The big idea Israel's assault on Gaza may cripple Hamas, but it will embolden those in Arab politics who would rather fight than talk, writes Nathan Field.
Revive la resistance
Israel's assault on Gaza may cripple Hamas, but it will embolden those in Arab politics who would rather fight than talk, writes Nathan Field.
The bloody carnage from Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip has dominated the Arab media since the bombs began to drop on Saturday, and the rising death toll has filled Arab streets with rage - especially in countries aligned with the United States. In Egypt, huge protests have erupted with an intensity not seen in recent years. But Israel's air strikes, taking Hamas as their putative target, have highlighted a rift in the Arab world that has been evident since Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. It is, at its root, a battle of approaches - a conflict between the negotiators and the rejectionists, between those Fatah supporters who blame Hamas for initiating conflict with Israel, and those Hamas backers who paint Fatah and its Arab allies as complicit in Israeli atrocities.
The "negotiation" front, led by Egypt - the first Arab state to make peace with Israel - advocates peaceful dialogue with the Jewish state. Since the late 1980s, this has been the path preferred by the Palestinian leadership, which supported the Oslo framework and sought a two-state solution through a peace process sponsored by the United States. The rejectionists - Hamas and its allies - were sidelined during the false optimism of the Oslo years, but they did not disappear. The advocates of resistance argue that without the threat of continued violence Israel has no incentive to make compromises for peace; as the Oslo process ground to a halt, and collapsed entirely after 2000, support for the resistance camp grew among Palestinians and among the broader Arab public, particularly in Egypt and Jordan. The second Palestinian intifada was slowly but steadily crushed by Israel, but this did not discredit Hamas, which defeated Fatah at the polls and then violently took complete control of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli attack on Gaza - no matter how it is framed by Israel - seems likely to mark a turning point in the contest between these loose alliances, tipping the scales definitively toward Hamas and company. For the foreseeable future, the Arab debate on Israel is going to be dominated by the self-styled forces of resistance - and if not by Hamas, then by something even more extreme. The Hamas victory in the 2006 elections posed a serious challenge to Fatah and its allies in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. All were committed to the Oslo approach and the pursuit of negotiations with Israel on the basis of the agreements signed in the 1990s.
The problem was perhaps most acute for the Egyptians: 30 years of treaties and billions of dollars in American aid give Egypt very little room to manoeuvre, even if it were inclined to do so. But the government is under extreme pressure from its citizens to use its influence to push for Palestinian statehood. This was an easier task when Fatah was in power: both parties agreed on the means and the ends, negotiations concluding in a two-state solution. But Hamas, which now dominates Palestinian politics, is not formally committed to either - and most Egyptians support Hamas's right to resistance and its use of suicide attacks, and do not disagree with its refusal to recognise Israel.
That Hamas represents the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood poses another sharp dilemma for the Egyptian regime, which refuses to acknowledge the Ikhwan in Egypt. Talking with the Palestinian Brotherhood creates an awkward precedent, and co-operation between Egypt and the Gazan leadership has been limited only to security arrangements, with a series of conflicts over border closures. To its detractors, therefore, the Mubarak government appears to be working with the US and Israel against the Palestinians - an impression not dispelled by the pictures published last week of Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni enjoying a friendly handshake with her Egyptian counterpart in Cairo shortly before the attack began. As one prominent Egyptian intellectual recently told me: "nothing damages the legitimacy of the Egyptian regime more than its policy towards Palestine."
Almost three years after Hamas won the elections, the Palestinians are more divided than ever, unable to form a unified front, much less discuss negotiations with Israel. As the response to the current attack shows, the Arab media - and regional governments - are divided as well, with each side accusing the other of obstructing unity. Among those who blame the Arab states friendly to the US - especially Egypt - for the current crisis are pan-Arab newspapers like Al Quds al Arabi and the Egyptian opposition paper Al Dostor. Their common theme is that the Egyptian regime has sold out to Washington and Tel Aviv. Hardly a week goes by that Fahmy Huwedi, one of Egypt's most influential columnists, does not repeat some variation of this theme in Al Dostor. One late October column, for example, sarcastically suggested that the Egyptian government treats the leaders of Hamas with scorn but opens its arms to "every Tom, Dick and Harry with a pro-US orientation." He noted that the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, managed only a brief meeting with Egypt's foreign minister during a recent visit to Cairo. By contrast, Huwedi wrote, the Lebanese Christian politician and former warlord Samir Geagea, a member of the pro-US March 14 coalition "whose hands are covered with Palestinian blood", received a full audience with Mubarak.
Fatah - and its more moderate approach - are not without support in the media, most prominently from pro-Saudi media outlets like the London pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al Awsat, the Al Arabiya satellite channel, and Cairo's semi-official Al Ahram newspaper. They blame the conflict on Hamas, arguing that its intransigence and unrealistic unwillingness to compromise are at the root of the impasse. But the rising tally of dead Palestinians makes such arguments irrelevant - they are drowned out by calls for solidarity that surely benefit Hamas.
Even before Israel's attack on Gaza the pro-resistance crowd was radiating confidence that long-term trends were working in its favour, and Hamas - which appeared surprised by the overwhelming Israeli response to its recent Qassam launches - certainly seemed to believe this was the case. Yet this shift in the direction of the resistance is likely to be accelerated by the Israeli onslaught. Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2009, and they will present a further opportunity for Hamas to solidify its control of Palestinian politics. If Hamas, already in control of the parliament, can take more seats and the presidency, the remaining moderate Arab regimes will be unable to ignore them.
At the same time, regional shifts in the balance of power appear to favour Hamas. In a recent column, Hussam Tamem, the editor of IslamOnline, a pro-Islamist website, argued that Hamas's decision to align itself with Syria and Iran was a sign of the changing times, a reflection that Egypt at present has little to offer as an ally. The Egyptian regime, burdened with a poor economy and preoccupied with a possible succession crisis, is weak and unable to resist American pressure. With the Obama administration expected to seek a rapprochement with Iran and Syria, Tamem wrote, Hamas has bet on the right horse.
Hamas, for its part, actively sought an escalation in violence at the close of the six-month ceasefire, perhaps with an eye toward the victory of the Likud hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's upcoming elections - which would surely lend credence to the argument that no negotiations with Israel are possible. Well before the expiration of the ceasefire Hamas leaders made their opposition to its renewal clear, with the expectation that a return to violence would create conditions to bolster their support and diminish Fatah.
The mood today in the Palestinian territories is one of anger and desire for revenge. Fatah has been pushed to the margins of Palestinian politics and seems likely to suffer a permanent dent to its reputation. So far the widespread, though perhaps predictable, consensus in the Arabic media is that Hamas is the chief beneficiary. The moderate Arab regimes, according to Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor of Al Quds al Arabi, have lost the most from this week's carnage - and, it must be said, Egypt is foremost among them. On Tuesday alone protests were reported outside Egyptian embassies in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
The fury of the protesters was given voice by the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who called openly for the Egyptian people to reject their government's policies in Gaza - an unprecedented public attack that brought harsh criticism from Egypt. But most Egyptians prefer Nasrallah to their own leaders, and his salvo will only further damage the regime's popularity. Egypt, ironically enough, had been attempting in recent months to set up a rapprochement with Hizbollah as a means of increasing its influence in Lebanon, but those plans now seem a distant dream.
Sometimes the best advice is "be careful what you wish for". Israel may manage to destroy the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza and seriously damage its ability to fight back, which may in turn further divide the Palestinians. But it could also open the door for factions more extreme than Hamas to hijack the mantle of resistance, including those that share the worldview of al Qa'eda. Given the anger coursing through the Arab world, they would not have to search hard for new recruits.
Nathan Field is a journalist based in Cairo and Washington.