The Impact of Gaza
by Rami G. Khouri Released: 19 Jan 2009
BEIRUT -- Just as the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza three years ago triggered a tumultuous series of political developments that brought Palestinians and Israelis to this latest war and political confrontation, the unilateral Israeli ceasefire in Gaza that started early Sunday morning will usher in profound political changes that will transform the regional landscape for years to come.
The historic changes are already underway in three parallel arenas: within Palestinian society, between Palestine and Israel, and between the Middle East and the Western powers.
And all three have been on display this week, with four (!) different Arab summit meetings in four cities (Riyadh, Doha, Sharm esh-Sheikh and Kuwait City) -- where the military battle between Gaza and Israel continues as political battles of regional and global implication.
An ideological struggle started in the 1970s: That was when the pan-Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 60s died, organized Palestinian guerrilla groups challenged Israel and some Arab regimes, and Iranian Islamist-nationalists overthrew the Shah of Iran. The past 30 years in the Middle East has witnessed a tug-of-war between two broad camps of people and movements: those who would anchor their nationalism and development in the indigenous Arab-Islamic, Iranian-Islamic, or Turkish-Islamic identities; and those who would link their fate to the material and military inducements of vassal-like acceptance of American and Israeli interests.
The battle for Gaza captures all these elements simultaneously in a way that has never been so clear before. On the one hand, Israel relies on American, European, and some Arab support as it tries to bludgeon and starve the Palestinians of Gaza into submission, and tries to replace the surging Hamas with the wilted and discredited Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas.
On the other hand, half a dozen major Arab, Iranian, and Turkish actors, and a clear and growing majority of regional and world public opinion, support Palestinian rights. This support is sometimes reflected in explicit support for Hamas, but mostly in solidarity with the Palestinian civilians who have stood their ground in the face of Israel's gruesome onslaught.
The unilateral Israeli ceasefire will emphasize and aggravate these trends, and will set the stage for a prolonged political struggle – a struggle that will mirror the dynamics we have witnessed on the battlefield for the past three weeks.
The core issue to watch in the coming weeks and months is the balance between Israel's desire for unilateral control and dominance versus the Palestinians' determination to achieve liberation from the Israeli-American-led siege of Gaza and desire for explicit political legitimacy by formal diplomatic engagement.
The core problem in the short run has been the Israeli desire to make unilateral decisions that affirm its total control of the situation without engaging the rising power of the Hamas movement and allied Palestinian Islamists and nationalists. Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967, colonized it unilaterally, brutalized it unilaterally, pauperized it unilaterally, withdrew unilaterally, laid siege to it unilaterally, and now has attacked it and ceased-fire unilaterally. Every one of Israel's unilateral actions in recent years has failed to achieve its objectives -- and this unilateral ceasefire is also likely to fail.
The lesson that Israel seems too frenzied or stubborn to learn is that resolving the underlying Palestinian-Israeli conflict needs a negotiated agreement between two sides -- and cannot be achieved unilaterally. The historic importance of Hamas rests on its challenging Israel's unilateralist penchant in a manner that previous Palestinian movements -- especially Yasser Arafat's Fateh -- could not or dared not do.
It took advantage of the Israeli withdrawal and siege of Gaza to prepare for a military faceoff. Hamas knew it could not match Israel's superior firepower and technology, but it calculated correctly that it would gain politically by taking its stand -- and a beating -- and still emerging as the most credible Palestinian leadership.
Hamas' willingness to absorb Israel's military overkill and emerge on its feet mirrors Hizbullah's experience in Lebanon in 2006. It must be dealt with, if not today then in a few months down the road, because it represents the sort of legitimacy that few other Arab leaderships can boast. The cost in civilian lives and infrastructure has been high, which means it will be reluctant to go through the war experience again any time soon – again, similar to Hizbullah after it emerged on its feet from 34 days of fighting.
Hamas' most important immediate goal remains relieving the Israeli-American siege of Gaza, which is likely to emerge from the diplomatic discussions to come in the weeks ahead. Israel will have to stop attacking and strangulating Gaza, in return for Hamas holding its fire against southern Israel.
Both sides will say they achieved their key goals -- but Hamas will be the bigger political winner in the wake of the fighting. It will now have to use its greater political capital to operate more subtly in domestic, regional and global forums, where it will enjoy much more credibility, legitimacy and impact.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2009 Rami G. Khouri – distributed by Agence Global