Gaza: What next?


[..] However, the “Palestinian-Taliban,” now in charge of the zone can only go forward. With all ties to Mahmoud Abbas broken, the Ismael Hanieh (Gaza) – Khaled Mishaal (Damascus) junta has to rapidly consolidate its grip over Gaza and even begin a campaign to destabilize the West Bank. A Hamas-only “regime” in Gaza, free from the PA international commitments would most likely resort to transform the enclave into a super-bastion for Jihad. This would include:

    1. A mass mobilization, in an attempt to levy an Army of more than 60,000 fighters. Hamas’ expectation is to see Iran and eventually Syria and Hezbollah heavily involved in providing weapons and training. But such a projection could be mitigated by international opposition.

    2. The creation of dozens of “Fallujahs” in the strip in anticipation of an “outside” offensive at some point. A series of no-surrender fortresses to deter any would-be attacking force.

    3. An attempt to deploy a wider and more complex battery of missiles while using the civilian population as shields.

    4. Use civilian travel to the West Bank to insert cells and individuals inside the PA territories.
    Link up with the Hamas supporters within the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Jordan and also inside Israel.

    5 The Gaza “regime,” free from Abbas supervision, will activate its overseas operations (including in the United States and the West) to deter potential American and international reprisals in the future.

    6. Last but not least, the Palestinian-Taliban could become the recipient of future Iranian non-conventional weaponry, including the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.

Western response

In view of the above, a Western response is strategically obligatory but not necessarily automatically. The rise of an Iranian-backed military entity between the Israeli and Egyptian borders, with an access to the Mediterranean is a direct threat to Arab moderates, U.S. and Western presence, and the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis. Hence, other than Iran and Syria’s regimes, this new reality isn’t very attractive to the region. But the bigger question now is unavoidably the following: what can be done and by whom?

The Israelis have the military might, but because of many obvious reasons, and aside from last resort defense in a regional war, they shouldn’t use it alone: it would –according to projections and lessons from Lebanon – give Hamas all that it needs: legitimacy. The PA units of Abbas should be the ones to counter this project but can’t win now: they’ve just lost all their bases in Gaza and are too weak to defeat Hamas at the present stage. An international force dispatched to the area would be fought by the Jihadists, both locally and internationally with barbaric terror. Without a strong international commitment under UN Security Council special resolutions, a multinational force at this point would be obsolete. The Arab moderates, particularly Egypt have a direct and vital interest in opposing the rise of a Taliban-regime in Gaza. The bombings by al Qaeda in the Sinai over the past two years are only the appetizers to what is to come if such an “emirate” is established. But Egypt needs an Arab backing, which could be fought against by Syria, and ironically too by Qatar, the new champion of the Islamists in the region. Finally, the U.S. is engaged in Iraq and in Afghanistan and its units are called upon in various hot spots around the world: Marines landing in Gaza is not the best idea for now.

So what is the answer to the question and is there one? In fact, as in the cases of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Somalia, the answers are hard to find because it took a long time for the victims of Jihadism, in this case the Palestinians, to realize how deep the problem was (and is).

But I do argue that a strategic response to the challenge of “Hamastan” is possible under a set of conditions, the most important of which is coordination between the various parties called upon to address the challenge. A lot of change of attitude must take place in the region and significant change in direction has to develop in Washington and Brussels.

The immediate future

Expect Hamas and its regional allies to do their utmost to consolidate their “acquisition” for now. Iran and Syria will move regionally and internationally in multiple directions to confirm the new status quo. Damascus and Tehran will deploy all skills in the Arab world to waste as much time as possible, and diplomatic “initiatives” will fly all over. Hamas will play two games: One, to deepen the control and widen the defenses of Gaza. Two, to reassure everyone they can that they are no threat. Khaled Mashaal, the Syrian-based boss of Hamas used airtime – generously offered by al Jazeera – to assuage feelings and fears.

“Yes we are Islamists but we aren’t establishing a fundamentalist religious state (yet),” he said, repeating almost word-for-word what the spokesperson of the Somali Islamic Courts said after their takeover of Mogadishu earlier this year. “We have good relations with Iran and Syria, but that doesn’t mean anything,” he continued. Then he offered a panoply of psychological gadgets: Hamas still recognizes Abbas as a president; it would work on liberating the British hostage (before it would grab more in the future); it welcomes Arab initiatives; it will keep the Palestinian flags higher than Hamas’; and to make sure Jihadi energies are still up, the group’s leaders pledged they will continue their relentless fight against Israel.

In fact, attacking Israel with missiles and suicide bombers is what Hamas has in mind if its feels the threat would come too close from all opposed parties together. It thinks that striking against the “Jewish entity” would be the best shield against a counterattack by the PA and its allies. Thus, it is important that the government appointed by Mr. Abbas and headed by Salam Fayyad would take the initiative internationally and press for an isolation of the terrorists. The key to the next stage is in the hands of Abbas-Fayyad but in view of Fatah’s heavy past, and the significant reforms the movement needs to undertake before it is considered a full partner in the War on Terror, time is now a dangerous factor. It is the temporal space between Abbas cleaning up his enclaves and reforming the PA radically and Hamas taking the offensive into the West Bank while dragging Israel into confrontation. The immediate future of Hamastan needs hyper-skills on behalf of Washington and Brussels to calibrate the response to the regional Syro-Iranian threat.

And until the fog of uncertainties disappears, Palestine is now divided between the equivalent of Afghanistan’s “Taliban” and “Mujahideen.”

— Dr Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C., and director of the Future Terrorism Project of the FDD. He is a visiting fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. His most recent books are Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West and The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy.

June 30, 2007 | Comments Off on Gaza: What next?

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