June 24, 2008
Hamas celebrated its first anniversary of power in the Gaza Strip amidst massive misinterpretations regarding the situation there.
Ironically, Hamas's victory and survival has less to do with Israel than the rotten strategy of Yasir Arafat. He ruled the Palestinian movement for 35 years by establishing a weak, anarchic, corrupt, and factionalized structure which he played like a violen. After Arafat's death, Fatah paid the price by collapsing in the Gaza Strip, first electorally then militarily. Having proved a failure in government, Fatah then showed itself a failure as an opposition.
Hamas's power rests repression, radical ideology, international protection and an incompetent enemy. A Palestinian storeowner told an American reporter, "What can we do? Hamas is even stronger than a year ago. They can take me and put me away whenever they want." This is the kind of situation which elsewhere makes the West, especially the left, sneer at dictatorships that--as was once said of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini--take away freedom but take credit for making the trains run on time.
Yet while the world prevents Israel from defeating Hamas through military action and very tight sanctions, Fatah is its own worst enemy in combating Hamas.
President George Bush recently stated that a Fatah-ruled Palestinian state should be quickly developed since, "It will serve as an alternative vision to what is happening in Gaza."
This is rubbish. No matter how much money the West pumps in, the nationalists are not going to offer an attractive regime. Fatah's lower level of still-considerable repression is counterbalanced by the corruption and anarchy included in the package. Jawad Tibi, a former Fatah cabinet minister, explained, "Hamas is Fatah with beards."
True and that lack of differentiation is the problem. Moreover, Fatah continues its own old tricks. When it does arrest those involved in terrorism, they are quickly released. Incitement to commit violence continues on the Palestinian Authority (PA) media, and the PA is far more eager to reconcile with Hamas than to make peace with Israel.
Yes, the PA's survival is a U.S., Western, and Israeli interest but let's not get sentimental or naןve about these weak, corrupt, and largely radical allies of necessity.
As for Hamas, it possesses three key weapons.
The mainstream appeal of extremism and terrorism. "Hamas is strong and brutal but very good at governing," Eyad Sarraj told the New York Times, which describes him as a British-trained psychiatrist and secular opponent of Hamas, After all, he continues, it's distributing gas coupons, getting people to pay electricity bills, and keeping the city clean.
Suddenly, people considered "progressive" see the up side of having a police state. Imagine this kind of thinking applied to other dictatorships all over the world: they are brutal but boy do they keep law and order! Sarraj also forgets that Hamas's war policy resulted in reducing the gas and electricity supply.
But Sarraj is no moderate. In 1999, he wrote that Palestinians were better off without the peace process. Refusing to recognize Israel had been a "nuclear weapon" and armed struggle a great asset. Giving these up was a mistake, Sarraj insisted, and might lead to ending the conflict without eliminating Israel.
Sarraj, while a member of Gaza's tiny left, advocated a strategy parallel to that of Hamas today. Perhaps that's why he protested Arafat's repression but now seems content to accept Hamas's, however much he dislikes its Islamism. The continued extremism of mainstream Palestinian activist opinion makes Hamas's rule seem an acceptable tradeoff because of its militancy.
The success of ideological demagoguery. One Hamas supporter told a reporter: "Israel is trying to pressure us to make us forget that the real problem is the occupation." Of course, there is no Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip, which is one reason why Hamas was able to seize power. "We can take it," she continued, "The Koran teaches that in the end we will be victorious."
This expresses widespread sentiments: Israel is the only enemy; everything else is irrelevant, suffering isn't important, victory is inevitable. Shortly after Hamas seized power, Sarraj told a Canadian reporter about how Hamas threw Fatah men off the tops of buildings, murdered them in hospital beds, and tortured them in a "horrific" manner.
But that isn't important. Whether Hamas brutalizes Palestinians, creates conditions that destroy living standards, drags people into endless war, turns Gaza into a mini-Iran, or causes numerous casualties, its militancy and refusal to compromise is what counts. That may seem irrational to Western observers but that's how Palestinian politics work.
Pretended moderation as a scam. Since Westerners can't understand the culture of ideology and extremism, they're sure Hamas will moderate. This is supposedly proven when Hamas leaders say that if Israel only returns to the 1967 borders; gives the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip to a Hamas-ruled state; and lets millions of Palestinians live in Israel, they'll make a truce until they decide otherwise.
This is a very silly evaluation, reminding me of an American high school textbook which said Israel should try this idea and if that didn't work we would all know better.
Finally, there's the strange conclusion that since Hamas isn't about to fall from power, this proves sanctions have failed. One could say it shows economic and military pressures should be raised further. But at least it should be understood that the sanctions' purpose is to make Hamas less able to kill even more people, take over the West Bank, damage Israel, or turn Gaza into--to stand Bush's view on its head--an "attractive alternative."
Any policy that prevents those things seems pretty valid; any Westerner favoring a strategy that strengthens Hamas should be forced to live under its rule.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.