WORLD POLITICS REVIEW
The Political Impact of Israel's Gaza Operation
Israel's attack on Hamas continued through the weekend, despite Egyptian and French efforts to broker a ceasefire. With Israeli ground forces now poised on the outskirts of Gaza City, and with an expansion of the operation into the urban battlefields that represent Hamas' greatest tactical opportunity for exacting losses on the IDF still a possibility, it is difficult to speak decisively about the military outcome of the ongoing fighting.
But according to several American experts on Arab politics, while Israel might very well succeed -- at least temporarily -- in depleting Hamas' military wing, so long as Hamas is still in a position to reassert its control over Gaza following the operation the conflict is likely to have the opposite impact politically.
"It is hard for me to see how Hamas does not come out of this politically strengthened," says Glen R. Robinson, assistant professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterrey, Calif. "Unless Israel is planning a permanent re-occupation of Gaza, they will withdraw their forces and Hamas will proclaim victory. And as Hamas won't accept a ceasefire that does not also include a lifting of the siege, that would also be seen as a political victory for Hamas."
Nathan Brown, director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University, agrees. "Since no party has the will to occupy Gaza, it seems likely that Hamas will return. An outcome that reintroduces Ramallah-based forces [of PA President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party] to the crossing with Egypt is a possibility, but an end to Hamas rule in the strip as a whole is difficult to envision."
Ironically, the attack on Gaza has likely removed the most obvious path to Hamas's demise -- Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections. The presidential election was supposed to occur in either 2009 (according to Hamas) or 2010 (according to Fatah), although there is little legal basis for resolving the dispute. Parliamentary elections (.pdf) are to be held in 2010.
But as Brown explained, "There is simply no possibility of new Palestinian elections right now. The possibility that Hamas will be voted out -- a very real one had the international community reacted differently after 2006 -- has effectively been destroyed."
As Hamas literally and figuratively digs itself out of the political rubble, they can take comfort that Fatah is in no position to capitalize from the conflict.
"Fatah was already in deep crisis, more focused on internal backbiting and clawing its way back into power than in rebuilding itself as an organization, which made it seem like a poor alternative to Hamas in the eyes of many Palestinians," Brown adds.
Moreover, he considers that the current fighting is likely to place Fatah deeper in that hole. "Charges of collusion between some senior Fatah leaders -- including [Mahmoud Abbas] himself -- and Israel have put Fatah on the defensive. And the short term effect has been not only to undercut Fatah's popular support but also to divide the movement over its future direction."
Robinson concurs: "Fatah is in the very real position of being seen as a toady for Israel if it is not extremely careful in how it plays out the endgame . . . and I think they will come out much weaker politically."
Still, given the financial and diplomatic support Fatah receives from the U.S. and the international community, it is too early to rule out a comeback. "Unless Fatah clumsily attempts to reassert control in Gaza in the wake of the Israeli campaign, I expect the damage in one sense will be temporary," posits Brown.
Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont, points out that Hamas "enjoys the rally around the flag effect" as long as the attacks continue. He warns, however, against dismissing Fatah's ability to recover, because eventually the violence will end and a sense of normalcy will return to Palestinian politics. "If the anecdotal evidence about the improvement in the economic situation in the West Bank holds up, by the spring people might look more favorably on Fatah and ask themselves what Hamas' policy of provocation got them."
Comparisons with Hezbollah's experience after the 2006 Lebanon War illustrate Hamas' political vulnerability should the Palestinian people ultimately deem its policy of instigation reckless and hold it accountable.
"Given the Lebanese political system," Gause explained, "Hezbollah had the Shia community sewed up; [the Shias] don't really have an option and the party remains strong despite the pounding they took in 2006. But Palestinians do have an option besides Hamas in Fatah."
Perhaps the most alarming possibility is that Salafi jihadists with ideological links to al-Qaida will be in a position to benefit from a weakened Hamas.
"A Hamas with a seriously degraded coercive apparatus will be less able to check the Salafi trend, so some inroads in the coming months are likely," predicts Robinson.
However, he expects Hamas to be "rather effective in rebuilding its coercive capability, especially given its [likely] political bump, and therefore limit Salafi inroads."
By most estimates, the Salafi jihadist presence in Gaza does not exceed 200 fighters, so a serious political challenge to Hamas from the more extremist flank of Palestinian politics is unlikely. But as Palestinians bury their dead, several hundred of them civilians, the general climate will be one that favors calls for revenge. For ultra-extremist groups such as al-Qaida, this is only a good thing.
Nathan Field is a reporter based in Cairo, Egypt.