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The War in Gaza: A view from the Arab street

Commentary, 12 January 2009
Middle East and North Africa
The culture of resistance in the Arab world has become more uncompromising and more anti-European as a result of the attacks on Gaza and the round of international diplomacy that has followed it. Israel and its supporters have already suffered a major strategic defeat.

The culture of resistance in the Arab world has become more uncompromising and more anti-European as a result of the attacks on Gaza and the round of international diplomacy that has followed it. Israel and its supporters have already suffered a major strategic defeat.

The article is part of a RUSI.org forum containing different perspectives on the crisis in Gaza and the Middle East

The round of international diplomacy that has just concluded has left this part of the Arab world incredulous, extremely angry and polarised. The demonstrations in Syria this weekend were marked by use of extreme slogans seldom heard in public, and images of Osama bin Laden were paraded at protests in Jordan. The feel is of strategic tremors that hint at some fundamental shifting of the plates of Muslim opinion.

The searing images emerging from Gaza have long since undergone a subconscious transfiguration: from originally being about Hamas they have metamorphosed into an archetypal image of Israel attacking the Gazan people, the Palestinian people and Islam. Happening as they did during Ashura, the Shia commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein – providing the backdrop to the speeches by the Secretary General of Hezbollah Sayed Hassan Nasrallah that have gripped the region – the attacks have Islamiised political discourse and given events in Gaza the aura of Hussein’s sacrifice in the face of injustice.

The conviction of injustice has drawn added passion from a UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution that would allow Israel to keep its troops in position in Gaza after ceasefire, whilst postponing any resolution - until some later and indeterminate dialogue – of the opening of the crossings into Gaza. This was the very issue that was the cause of the earlier ceasefire to collapse.

The prime aim of the UNSC Resolution was to exclude Hamas as a main party to any political process – other than to be deemed in breach of the Resolution - were the smuggling across the Egyptian border through the tunnels to persist.  The Resolution simply ignores the need to lift the siege of Gaza, and to secure a normalisation of the life of Gazans, as the key to a solution.

The real anger, however, has been reserved for the proposals advanced by the Egyptians and conveyed to Hamas during bilateral meetings in recent days.  It has been plain that this initiative, encouraged by European leaders and the US, is intended to bypass the now solidly united Gazan movements by bringing back the West’s favoured Palestinian interlocutor Mahmoud Abbas, whose term in office as President expired on 9 January, as the authority in Gaza.

The Egyptians also proposed to Hamas the indefinite postponement of elections and internal Palestinian reconciliation, while demanding that Abbas be authorised to negotiate an agreement with Israel free from Palestinian political scrutiny or constraint.  The Egyptians propose that only when all is complete – the resistance ended, the Rafa’a crossing and Gaza returned to Abbas’ control, and Abbas’ negotiations with Israel concluded – would the possibility of elections (under Abbas’ control) become possible.

This represents yet another attempted coup against the movement that overwhelmingly won the 2006 parliamentary elections.  Unsurprisingly, it was rejected categorically in a speech by the Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau Khaled Mesha’al on Saturday, and has been rejected, similarly, by all the movements in Gaza.  It seems that a fresh crisis has been ushered in by the European and American desire to land a blow on the so-called ‘arc of extremism’.  The price will be paid by the Gazans.

The aim is clear enough: Israel and the West intend to damage Hamas so severely that it will send a message to Hezbollah, which will in turn chasten Syria and ultimately weaken Iran.  This, the proponents of the new ‘Great Game’ such as Tony Blair hope, will strengthen the moderates and secure Israel.

From the evidence to date, it will do neither. Whatever the outcome with Hamas in Gaza – and the outcome there is by no means assured because at the time of writing the military formations of Hamas and the resistance have not been significantly degraded - the culture of resistance in the region has solidified and become more uncompromising and anti-European.

Palestinian unity has fallen pawn to a bigger game of tilting the regional balance of strength towards the so-called forces of ‘moderation’. But even were this to succeed in this particular phase of the struggle in Gaza, its proponents do not seem to grasp that Gaza and the Palestinian conflict has become the iconic image for Muslims of the struggle between the West and the Muslim world – for which the western ‘Great Game’ of moderates versus ‘extremists’ is no more than a cynical ideological device. 

When it does end, Israeli and American experts will point to the benchmarks of claimed success: militants killed, tunnels destroyed, homes levelled. But the fact of their strategic defeat will be lost within this torrent of pseudo-empiricism.  Archetypal images in this region are more powerful than benchmarks: Gaza has become the Sunnis’ ‘Kerbala’ (the battle at which Hussein was killed) and Hamas the new Hezbollah.  This round has already been won.

Alastair Crooke is co-director of Conflicts Forum, a former EU mediator with Hamas and other Islamist groups and author of ‘Resistance: the Essence of the Islamist Revolution’ to be published in February 2009.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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