Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Spawn of Ahmad Yassin

Hamas at 22

Time flies when you're spilling blood. Has it really been 22 years since Hamas was established in Gaza as an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood by Sheik Ahmad Yassin?

Tens of thousands of Palestinians packed a Gaza City square yesterday to mark the anniversary and heard Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh pledge, from behind a podium decorated daintily with orange, white and red flowers, that Hamas would never make peace with Israel.

Propagandists for the Palestinian cause are wont to refer to the territory as "an open-air prison for its 1.4 million residents." In truth, it's more a working model of what a Hamas-led Palestine would look like.

Granted there is plenty of desperation and misery in Gaza - much of it self-inflicted. Women may not be seen astride motorcycles. Couples strolling along the beach have been stopped by police and asked to produce proof of marriage. The freedom of Palestinian journalists to write critically about Hamas is limited, otherwise they might expose the campaign of abductions, unlawful killings, torture, and death threats against critics of the regime.

Hamas considers all of "Palestine" an Islamic trust and itself in a permanent state of war with the Jews. Beginning with the 2005 disengagement and dramatically intensifying after Hamas's takeover of the Strip from Fatah in 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade.

Concrete and steel are embargoed - Hamas would use these for military purposes. But Israel does allow a constant flow of humanitarian goods to go in; 698 trucks last week - not counting a special convoy containing books and stationery donated by Qatar. Unlike prevailing conditions in some Organization of the Islamic Conference states, there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Still, as long as Hamas chooses war with Israel, we'd prefer that Gaza's civilian needs be met via its border with Egypt.

ALL IN all, it has been a decent year for Hamas. Much of its leadership survived Operation Cast Lead by hiding in hospital basements. It did not find it too hard to replace tons of lost weapons - via smuggling tunnels beneath the Philadelphi Corridor - and reconstitute its cadre of commanders. In fact, it now has missiles that can strike Tel Aviv.

Egypt is plainly unable - perhaps unwilling - to stop the smuggling despite advanced equipment and training provided by the US.

Hamas also managed to keep Gilad Schalit's whereabouts secret from IDF intelligence for yet another year. And it continued to brainwash Palestinian children to hate.

The military setbacks suffered by Hamas during Operation Cast Lead were more than offset by a cornucopia of diplomatic benefits thanks to the Goldstone Report and post-war media coverage which accepted Palestinian assertions that most of the war's casualties were civilians and that Israel's use of force against Hamas was "disproportionate" and immoral.

Hamas continues to receive strong military backing from Teheran. On Sunday, its Damascus-based politburo chief, Khaled Mashaal, was hosted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He urged Hamas not to go wobbly on Israel.

He needn't worry. It is unlikely that Hamas will experience a metamorphosis in 2010 and agree to end terrorism, accept Israel's right to exist and embrace the agreements ratified by the Palestinian Authority.

That is too bad. Because divided between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian polity is immobilized. The idea that Mahmoud Abbas will find the courage for genuine give and take at the negotiating table while Hamas breathes down his neck is risible. And if the Netanyahu government assents to a lop-sided prisoner release, Hamas's strength and Fatah's weakness will become even more pronounced.

Given that Israel is not prepared to seize the Gaza Strip from Hamas's clutches and that neither Palestinian elections nor a Palestinian unity government would solve the Hamas problem; and that moreover, Hamas in contrast to Fatah offers coherence and discipline, Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Middle East Center wonders if perhaps Israel should not explore a Machiavellian modus vivendi with the Islamists.

It is an approach some Israeli strategists, including ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, would be prepared to consider… if only Hamas would stop reminding us - as Haniyeh did at yesterday's rally - that "the liberation of the Strip is just a step to liberating all of Palestine."

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