Land of the Clenched Fist

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Israel’s recent failure to decisively defeat Hamas in Gaza—and to ensure that Hamas is seen to be defeated by all in the region‘bodes ill for Israelis, Palestinians, and the prospects for peace between them. Israel demonstrated impressive tactical ingenuity and military intelligence in the twenty-threeday, large-scale military incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead, but ultimately its hesitancy to finish the job further undermined its deterrence power and has left large swaths of its population at risk of future attack. Moreover, in the likely event that it must take further military action in Gaza in its own defense, Israel will be subjected to new torrents of international condemnation for collateral civilian casualties and “disproportionate” use of force.

Hamas has been permitted to remain in political control of Gaza, and so those Palestinians who might have been Israel’s partners in peace are fewer and weaker, making prospects for a political solution to the conflict— one offering both peoples the chance to live in security and dignity—ever dimmer. Under Hamas’s continued rule, Gazans can look forward only to a future of violence, impoverishment, enforced Islamization, and brutality at the hands of a jihadist movement that is all too eager to use them as human shields and turn their children into shaheeds (or “martyrs”).

The West failed, too—it failed to correctly grasp, or at least correctly articulate, the nature of the conflict in Gaza. This “failure to frame” the recent flare-up as a new and dangerous phase in an evolving Iranian war on the Israeli heartland not only has helped tarnish Israel’s international image unjustly but risks leading U.S. policy makers to wrong conclusions about where to go next in Middle East diplomacy. The Obama administration, which has signaled its intent to push for a Middle East peace deal, might be tempted to press for either a hasty Israeli pact with the Palestinian Authority or a naive Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation,” neither of which would help the interests and security of the United States or its allies in the region. Instead, the Obama administration should build on the shared interests of Egypt, Israel, and Jordan—countries already bound by peace treaties—in pushing back Iranian expansionism in the eastern Mediterranean by promoting a cooperative drive to better govern Gaza and the West Bank.

Gazans can look forward only to a future of violence, impoverishment, enforced Islamization, and brutality at the hands of the jihadist movement.

Provocations from Gaza began years ago. On April 16, 2001, Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip fired the first Qassam—a crude, inaccurate missile named after 1930s Islamic terrorist leader Sheik Izz ad-Din al- Qassam—onto population centers in southern Israel. More than seven years after the first Hamas rocket landed on Israeli territory—after 7,000 Qassams, Grad rockets, and mortar shells had fallen—Israel responded on the Sabbath morning of December 27, 2008, with Operation Cast Lead.

A series of media diversions in the seventy-two hours preceding the offensive lulled Hamas operatives into a false sense of security, giving the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the element of surprise. Five minutes after Israel opened its air offensive, practically all of Hamas’s above- and belowground installations in the strip—training camps, “police” stations, ammunition storage facilities, and offices—had been hit in well-coordinated, precise Israel Air Force (IAF) strikes. In contrast to the June 2006 Lebanon war, Israeli ground forces, which entered Gaza in a second phase of operations on January 3, were well trained and equipped. Despite heavy fighting in a highly complex battlefield, only nine IDF soldiers were killed in action during the entire campaign, four of them in two “friendly fire” incidents. By comparison, 871 Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives were killed by the IDF during the operation, out of a total of 1,166 Palestinian casualties, according to final figures of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

More than seven years after the first Hamas rocket landed on Israeli territory—after 7,000 Qassams, Grad rockets, and mortar shells had fallen—Israel responded on the Sabbath morning of December 27, 2008.

And yet, when it ended with a unilateral Israeli cease-fire on January 18, Operation Cast Lead had fallen short of achieving even the limited military and political goals specified by the Ehud Olmert government when the campaign began. Those goals, as articulated on December 27 by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, were threefold: dealing a forceful blow to Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip; creating conditions of improved security in and around Gaza; and halting the rocket attacks against Israeli civilians by neutralizing Hamas’s launching capabilities and deterring the Islamist group from engaging in further belligerent activity. But in the end Hamas’s top leaders—many of whom were pinned down in the basement of the Shifa Hospital complex in Gaza City in the latter phase of the campaign, within relatively easy reach of Israeli forces—were allowed to evade death or capture and so live to spin a tale of heroic resistance against the “Zionist aggressor.”

Levels of declared support for Hamas among Palestinians rose markedly as the outcome of Operation Cast Lead became apparent, notwithstanding the miseries wrought on innocent Gazans by the Islamist movement. According to a poll conducted by the West Bank–based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, for instance, whereas in early December 2008 Hamas Premier Ismail Haniyeh had a 38 percent popularity rating among Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank, three months later the figure stood at 47 percent. If Palestinian presidential elections were held today, the same poll found, Haniyeh would defeat incumbent Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

On the security front, too, there is no sign that the Gaza incursion created substantial positive change. The smuggling of arms, explosives, and money under the Philadelphi corridor between Egypt and the Gaza Strip continues largely unabated. Despite a series of IAF strikes on the Philadelphi tunnels, as well as an attack on a Gaza-bound arms convoy in Sudan, during the past several months dozens of tons of explosives and hundreds of mortar shells, rockets, and antitank missiles have been smuggled into Gaza, including Iranian-made 220mm Fajr-4 rockets capable of reaching the heart of Tel Aviv. Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to burrow “attack tunnels” into Israeli territory, and Haniyeh has vowed to kidnap more Israeli soldiers like Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been held incommunicado since his capture by a Hamas raid into Israel on June 25, 2006. The number of missiles fired by Gaza-based terrorist groups has diminished but not stopped. Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, in fact, over 250 rockets and mortar shells have been fired from Gaza into Israel.

WHAT TEHRAN GETS FOR ITS MONEY

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs of Tehran must be delighted with the way the Gaza clash turned out. As in Lebanon in June 2006, they managed to kill three birds with one canny stroke:

1. They harassed Israel through a proxy militia with little direct cost to themselves.
2. They diverted international attention from their nuclear machinations at what, from their perspective, was a particularly sensitive juncture— in this case, the last few weeks of the Bush administration.
3. And all the while Israel, not Iran, was the target of international opprobrium.

As Matthew Levitt documents in his excellent book Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, Iran’s infiltration of the Palestinian arena through its sponsorship of the Islamist group traces back to the early days of the first Intifada. After Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called for peace negotiations with Israel at the U.N. General Assembly in December 1988, Hamas emerged as the combatant arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza. It replaced Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the new rejectionist vanguard in violent “resistance” against Israel. As the United States and the Europeans moved in to promote an Israeli-PLO peace deal, first in Madrid in 1991 and then in Oslo in 1992–93, Shiite Iran quickly put aside any theological dispute it might have had with Sunni Hamas for the sake of their shared purpose: wrecking any prospects for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. The mullahs’ investment paid off handsomely in June 2007 when Hamas ousted the brittle and corrupt Palestinian Authority from power in Gaza in a short, vicious coup.

The record of Iranian financial, military, and logistical support for Hamas is long and well documented by American, British, Canadian, Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian Authority intelligence services. Since the mid-1990s, direct Iranian financial aid to Hamas has ranged from $20 million to $80 million every year; it rose substantially after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003 and during the oil boom years of 2004–8. Additional millions are channeled via Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, and distributed through the Hamas Dawa, an elaborate socialservices network that facilitates the movement’s propaganda and recruitment efforts, gives jobs to its operatives, and supplies logistical support for its terrorist operations.

Those operations have increasingly resembled the tactics Hezbollah used against U.S. and Israeli targets in Lebanon and elsewhere. For instance, in 1994–96 the first wave of Hamas suicide attacks inside Israel (meant to demonstrate Arafat’s inability to commit Palestinians to a peaceful political process and so undermine the Oslo accords) closely emulated Hezbollah’s because they were the result of its direct instruction. Since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hamas terrorists have come under the more systematic tutelage of Hezbollah trainers in camps based in the Beka’a Valley and, increasingly over the past several years, run directly by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Intelligence Service. There, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives have received extensive training in the use of Fajr missiles and antitank and antiaircraft rockets, among other weapons.

Further evidence of Iran’s determination to buy itself a southern border with the Jewish state—having already established a northern one through Hezbollah in Lebanon—appears in the sheer scale of its efforts to pour sophisticated weaponry into the hands of militant Palestinian groups. On January 3, 2002, for example, the Israeli navy intercepted an Iranian-supplied and Hezbollah-operated cargo ship loaded with no less than fifty tons of Iranian-manufactured arms en route to Gaza. The weapons seized on board the Karine-A included antitank missiles, antitank and antipersonnel mines, and rockets and launchers with a range of up to twenty miles. Similarly, Israeli naval commandos in May 2003 captured a fishing vessel carrying Hezbollah explosives expert Hamad Abu Amar, together with sophisticated bomb-making instructions and detonators. Israel Security Service chief Yuval Diskin reports that as of late March 2009, barely nine weeks after the end of Operation Cast Lead, twenty-two tons of explosives and forty-five tons of raw materials to manufacture arms had been smuggled into the Gaza Strip with Iranian backing.

Since the mid-1990s, direct Iranian financial aid to Hamas has ranged from $20 million to $80 million every year.

The Iranian dimension has eluded international public attention almost entirely, and this is perhaps Hamas’s (and, by extension, Iran’s) greatest strategic coup in Gaza. Misled by media coverage that was quick to attribute sinister political motivations to Israeli leaders on the basis of gossipy speculation (did Ehud Barak instigate Operation Cast Lead to bolster his own ailing political fortunes in time for Israel’s February 2009 general elections?) while largely ignoring hard evidence of aggressive Iranian expansionism into Gaza, many interpreted Israel’s actions as adding yet another bloody round to a perennial Israeli-Palestinian “cycle of violence.” Most observers, in fact, came to view the latest conflagration in the Middle East in this narrow, mistaken sense.

EXPANDING A ZONE OF PEACE

As it seeks to inject new impetus into Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the Obama administration displays an instinct to push hard and fast for a comprehensive deal between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority—a deal that would, at the very least, remove Israel’s security presence from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Obama team is also reportedly tempted to abandon President Bush’s policy that isolated Hamas as long as the Islamist organization refused to recognize Israel’s basic right to exist, renounce violence, and agree to abide by earlier commitments of the Palestinian Authority. In an effort to signal to Tehran that change has indeed come to Washington, and in a naive attempt to put an end to the internecine feud between warring Palestinian factions, Obama may seek to encourage Fatah- Hamas “reconciliation” talks that would bring Hamas in from the cold and pave the way to a Palestinian “unity government.&rduqo;

Going down such a path would be disastrous to the fundamental interests of the United States and its regional allies. Hamas—whose very name is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement—is an explicitly rejectionist, religiously violent organization whose reason to exist is the annihilation of the state of Israel and its complete replacement with an Islamist Palestinian state that would advance the broader goals of global jihad. The bloodcurdling language of its 1988 charter (freely available in English online), its leaders’ statements, and every action testify to Hamas’s commitment to Israel’s destruction. As long as it is permitted to rule Gaza—or any part of the West Bank, for that matter—Hamas will continue to fight Israel and effectively veto any peace initiative.

Would Hamas be moderated by bringing it into the fold of a Palestinian unity government? It”s unlikely. Rather, with continued Iranian and Syrian backing for the Islamic Resistance Movement, a Hamas-Fatah merger would very soon morph into a de facto Hamas acquisition of the territory and resources of the Palestinian Authority, extending the Islamists’ control into the West Bank. Thus would open a third, eastern flank in the evolving Iranian proxy war against Israel.

Where, then, is progress likely to be found? The answer may lie not in Ramallah or Gaza City, but in Cairo and Amman. The discovery and subsequent arrest in early April of an extensive network of Hezbollah agents operating inside Egypt has deeply shaken Hosni Mubarak’s government, and has aligned Israeli-Egyptian interests in countering Iranian infiltration in the region as never before. Jordan’s King Abdullah also has much to fear from a resurgent Iran and Hamas’s growing presence in the Hashemite Kingdom. As far back as February 2002, in fact, Abdullah gave then-president George W. Bush evidence of Iran’s involvement in no fewer than seventeen plots to launch rocket attacks on Israel from within Jordanian territory.

Would Hamas be “moderated” by bringing it into the fold of a Palestinian unity government? It’s unlikely. Rather, a Hamas-Fatah merger would only extend the Islamists’ control, and violent designs, into the West Bank.

Getting Egypt and Jordan to join Israel in a cooperative regional effort to undermine Hamas, reform the weak Palestinian Authority, and push back Iran’s pernicious presence in the eastern Mediterranean would require diplomatic skill and determination on the part of the Obama administration. Israel, Jordan, and Egypt represent that rare asset for America in the Middle East: three responsible, neighboring sovereign states with common interests and formal peace treaties binding them. Hope for Gaza will come from nurturing and expanding that zone of peace.