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Hamas's Hangover By: Barry Rubin
Gloria.idc.ac.il | Monday, August 22, 2005

After first treating Israel's withdrawal as a trick, Palestinians are now celebrating it as a great victory. But after the partying ends, even the anti-alcohol Hamas is going to have a big hangover.

The leadership's plan is to keep dangling a carrot in front of their people, urging them forward to more struggle without reward. It tells them violence and sacrifice got them Gaza and more of the same will win the West Bank, Jerusalem, and--though this often goes unspoken--all of Israel as well. 

This analysis's first problem is that it is untrue. Israel did not give up the Gaza Strip in surrender to terrorism but did so only after the terrorist war was defeated. Israel withdrew because few Israelis (even demonstrating settlers have the West Bank in mind) want Gaza. They have concluded this low-priority territory was not worth the cost, preferring a strategy of strategic repositioning, and to win international support.

Five or ten more years of terrorism will not force an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or east Jerusalem. But it will paralyze Palestinian development, erode international support, and demoralize the Palestinians. Israel will retaliate as needed, sending forces into Gaza in response to missile and mortar firings. With the security fence, Israel will improve its ability to stop attacks onto its own territory. While Palestinian terrorist groups will try to increase the intensity of attacks on the West Bank, the truth is that they are already doing pretty much everything they can.

If these factors were all the Palestinians' post-withdrawal problems the situation could be managed using the same techniques the leaders have always employed: glorify revolution, make violence, blame Israel, seek foreign sympathy, steal aid money, and ignore the people's material problems. (That last sentence seems rather harsh but is quite accurate.) Yet having the Gaza Strip adds a new ingredient. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for because you might get it.

A word of caution: It is astonishing how thoroughly people forget that the Palestinians have run the Gaza Strip for the last 11 years. True, they did not have all the roads or land, and Israel could intervene in various ways, yet they had about 80 percent control. In that context, the Palestinian Authority was corrupt, incompetent, and deliberately weak without undermining its legitimacy too much.

Now, however, begins a new level of struggle within the movement, likely to send anarchy to record heights and make Gazans' lives harder. Despite a facade of having a common goal and common enemy, this new situation is likely to push the movement toward what amounts to disintegration.

There are four major factions within the Gaza Strip and a fifth one that is going to have a damaging indirect impact.

--Mahmud Abbas and his relatively moderate supporters have little power and will be too scared to use it. Indeed, to fit into the political picture they often spend most of their time sounding like the hardliners and thus justifying their rivals' strategy. Thus, his main slogan of the day has been: tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem, a stance which undercuts a priority on doing anything productive in Gaza, much less restoring order or stopping violence on the West Bank.

--Hamas has been growing in strength and a combination of factors will continue that trend in Gaza. First, the incompetence of the Fatah-dominated government will drive people to the Islamists. Second, the claim that terrorism brought results--endorsed by Abbas and his group--lets Hamas pose as the terrorism experts. Third, Hamas will now govern large areas of the Gaza Strip without being challenged by the Palestinian Authority.

--The most radical fringe, like Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, will continue to launch attacks on Israel whenever they feel like it, flaunting Abbas' authority and getting away with it. This will keep the war atmosphere going.

--The new factor is the consolidation of hard-line Fatah leaders, who are the overwhelming majority, around Faruq Qaddumi, that organization's leader. Qaddumi, who is very popular in the Fatah ranks, opposed the Oslo accords and openly calls for Israel's destruction. He is planning to move from Tunis to Gaza soon. Already, he is talking about setting up his own army, threatening to expel Abbas' supporters, and gathering to his banner all the security force chiefs who Abbas has alienated.

The fifth element is the Tanzim movement of Marwan Barghuti, which has little or no presence in Gaza but is also challenging the Fatah leadership. And you can throw in a dash of Hizballah and a pinch of al-Qaida also. Even if Abbas had the right strategy he could scarcely deal with this problem and given his orientation toward appeasement failure is inevitable.  

Given this situation, Israelis are likely to gain more than Palestinians by withdrawing. But that result is going to be the fault of the Palestinian movement, not Israel. The withdrawal offers them an opportunity yet it is one that will not be used. This is not to suggest there will be civil war in the Gaza Strip.

 The groups will avoid any large-scale confrontation. Yet even this fact hurts Abbas, who thus lacks the use or credible threat of force to make others obey him. Hamas and the other factions do not have to impose their will on the PA leadership; they merely need to ensure they can do whatever they want.

The main problem is not that the radicals, who enjoy about 80 percent support, will take over but rather:

--Easily block diplomatic progress;

--Maintain the war of terror on Israel which will damage their own people more than their enemy.

--Use incitement to produce such hatred among young people as to ensure the conflict continues many years, thus blocking creation of a Palestinian state.

--Preserve anarchy preventing any improvement in Gaza living standards or the proper use of aid money.

--Stop Abbas from consolidating an effective government.

--Persuade the world that the Palestinians don't want, or at least are unready, for peace.

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.

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