Monday, December 29, 2008

Hamas betrays the Palestinians

December 29, 2008

The deaths of hundreds in the Gaza airstrikes at the weekend are a further cost of implacable militancy

THE piteous images of the dead and wounded in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli airstrikes there at the weekend cannot obscure the betrayal of undeniable Palestinian welfare and interests that is perpetrated by Hamas, the militant ruling party in the long-suffering refugee enclave. Civilians have died cruelly, caught in the line of fire. Even the Hamas police recruits who were killed may have been young men seeking one of the few jobs to be had in the besieged strip. But who is to blame? Where might peace be found? How will other governments, particularly the incoming administration of Barack Obama in the US, respond to this test in a most fractious region?

The Gazans have been on the path to worsening strife since many of them, with other Palestinians in the West Bank, elected Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority's parliament in early 2006. Hamas is an Islamist group whose goal of Israel's destruction is also championed by Iran, which likes to see the Middle East and Gulf as part of its rising hegemony. Hamas did not follow up on its election win by implementing a program of enlightened and progressive policies across the Palestinian territories. Instead it chose to entrench itself militarily and politically within teeming Gaza, expelling its main Palestinian rival party, Fatah. The strip became a base camp for the radicals' struggle against Israel.

The military and political wisdom of the caretaker Israeli cabinet's approval of the strikes will be debated, as was the case with Israel's incursion into Lebanon in 2006. The latter was seen afterwards as possibly having strengthened the political clout of the radical Islamist party Hezbollah, which was Israel's target in Lebanon. The same risk applies with Hamas, but to a much lesser degree. Both military actions were responses to an intolerable pattern of rocket attacks on Israel and the seizing of its soldiers.

What counts now is that the Israeli leadership has at least a partial political solution to the conflict with Gaza in mind, beyond a substantial dismantling of Hamas's ability to harass. The cabinet, dominated by the Kadima and Labour parties, will be hoping the strikes have done sufficient military damage to obviate the need for a major ground invasion, with its risk of high casualties on both sides.

The relatively muted and balanced response from Western governments shows Israel's dilemma is understood, and Jerusalem will be given time. The strongest language among leaders is probably that of France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, who called the strikes "disproportionate" to Hamas's threat. The strikes certainly exceeded the rockets emanating from Gaza in destruction but they were reportedly aimed at reducing Hamas's military power for long enough to get useful negotiations going - finally.

In 2005, then prime minister Ariel Sharon took Israeli forces and civilian settlers out of Gaza after nearly four decades of occupation, but instead of the improved relations that could have been a precursor to an eventual Palestinian state, the result was an increase in attacks on nearby communities in Israel. Israel's punitive reprisals were tough and by the middle of this year a six-month ceasefire was in place. But rocket attacks resumed in earnest after the six months were up this month.

Hamas has proved the hardest of enemies to crack without warfare. A near-total Israeli blockade of the strip, accompanied by matching security to the south by Egypt - desirous of excluding radicals from entry - has boosted the dominance of Hamas within the strip, as the party grabbed control of goods and money in short supply. The blockade became porous as a result of tunnelling, but Hamas controlled that, too. Instead of the revolt against Hamas that Israel - and let it be said most Western nations - hoped would occur, Hamas was able to exploit the shortages to encourage dependence on it among Gazans. For months, it turns out, the Israeli leadership has been contemplating an attempt at disarming Gaza as the next step, and these airstrikes are the result. Dislodging Hamas completely appears impossible in the near future, despite Fatah's expressed interest in filling any void, so renewed international pressure to draw it into talks with Israel, directly or otherwise, would be welcome.

The suffering of the Gazans, who number about 1.5 million, must end. The impasse has global consequences. The death and maiming will inflame opponents of Israel and the West, especially in Muslim countries.

But often that denunciation will be hypocritical, if understandable. It is also no time for holding the misapprehension that Israel's existence is a thorn between the West and Israel's implacable opponents. Israel attracts fierce opposition in the Middle East because it is seen as Western, as a democracy espousing liberal values, including religious tolerance. If the Middle East question merely concerned a territorial settlement for displaced Palestinians, peace would have come long ago.

The strikes have come at a messy time. The US is in political transition, and Israel faces elections in February. The latest polling, done just before the strikes, rates as fairly even Kadima and Labour on the one hand, and the Likud Opposition, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, usually regarded as a hardliner. Likud had been seen as the likely winner. The military option was reportedly supervised by caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. If the Israeli public approves of the strikes, this will do no harm to his successor as Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is seeking to become Israel's second female prime minister.

In the US, even before being sworn into office on January 20, the president-elect, Mr Obama, is facing his first major foreign challenge, as is his secretary of state-designate, Hillary Clinton. The choice of Senator Clinton - one of whose main advisers would be her husband, former president Bill Clinton - has been depicted as of much significance for the Middle East. Mr Clinton made the last concentrated attempt at a solution until Fatah's Yasser Arafat pulled the rug out from under him. His successor, George W. Bush, has seen little point in trying again at this late stage. Mr Obama and Senator Clinton are presented with grave danger, but also opportunity.

Source: The Australian
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