Islamists leave Israel no choice
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor | March 08, 2008
THE attack yesterday in Jerusalem on a Jewish religious school in which eight civilians died disclosed important political trends.
It showed once more the depths of the divisions within the Palestinian leadership.
The Palestinian Authority, under its President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the attack.
On the other hand, Hamas, the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip, praised the attack and Gazan civilians danced in the streets with joy.
And the Israeli public understood once more that there is no proximate chance of peace in their long-running dispute with the Palestinians.
George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice have their reasons for continuing to pretend that there might be a peace agreement this year, but if they really believe this, which is unlikely, they could do more harm than good to the region.
The Gazan reaction to the Jerusalem attack also illustrates why, probably later this year, it is almost inevitable that there will be a huge Israeli operation in Gaza. Many people will die. The suffering will be acute.
Yet it is almost as if this is exactly what Hamas wants. It is impossible otherwise to explain its actions.
Once more the Middle East is set to pivot this year. There are a range of churning dynamics, some of vast strategic consequence, others more tactical improvisations, all happening at once. For the moment, Gaza is their centre, or at least it is possible to understand much of what is happening by focusing on Gaza. In 2006, in relatively free elections, Hamas, which is a branch of the extremist Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood, won elections among the Palestinians. It did not secure a majority of the vote but it legitimately won.
Subsequently, in a ferocious, bloody and extremely cruel civil war among the Palestinians, Fatah, loyal to Abbas, consolidated itself in the West Bank while Hamas consolidated its rule in Gaza.
Hamas is less corrupt and more efficient than Fatah but it is a ferocious terrorist organisation. In recent months it has shown how willing it is to sacrifice its own people in order to pursue its war against Israel.
However, it is wrong to imagine that Hamas is in any sense a mad group. Its strategy is rational. It is also difficult for the Western mind to grasp because of two elements: its genuinely religious foundation, and its willingness to inflict any suffering not only on its enemies, but on its own people.
Over recent months terrorists have fired mainly Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel almost on a daily basis. It is true that they have killed few people. But they have terrorised the citizens of the small Israeli city of Sderot and the nearby kibbutzes and farms. Further, Hamas and other terrorist groups have smuggled weapons and people across the border from Egypt. When recently this border was smashed by Palestinian civilians and left open for several days, before the Egyptians closed it down again, much more such smuggling went on.
Gaza's terrorists have slowly been improving the range, explosive power and precision of their rockets. But now they also have a number of Grad rockets, and indeed some others, some of them apparently of Iranian manufacture, to fire at Israel.
Some of these have hit the Israeli city of Ashkelon, with more than 100,000 people.
This has necessitated an Israeli response. Israel tries to suppress the rocket fire by taking out Hamas and other terrorist leaders, and by destroying from the air Qassam factories and launching points. Although Israel tries not to hit civilians, inevitably some Gazan civilians are hit and killed in these actions.
Further, Israel has imposed a limited economic blockade on Gaza, for which it has been widely criticised. However, it is inconceivable that any nation would allow endless rocket attacks on its civilians without trying to stop them. If the Gaza terrorists could do this with impunity, it would inspire other terrorists to do the same. Hezbollah, intensely rebuilding its capacities in southern Lebanon, could begin launching rockets again from there. Similarly, Israeli security forces have found and destroyed some rocket-making ventures in the West Bank. While the rockets from Gaza have been a tactical rather than strategic threat to Israel, rockets fired simultaneously from Gaza, southern Lebanon and the West Bank would completely paralyse Israel. Therefore Israel ultimately cannot allow the rocket attacks to go on, especially as they increase in lethality and range. There is a marvellous irony in much of the international community demanding that the power station in Ashkelon supply electricity to the rocket factories in Gaza which are trying to destroy it.
Without the rocket firings there would be no economic blockade of Gaza and no Israeli air campaign. Life in Gaza would be infinitely better. Why doesn't Hamas embrace this much better life for its citizens, which would certainly not require it to give up its goal of running an independent Palestinian state?
There are four interlocking, plausible answers: it wants to damage Israel internationally, radicalise other Palestinians, ensure Israel's policy of disengagement from the Palestinians fails, and serve Hamas's Iranian and Syrian sponsors. Consider each of the four.
On Monday night, the ABC's Lateline program ran a report on the suffering of civilians in Gaza, an absolutely legitimate subject. Among the heart-rending footage there was an interview with a Gazan civilian who understandably complained bitterly about Israel's actions. But the ABC reporter didn't ask the absolutely obvious question: Do you wish your leaders would stop firing missiles into Israel, which make inevitable both the economic blockade and the Israeli military response? The ABC, as usual, was following more or less exactly the terrorists' preferred script for the Western media. Islamist terrorists have always been centrally concerned with the Western media and their understanding of its story presentation dynamics is acute, as this episode demonstrates.
Hamas gets to shift all blame to Israel.
Second, Hamas is trying to radicalise more Palestinian opinion. Palestinian politics has evolved from nationalism to religious extremism as the rise of Hamas demonstrates.
Palestinian opinion is not only divided between Hamas and Fatah, a division the Israelis are trying to exploit by making life better in the West Bank and more miserable in Gaza, to give Palestinians an incentive to return to secularism and negotiations with Israel rather than nihilist, suicidal terrorism. But Hamas and Fatah are both internally divided as well. Hamas is much stronger even on the West Bank than most commentators allow. Some in Fatah want to try to reclaim credibility by renewed armed conflict with Israel. This would plunge their people once more into terrible suffering but would allow them to compete with Hamas in the dynamics of zealotry.
Third, Hamas is determined to prevent the Israeli policy of disengagement from the Palestinian territories from succeeding. Thirty months ago, then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza, evacuating all the Jewish settlements. Sharon then founded a party, Kadima, on the basis of disengagement.
The Palestinians would be behind their borders and could run whatever sort of society they liked, provided they didn't attack Israel. But the religious extremist leadership of groups like Hamas does not believe that Israel has any right to exist under any circumstances. This is enshrined in Hamas's charter and in all its propaganda. Therefore they want to ensure that no matter what happens, Israel still bears moral and political responsibility for the Palestinian population.
Eventually, Palestinians believe they might triumph by demographics alone. The Palestinian birthrate is much higher than the Israeli birthrate and ultimately it might become impossible for the Israeli state to provide for its own security with an unreconciled Palestinian population. This is a multi-generational strategy and if it is the strategy of some Hamas leaders, it means they really want the opposite of what the international community claims to want from Israel.
Israel is always told to retreat to the 1967 borders. The two places where it has done this - southern Lebanon and Gaza - have been disasters for Israel and have not produced peace. The 1967 borders only work for Israel if its neighbours don't make war on Israel any more. There is no indication at all that either Hamas or Hezbollah, or indeed Iran, which soon enough will possess nuclear weapons, is on a trajectory towards accepting Israel's right to exist.
And finally, Hamas may well be operating in very close concert with its sponsors, Iran and Syria. There is tremendous Sunni Arab concern about the growing power of Iran, evident not least in the bloody political vacuum in Lebanon.
A crisis in Gaza forces the forthcoming Arab summit to focus on the Palestinians, rather than Syria's murderous campaign to prevent the emergence of a democratic Lebanon.
After the situation in Lebanon becomes clearer, a huge Israeli operation in Gaza, to take control of the Gaza-Egypt border and to set up new intelligence mechanisms within Gaza, all to prevent the increase in rocket firings, is perhaps all but inevitable.
Peace is as distant as ever.
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