Hamas' capture of the Gaza Strip has created, along with Iran, a second radical Islamist state in the Middle East. The region, probably the Arab-Israeli conflict, and certainly the Palestinian movement, will never be the same.
Fatah's defeat in Gaza is not a result of US foreign policy, Israel or anyone but Fatah itself. It is the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's ultimate legacy, for he encouraged not only terrorist violence against Israel, but also anarchy and corruption within his own organization.
Most importantly, Arafat failed to resolve the conflict or give his people an alternative vision to one of extreme radicalism and endless fighting. By rejecting a compromise peace solution in 2000 that would have created an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem and US$23 billion in international aid, Arafat made clear that there would be no alternative, moderate scenario for resolving the Palestinians' problems.
seeds of defeat
It was clear before last year's January elections that Hamas was heading toward a victory. Under weak leadership, Fatah did nothing to address its deep-seated divisions and corruption. Competing Fatah candidates split the vote, ensuring that Hamas nominees won. Even after the defeat, Fatah implemented not a single reform or leadership change. Its leaders squabbled, regarding themselves as the sole possible rulers and engaging in wishful thinking that some external factor would hand them whatever they wanted.
Meanwhile, like communist and fascist parties in the past, Hamas moved forward, with a clear doctrine, relative discipline, and grim determination. Fatah's ideology and practice laid the basis for Hamas to advance. With Fatah demonizing Israel, rejecting compromise, demanding total victory, glorifying terrorist violence, and portraying moderation as treason, Hamas merely needed to prove that it was better at pursuing this course.
No one should underestimate Hamas' extremism. Indeed, the only difference between Hamas and al-Qaeda -- though the two groups do not generally work together -- is that the latter emphasizes attacks on Western targets, while the former has until now focused on Israel.
Consequently, Hamas will not moderate its stance, and its victory sets back the chances of Israel-Palestinian peace for decades. Buoyed by its triumph, enjoying backing from Syria (where its headquarters are located) and Iran, Hamas will pursue its genocidal and openly stated goal: the extinction of Israel and its people. Any thought of concession or compromise is gravely mistaken.
Four specific issues now move to center-stage: the fate of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the future of the Fatah-ruled West Bank, the world's attitude toward Israel, and the strategic impact of Hamas' victory on the Middle East.
Until now, while Gazans have suffered from the constant fighting and economic failures brought about by their leaders' policies, they have been left alone in their private lives. Hamas might go slower or faster with an "Islamicizing" program. Nevertheless, it is determined to transform the lives of those it rules. It will kill as it chooses, abolish women's rights, and indoctrinate schoolchildren with hatred and the ambition to be suicide bombers.
Gaza has suffered from anarchy; now it will be under the heel of a ruthless dictatorship. For example, when Hamas forces seized the Shati refugee camp, they deliberately executed three women -- two teenagers and a 75-year-old -- because they were relatives of Fatah officials. Those truly concerned with the Palestinians' well-being should direct their criticism at that people's leaders and seek to protect their human rights in the Gaza Strip.
Fatah's rule is still strong in the West Bank, but even the Gaza catastrophe is unlikely to lead it to change its ways. Israel's willingness to work with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah regime and resumption of full-scale aid by the US are intended to consolidate a relatively moderate Palestinian government on the West Bank. But, whereas Abbas appointed Salam Fayyad, a veteran economist who is respected in the West, as his new prime minister, he probably should have picked someone capable of being tough, organizing his forces, and fighting back.
Logically, Fatah should now embrace moderation, crack down on cross-border terrorism, and seek some kind of peace with Israel. But Fatah has its own view of what is logical -- one that might not coincide with such prescriptions. As wildly different as the two cases are, Fatah resembles the French monarchy before the revolution, incapable of learning from experience or taking the steps needed to avoid its own downfall. The world cannot save Fatah; only Fatah can save itself.
For Israel, of course, developments in Gaza pose a great challenge. Israel has long since decided that it has no interest in renewing its control over the Gaza Strip. In some ways, Hamas' coup makes things clearer. Gaza is ruled by a completely hostile regime. Israel will feel free to retaliate for cross-border attacks and continuing rocket fire at civilian targets within the country.
At last, the world must recognize that the hopes stirred by the 1990s peace process have been completely dashed. In effect, Hamas has returned the conflict to the 1960s and 1970s, when progress toward peace had to await the Palestine Liberation Organization's readiness to stop using terrorism and accept Israel's existence. Israel's survival and right to self-defense now has to be supported internationally, and the slander and demonization of recent years should come to an end.
The strategic implications for the region are equally grim. Hamas' takeover of Gaza is a victory for the bloc comprising Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, as well as the separate branches of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is one) seeking to capture power in their own countries. These forces fully comprehend that the most important global contest today is between radical Islamism and the rest of the world. The question is when the rest of the world will figure that out.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. Copyright: Project Syndicate
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