The war on Gaza, Hamas and the Israeli Far Right

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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It is no secret that Qatar and Turkey are very close to Hamas, the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip, and that this trio's relations with Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are marred by tension, if not outright hostility. Previously, former President Mohammad Mursi, who led the Muslim Brotherhood project in Egypt, was the fourth complement of the trio.

Iran is Hamas's ally, and supplies it with rockets not because it is fond of the Muslim Brotherhood, but because it sees Hamas as an important part of its strategy of "resistance for the sake of one-upmanship" with the Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as other Arab governments. Iran converges with Qatar and Turkey in the desire to block Egypt's bid to restore its leading regional role and anything that can help it restore the Arab weight in the regional balance of power, particularly since Egypt has the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in this endeavor. I believe Israel also converges with Iran and Turkey in their desire to exclude the Arab heavyweights from the regional balance of power, and therefore does not want Egypt to regain the ability to have an exceptional Arab and regional leadership role. Developments related to the Egyptian initiative for ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and for negotiations over Gaza, in light of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad's rejection of the initiative, no doubt have reasons related to Israel and its military machine that has killed more than 300 civilians. But there are also reasons related to their competition over positions not only in the traditional balance of power, but also over influence on militant groups, like the military wings of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

The problem in competing over mediation is that it will prolong the conflict, which has come at a heavy price for Palestinian civilians in Gaza because of the Israeli bombardment of civilian sites where Israel accuses Hamas of embedding its rockets. Clearly, there can be no comparison between the limited damage of the rockets fired by the Ezz al-Din al-Qassam brigades - Hamas' military wing - due the advanced Israeli anti-missile system, and the damage inflicted by the Israeli military machine, including killing hundreds and causing widespread devastation.

Israel and Hamas are caught in a predicament, no matter how much it may seem to them that they can achieve some kind of victory. Even if Israel destroys thousands of rockets and kills hundreds, Hamas would still have thousands of more rockets, and Israel cannot kill the entire population of Gaza. And beyond Hamas' attempt to boast of symbolic if not illusory victories in challenging the might of the Israeli military machine, Israel will remain a major military power capable of destroying Gaza's infrastructure, along with the destruction of half of the missile arsenal in Hamas's possession.

What has Israel achieved during Operation Protective Edge? Of course, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to end his isolation locally and internationally, rallying behind him the U.S. Congress and U.S. public opinion, which shows immediate bias in favor of Israel as soon as a rocket is launched at Israel. I believe the European public opinion sympathizes with the Palestinian victims more than its U.S. counterpart, but European governments stand against Hamas's rocket fire.

However, Israel needs Hamas, no matter how much it claims to be its arch-foe. For Israel, Hamas is the security valve that prevents more radical groups from emerging in Gaza. In doing so, Hamas resembles the Palestinian Authority in fulfilling its obligations in accordance with the agreements signed with Israel - i.e. security coordination to prevent extremists from reaching Israel. It is no secret that direct communications between Israel and Hamas have taken place repeatedly.

What does Israel ultimately want? This is the most important question that Palestinians must examine profoundly

Raghida Dergham

Israel's dilemma is that it needs Hamas to prevent the arrival of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to its doorstep, while at the same time, it insists on destroying Hamas' military capabilities and infrastructure in Gaza, and toppling the national reconciliation government that included members from both Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas for its part has given ammunition to the Netanyahu government and the Israeli far right, including its political, pro-settler, and military components. On the one hand, Hamas understands that the Israeli right needs it to be very militant, and wants it to become even more militant, to use it as a pretext to justify its demographic schemes, namely, the forcible transfer of Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza to implement the project of Jordan as the Palestinians' alternative homeland. On the other hand, Hamas fulfills the requirements of this project carelessly, while believing or claiming to be challenging it.

Perhaps Hamas can claim to have staged a comeback in the international media arena and in the collective Arab mind, which awakens when it sees the scenes of Israeli brutality against innocent civilians, and perhaps sees rockets launched against Israel as honorable resistance and strength. But the problem is that Hamas' wager on automatic Arab sympathy is misplaced, and the Egyptian public opinion is the best example as it holds Hamas responsible. The problem is that this approach is costly for the Palestinians, as things will go back the way they were before without any achievement of victory to speak of.

Some may say that the third Gaza war should lead Israel to lift the siege on the Strip and end its arbitrary and punitive measures against the coastal enclave. This is something that Israel must indeed do; however, unfortunately, there is no sign that the United States and the international community plan to put pressure on Israel to end these practices. Instead, Hamas's brandishing of its arsenal could increase sympathy with the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and herein lies the dilemma.

There are those who believe that Hamas would like it if Israel invades Gaza by land, as this would force the United Sates to intervene in earnest to find political solutions, and force the Arab countries to seriously revive their interest in Palestine.

Perhaps what Hamas wants most of all is to force Egypt to open the Rafah crossing to gain access to various kinds of aid, especially those that arrive in the form of bags of cash. But Egypt does not want Israel to throw Gaza into its lap, and does not want Hamas to force its hand to open the Rafah crossing, so that Hamas, Iran, and others can take advantage of the opportunity to embarrass Egypt into adopting measures it does not want.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have rejected the Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire, ahead of receiving Israeli and Palestinian delegates to discuss broader demands related to a permanent truce, including lifting the siege and the economic blockade on Gaza, as well as the future of the relationship between Gaza and the West Bank. The rejection was part of the strategy of escalation, in a drama that Hamas has found to be beneficial.

But the deeper reason is that Hamas wanted not to put the ball in the Egyptian court that it doesn't trust, and for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi not to be the broker of ceasefires and truces. Hamas wanted to bargain publicly in order to get the Rafah crossing opened. It is possible that Hamas coordinated its steps with Turkey and Qatar before it declared its rejection of the initiative. For one thing, both countries share Hamas's desire to prevent Sisi from benefiting from brokering ceasefire and mediating in the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

Politically, Mahmoud Abbas needs both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The first was the one to propose the Arab initiative that challenges Israel to choose peace, and the second for its direct influence across the border with Gaza.

Iran, as usual, is subtly present in the drama as well. Some of Hamas's rockets are locally made, but an important part of them were imported from Iran. However, the United States has refrained from holding Iran accountable over this, and preferred, at least in public, to turn a blind eye to the Iranian role in Gaza because the priority for the Obama administration is to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran.

We do not know if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had limited the agenda of his bilateral talks with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Vienna this week to the nuclear issue. However, there are no indications that Kerry raised the issue of the Iranian role in Gaza and Tehran's consistent intervention to block the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis, though its one-upmanship practiced in the name of resistance.

Yet Israel does not need Iran to proceed with the destruction of any serious peace process, preferring to engage in a perpetual process because the Israeli government is unwilling to accept a real two-state solution. Israel is unprepared either because it is dominated by extremism or because it does not feel the need to make any concessions to achieve the two-state solution. No one is forcing it to.

Mahmoud Abbas is a victim of Israel, Iran, and other regional and Palestinian players, and is certainly a victim of himself for having gone too far in avoiding deadlines and implementing promises. He now appears weak and marginal in the eyes of the Palestinian and international public opinions equally.

The International Criminal Court card is nearing expiry, having been used then withdrawn and then overstated. Perhaps Israel has now recruited enough international law experts to thwart the momentum and results of Mahmoud Abbas's bid to resort to the ICC to prosecute Israel for war crimes. What matters is that Mahmoud Abbas could still take a step toward the ICC, but most likely, he will not go all the way.

The question to examine

Palestinian officials speak today about the right to international protection for the civilians under occupation, and they are correct in believing that this is stipulated in international agreements such as the Fourth Geneva convention. They have appealed to the United Nations, and they are right, because the British mandate had made Palestine the responsibility of the international organization when it left, and the United Nations agreed. However, it will not be wise to just appeal and call for concerted efforts. Before making such an appeal, the Palestinian leadership must think thoroughly about its options, the mechanisms, and the methods of implementation, before asking Ban Ki-moon or the Security Council to intervene haphazardly and without a mechanism for implementation.

Whenever things deteriorate and the conflict escalates, a growing number of people seek to play a role, either to contain the situation or in bringing new ideas. Perhaps there is a chance to think in terms that go beyond ceasefire following the recent escalation in Gaza. However, no one is coming up with major ideas outside the traditional box.

What does Israel ultimately want? This is the most important question that Palestinians must examine profoundly, and develop scenarios and strategies to answer it. The Palestinians want the two-state solution, though this does not apply to their totality, as there are factions among them that also reject the two-state solution, just like the Israelis do. There are also Israelis who are determined to abolish the word "occupation" from the international lexicon, starting with the media and not ending with international resolutions. So what is the purpose behind this? What is the Israeli strategy here?

Gaza is paying the price as usual. It is being subjected to Israeli retribution and an attempt to teach it lessons using the blood of its children, while its leaderships stage a defiant challenge without a clear exit strategy.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 18, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for U.N.CTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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