sprawling refugee camps.

Over time, emboldened by the vacuum left by the pounding of the PLO in the occupied territories and criticism of complacency and corruption within nationalist Palestinian ranks, Hamas' social influence translated into political power. The Islamist victory with the toppling in 1979 of the Shah of Iran, a pillar of American influence in the region, and the emergence of Hezbollah as a fighting force in Lebanon enhanced that power. Whether by default or by design, Israeli support for Hamas set a tone that has overshadowed Middle East peace efforts ever since: actions by Israeli hawks and Palestinian hardliners often serve each other's purpose, the prevention of a peace process involving significant compromise. If anything, Israel's hard line and the lack of progress in the peace process has undermined more moderate groups, strengthening Hamas and leading to more radical spin-offs like the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Imposed hardship and suffering like the checkpoints on the West Bank and the siege of Gaza have created a pool of recruits for Hamas and other Islamist groups. In a region of authoritarian regimes that over decades have done little to improve lives and resolve national issues, Islamists have emerged as one of the few, if not the only, credible force on domestic fronts as well as in confronting Israel. All of this is reflected in the Gaza crisis in which it's Hamas confronting Israel and the Islamists on the streets of Arab capitals demanding support for the Palestinians while Arab governments are so divided that they are reduced to issuing statements and sending humanitarian aid. Islamists may not be the people one really wants as a counterpart, the facts on the ground are that Israeli, Arab and Western policies have made them a force across the Middle East that no longer can be ignored.

Fear and distrust are the most irrational human emotions; they govern the discourse between Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the equation. Israel indeed withdrew from Gaza in 2005. But against the backdrop of Israel and the international community's refusal to recognize free and fair elections that brought Hamas to power, the siege of Gaza and the lack of progress in efforts to end the conflict what Palestinians recall are the words prior to Hamas' election victory of Dov Weisglass, a senior advisor to than Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon referring to the Israeli withdrawal: : "The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians... this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

Implicit in the discussion of Hamas as in debates about Islamists in general is the notion of immutability: Inspired by religious fervor, Islamist groups unlike other political entities are immune to political circumstance, inflexible and incapable of change. The opposite is true. Hamas last week did not reject extension of the ceasefire unconditionally, it demanded that Israel lift the siege of Gaza and accept a ceasefire on the West Bank too as conditions for continuing the truce. Hamas, says the former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency has "recognized (that their) ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future…. they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967 and are e aware that this means they "will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals" towards a long-term peace based on compromise... Israel, for reasons of its own, did not want to turn the ceasefire into the start of a diplomatic process with Hamas."

A majority of Palestinians and Israelis favor territorial compromise, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, a notion first championed 30 years ago by a minority on both sides of the divide. This is a political reality that Hamas has been forced to acknowledge even if its commitment to a two-state solution is weak. Hamas has acknowledged that in different ways. In the years between 1993 and 1997 during the failed Oslo peace process, Hamas denounced the Palestine Authority's engagement with Israel, but did nothing on the ground to obstruct it. In effect, it has accepted the possible emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by proposing a 10-year truce provided that it would not compromise the Palestinian rights with regard to Jerusalem, refugee issues and freedom of political action.

Back in 1997, when the Palestine National Council met in Cairo to kick start the PLO's torturous 11-year road towards abandoning its goal of a secular democratic state in favor of a two-state solution, radical Palestinian guerrilla leader George Habash rejected the initiative saying: "if I today accept this as a tactic, tomorrow it will be my strategy." His words were echoed on the eve of the Israeli strikes against Gaza by Abu Qatada, the radical Islamic cleric who is widely viewed as Al Qaeda's spokesman in Europe, in an interview published on the Shumukh forum on the Internet. "I love the Muslim Brotherhood when it is oppressed because it focuses on education and jihad. But when it is allowed greater freedom, it loses motivation and becomes a pragmatic political party. Hamas is a good case in point. Look at its recent decision not to declare itself an Islamic emirate like the Taliban, " Abu Qatada said.

The lesson of 41 years of Israeli occupation and control of Palestinian lands is that confrontation only serves to exacerbate the conflict and radicalize the parties. The risk is that what a brave band of Palestinian and Israeli moderates started 30 years ago and with international and regional endorsement has become a common good, a two-state solution with a Palestinian state established alongside Israel, may be lost and the region will be returned to square one. Says journalist Nir Rosen in an emotional criticism of Israel: "Land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a two-state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic Palestine. In coming decades, Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will they peacefully move towards an equal society, where Palestinians are given the same rights, a la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue to view democracy as a threat? Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been exterminated. But often, as in Algeria, it is the settlers who flee. Eventually the Palestinians will not be willing to compromise and seek one state for both people. Does the world want to further radicalise them?"

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.