Friday, July 13, 2007

Analysis: Hamas won the battle - and it may win the war, too

by Eran Shayson for The Jerusalem Post

A month after its takeover of Gaza, it seems Hamas has begun to translate its military achievements into political dividends, while Fatah is wallowing in the mud and becoming even less relevant.

Although Hamas's victory in Gaza was decisive, leaving the movement with no serious rivals in the area, the victory also held the potential to work against it. First, following the collapse of the Rafah agreement, Hamas had to ensure the continued operation of the border crossings in order to provide for the basic needs of the population.

Second, the Arab League's negative reaction to the coup, and the Egyptian pullout of its diplomatic delegation from Gaza, seemed to have isolated Hamas. Third, Hamas's actions gave Mahmoud Abbas the pretext - and allegedly the legitimacy - to dissociate Fatah from Hamas and to move forward with Israel on the political path.

Most significantly, it was the cautious "satisfaction" expressed in Jerusalem and Washington regarding the split between a Hamas-led Gaza and a Fatah-led West Bank, that created the impression that Hamas's coup was in fact a hasty move. Israel and the US seemed to have found the formula that would force Hamas to face the responsibility towards Gaza's population, while making the Fatah government a political partner.

However, a month later, it seems that Hamas had the political wisdom to overcome its drawbacks. The group has been successful in consolidating its control over Gaza, in gaining back popular support, in preventing the hermetic closure of the Israel-Gaza border and in conducting a dialogue with Arab and international actors. The return of the Egyptian diplomatic delegation to Gaza is considered a major political achievement for Hamas. Moreover, the release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston granted the group a certain amount of prestige in the international arena.

Fatah, on the other hand, has not shown the capacity to deliver in the West Bank. The movement has not recovered from its defeat and has been unsuccessful in unifying its political and military ranks. Some of Abbas's presidential decrees, by which he has been trying to impose his rule in the West Bank, have simply been ignored, even by Fatah members. The most prominent example of this was displayed by the Fatah factions' disregard for Abbas's decree to dissolve them all.

Moreover, following this decree, some members of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades decided to leave the PA security forces and urged Abbas to sack Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Finally, by formulating an unrealistic set of preconditions for dialogue with Hamas, including a demand to restore the status quo ante in Gaza and accept Fayad's government, Fatah is slowly rendering itself irrelevant.

Israel's frustration with Hamas's buildup emanates mostly from its failure to influence the Palestinians' internal balance of power. Israel is entangled in a "bear-hug paradox": Its obvious gestures toward moderate Fatah elements weaken those elements politically, while confrontation with Hamas or other extremist elements may even strengthen their status.

Therefore, Israel's efforts to strengthen Abbas should be conducted wisely. For example, Abbas should not receive free gifts. Gestures like the release of Fatah prisoners should be carried out only in return for Palestinian concessions following negotiations, so as not to be considered suspicious. Moreover, Israel should seek to transfer powers and authorities to the PA. Only when the West Bank is ruled by a genuinely self-governing Palestinian authority will there be a chance for the creation of a partner.

The true victory of Hamas is that it leaves Israel with no political alternatives vis-à-vis Gaza; Israel knows that the only political alternative to the Hamas regime in Gaza is al-Qaida.

Therefore, if Israel wishes to stay relevant, it will have to recognize Hamas as the true address in Gaza.

The writer is the analyst team leader at the Reut Institute for policy planning.