Monday, March 10, 2008

Hamas in Gaza-Good or Bad?

For almost 2 years, in the wake of Israel's disengagement, the Gaza strip has been ruled by Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic organization, considered a terrorist group by most of the international community. This is commonly seen as a victory for extreme Islam, with Iran and Al Qaida at the forefront. Israel now has a client state of Iran on its southern border.

Certainly Israel and the west would prefer a moderate, pro-western regime bordering Israel which could negotiate peace with Israel and be a member of "moderate" Arab or Muslim countries. This has not happened, and, prior to Hamas' coup, it was also not the case. While nominally the Fatah-ruled PA was sovereign, on the ground the PA had very little control, in the face of armed resistance from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and a host of other radical groups.

Notwithstanding political and military maneuvering, Israel had very little influence on the internal political developments among the Palestinians.
Like most situations in real life, the issue is complex, and each of the various scenarios entails threats and opportunities. Rarely in the international arena does one see an outcome that is purely "good" or "bad". With regards to Gaza, what are the pros and cons of Hamas rule in Gaza, in relation to the alternative scenarios? Let us start with the negatives:

1. Hamas ideology is uncompromisingly anti-Israel and anti-semitic, and it will not ever recognize Israel nor make permanent peace with it. This is unquestioningly a big "bad" on this side of the scale.

2. Hamas, with the support of Iran, Hizbullah and other extremist states, will continue to build up its military capability. It is gradually acquiring the abilities of Hizbullah. Although it may take some time, it is conceivable that in the future they might succeed in acquiring tanks, long range missiles and warplanes. This strengthening is occuring primarily via smuggling through the Egyptian border, both above ground and through tunnels.

3. They pose a immediate strategic threat, not in conventional military terms, but in their ability to harm civilians and civilian life by firing short range rockets at will. This is similar to Hizbullah's capability, although somewhat lower in intensity at this time.

4. Any and all "gains" made by Hamas, real or imagined, (in terms of terrorist attacks, abilities, continued rule) will have the psychological impact of being seen as a victory for extremist forces. This perception forestalls any tendency to surrender or make peace. Furthermore it helps gain support among the population, who see these forces as the "winning" side, as opposed to the moderate "losers".

All of this points to a very undesirable situation. At the same time it has to be viewed in contrast to the realistic alternatives, and not those that we fantasize about fashioning with our own hands. Since Fatah/PA is a weak organization (and has been for some time, even in the peak of Arafat's power), it is extremely unlikely that they would be able to govern Gaza effectively and to our liking. This was in fact the situation prior to the Hamas takeover. In this scenario, you essentialy have a "failed state" like Somalia, Sudan, pre-war Afghanistan, etc. In relation to this situation, what can be seen as some of the "positives" of Hamas rule?

1. Being the sole and strong rulers in Gaza, Hamas de facto becomes an address, diplomatically and militarily. Thus any institution of the government or armed forces becomes a ligitimate target. This avoids the untenable situation of having to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Palestinians (in the eyes of the world) when fighting them. More than any, that scenario forces Israel to fight with its hands tied.

2. Hamas is unquestionably in control of the security situation in Gaza and is able to control, almost entirely, attacks on Israel. Thus, when dealing with them, and attempting to manage the conflict, we have someone to deal with who can actually control the situation (and are to some degree subject to deterrance). This is like Syria or Egypt before the peace treaty. In contrast, with a powerless PA in charge, there was nobody to deal with, and worse, the extremist organization were always out to prove that the PA was not in control. We would have has security chaos, as in Southern Lebanon during the civil war. This is an undesirable and unstable situation for Israel.

3. The entire international community has backed an embargo and blockade of Gaza, in the face of terrorist activity. This would never have been possible if the PA where in charge.

4. The PA/Fatah, while not a fundamentalist Islamic organization, is still a bitter enemy and also propagates anti-semitic and anti-Israel sentiment among Palestinians and actively fights us. Yet, hiding under the veil of international legitimacy, they are successfully able to employ the "good cop/bad cop" technique with us. They are in fact doing this in the West bank-- in the form of demands for unilateral gestures and concessions and small scale terrorist attacks, while constantly threatening that Hamas will take over if we don't give in. This problem tied our hands

How do we weigh these factors against one another? While in the long term we all hope for comprehensive peace, it is important to remember that in the short term the Palestinian problem can only be managed, not solved. The fringes of the left and right forget this. The ways of managing it are varied, with advantages and disadvantages to each approach. In the long term nobody knows precisely how the current scenario will play out. It seems likely that Hamas will strenghthen itself in Gaza and become a bigger security challenge, among others that Israel faces now and have faced in the past. In the context of history, each one of these threats have been managed, not neutralized, and so will the current one in Gaza. Israel has been successful at managing threats, but much less so preventing them (with a few notable exceptions such as the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facility). This failure to anticipate and prevent threats requires examination, in the context of Israel's military, financial and diplomatic assets and limitations.

In an ideal world, a major power would intervene in Gaza by completely occupying and rehabilitating the area, until such time that the people living there could govern themselves, Marshall-plan style. But the geo-political situation makes this unlikely to happen. There is nobody both willing and capable for the job. Certainly not Israel. Therefore, in the current reality we are forced to deal among less desirable alternatives, over which we have very little influence. Imagine that we enter Gaza and remove Hamas from power. Than what? They would continue to fire rockets, under the guise of Fatah.

We should do whatever we can militarily to stop the rocket fire, but we should carefully consider the goal of the removal of Hamas.

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