Gaza conflict can shape future of the Middle East

Gaza conflict can shape future of the Middle East
Hamas fighters running during an Israeli military offensive on the Shejaiya neighbourhood between Gaza City and the Israeli border on July 20. There are fears that Hamas is part of a phenomenon of militias that have no government allegiance but can still carve up the Middle East between them.

The current bloodshed in Gaza is not just a confrontation between the Israelis and Palestinians over land, history and national dignity. It is also a battle between established Middle Eastern states and non-state paramilitary militias.

What is at stake is the future shape of the Middle East, and how that evolves will depend on the outcome of the proxy confrontation between politically-conservative, traditional forms of government and radical Islamic movements such as Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Although Arab governments such as the Saudis and the Egyptians are loath to admit it publicly, the defeat of Hamas is not only an Israeli objective, but also a welcome outcome for them as they view with trepidation the rise of these militias.

In some respects, the story of Hamas is similar to that of Al-Qaeda; it is a movement which channelled legitimate popular grievances into organised, large-scale violence, and did so by initially collaborating with precisely the people it wished to kill.

For, just as the Americans backed Islamists such as Osama bin Laden as useful allies in the fight against communism only to see them mutate into the deadly Al-Qaeda, so too did the Israelis initially tolerate Hamas, and have bitterly regretted doing so ever since.

Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's oldest and most disciplined political movement, founded in Egypt in 1928 with the slogan "Islam is the solution and the Quran our Constitution", a simplistic yet enduringly powerful message.

Viciously repressed in Egypt for generations, Hamas got its breakthrough in Gaza precisely because, paradoxically, Israel seized that Palestinian-populated sliver of land from Egypt in 1967 and lifted the restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whether this was the result of ignorance as some Israeli officials claim or part of a calculated conspiracy to divide the Palestinians as many Arabs believe, will probably never be conclusively proven; the chances are that it was a mixture of both.

But what is beyond doubt is that while the Israelis concentrated on fighting Fatah, then the biggest Palestinian resistance movement, they befriended Hamas and allowed it to grow throughout Gaza; Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, even benefited from free and frequent medical treatment in Israeli hospitals.

By the late 1980s, when it became clear to Israel that Hamas was becoming a formidable army, it was all too late: the Israelis managed to assassinate Sheikh Yassin and other Hamas leaders, but they never succeeded in crushing it.

Many of Hamas' claimed achievements are less than they appear.

It claims to enjoy broad popular support among Palestinians, yet it won only one election in 2006 and has never held another one since; its support is of the "one man, one vote, once only" variety.

It is supposed to be good at looking after the "common man" by organising schools and welfare establishments. But Palestinians in the West Bank, who remain under the control of the Palestinian Authority, enjoy a higher standard of living.

And that is not only because Gaza is under an economic blockade, but also because of what Hamas chose to do with resources: almost all the concrete and other building materials smuggled into Gaza went into building tunnels dug under the border with Israel, rather than into badly needed local housing.

Nor is Hamas particularly clever in its regional strategy.

For decades, it relied on Syria and Iran for money, weapons and logistical support.

When the wave of Arab revolts started in 2011, it switched its allegiance, betting that the Muslim Brotherhood would win power throughout the Middle East.

It has lost every single one of these bets.

Its main allies are now Turkey and Qatar, which are scrambling for regional influence and use Hamas largely in order to compensate for their own strategic errors.

The only advantage Hamas holds is that it cannot be dislodged from Gaza without killing large numbers of ordinary Palestinians.

Hamas is currently fighting Israel not because it is strong, but because it is weak; its only chance of escaping from its political isolation is by attracting Israeli retribution and public sympathy, as Palestinian casualties continue to mount.

Tragically, it succeeded in these narrow objectives, but it is likely to fail in its strategic dream of escaping from its marginalisation.

Even if Israeli military claims are exaggerated, it is obvious that much of Hamas' arsenal has been destroyed, and the formidable network of tunnels it has built, apparently in preparation for a spectacular land offensive against Israeli cities timed to coincide with the Jewish New Year next month, is now in ruins.

The reason the current war continues and no fewer than six ceasefire agreements were violated is largely that all the key players in the Middle East are struggling to control the narrative of this war by portraying themselves as victors.

Hamas has to be perceived to have won this confrontation, so it needs more than a ceasefire; it wants a deal which obliges Israel and Egypt to lift their economic blockade on Gaza.

But Israel has no intention of granting that, and is tacitly supported by most of the Arab states - with Saudi Arabia, which has already openly accused Hamas of contributing to the wholesale murder of Palestinians, in the lead.

The fear among leading Arab governments is not so much that an organisation long viewed as a menace should prevail but, rather, the fact that Hamas is now part of a wider regional phenomenon of militias and private armies, which owe their allegiance to no government but are still able to carve up the Middle East between them.

Lebanon has been in this situation for decades, Syria has fallen prey to various militias over the past few years and large chunks of Iraq are now under control of ISIS, a terrorist army in everything but name.

The battle in the Middle East is no longer between established states, but between states and non-state actors, between a modicum of stability and generalised, perpetual chaos.

That is the underlining catalyst for the current Gaza disaster.

And, as so often is the case with any crisis in the region, the Palestinians end up being the Middle East's biggest victims

This article was first published on August 5, 2014.
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