Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Analysis: Despite its troubles, Hamas is toeing the radical line

Avi Yissacharoff and Amos Harel

"The organizers of Saturday's rally in Gaza, which marked 20 years since Hamas' founding, were delighted by the turnout - an estimated 200,000 people. Yet this impressive demonstration of strength cannot hide the Islamic organization's distress. The division between "Hamastan" in the Gaza Strip and "Fatahland" in the West Bank is deepening; Gaza's economic distress is worse than ever; and Hamas' leadership is riven by a battle between the (relative) pragmatists, headed by the Damascus-based head of its political office, Khaled Meshal, and Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, and the radicals, led by the head of its military wing, Ahmed Jabari.

This dispute was not evident at the rally, where all the speakers toed the radical line. Haniyeh lauded Hezbollah's activities in Lebanon and Al-Qaida's in Iraq and Afghanistan, linking them to Hamas' operations in Gaza to argue that only "resistance" (i.e. violence) succeeds. He said Hamas will never recognize Israel and has made resistance its strategic choice.
Meshal, in a recorded speech, made similar comments, urging another intifada and swearing "we will not concede an inch of Palestine."

But even such fighting words cannot conceal the criticism the organization has suffered since its takeover of Gaza in June. Every public opinion poll since then has shown its popularity declining. Palestinians increasingly view Hamas as a cruel, dictatorial and frighteningly religious organization interested mainly in consolidating its position - a radical image change for a group once viewed as religious nationalists who dedicated much of their efforts to helping Gaza's poor. The organization appears to be losing its place in the Palestinian consensus.

None of this means that Hamas' grip on Gaza has weakened. Moreover, both the rival government in Ramallah and the international community are acting as if the Palestinian Authority still controlled Gaza: The aid requests the PA will present to donor states in Paris tomorrow relate extensively to the Strip. Pretending that Hamas does not exist is apparently more convenient for both the PA and the world than actually dealing with its control of Gaza.

Israel, however, does not have this luxury.

Contrary to the impression sometimes created in the media, neither the government nor the army is eager to invade Gaza. There have even been estimates that such an operation would cost the lives of 100 soldiers.

Nevertheless, the General Staff sees only a narrow window of time - a few weeks to a few months -- in which it would be possible to launch an operation that would fall short of reoccupying the entire Strip. That window will close the moment Hamas solves two technical hurdles: extending the Qassams' range beyond 15 kilometers and learning how to store the rockets for long periods, thereby enabling it to stockpile them. It is close to solving both. And once it does, any operation in Gaza will be much costlier, involving more casualties in southern Israel, while the army's room to maneuver will be much smaller.

Within both the army and government, a debate is raging over when the proper moment will arrive. The fear is that we might discover we have closed the stable doors only after the horses have fled."

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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