An above the fold front page piece in today’s New York Times makes a hard-hitting contribution to pulling people's heads out of the sand on Palestinian issues and to realizing that the alternative to Hamas may not be a return to the warm familiarity of Fatah, but rather a lurch in the direction of al-Qaedism. The article “Jihadist Groups Fill a Palestinian Power Vacuum,” looks at the situation both in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and in Gaza. Steven Erlanger and Hassan Fattah describe a series of recent attacks in Gaza against internet cafés, music stores, and international schools, in addition to the ongoing standoff at Nahr al-Bared in Tripoli, Lebanon. They explain that in the context of the weakening of both Fatah and Hamas and the increasingly violent rivalry between them “Jihadi freelancers with murky links are filling a vacuum.”
The piece gets really interesting when they introduce Mr. Taha from the Ain al Hilwe refugee camp near Sidon. Mr. Taha confides to us that “there is a central problem and that is al-Qaeda and they are spreading…The Islamic awakening…is going to become a huge problem for us.” And here’s the punchline from the NYT: “Mr. Taha’s fears are remarkable because of who he is: not a secular campaigner or a Fatah apparatchik, but a senior member of Hamas.” This is what prospectsforpeace.com has been arguing - that al-Qaeda and Hamas are not the same thing and to lump them together makes not only for bad analysis, but also for bad policy - plus, the kind of political Islamic movements represented by Hamas may be the last line of defense before we see the proliferation of an even more powerful al-Qaedist threat. And for the umpteenth time, no, this does not turn Hamas into a bunch of lovable teddy bears. The world is more complex than good guys vs. bad guys. More often than not, sensible political alliance-building has to be with imperfect inhabitants of a broad grey area.
To re-cap: the focus of Hamas is on opposing the occupation and reforming Palestinian society, the focus of Al-Qaeda is on opposing the West per se and spear-heading a violent revolution in the Arab and Muslim worlds - the one is reformist the other revolutionary; one nationalist, the other post-nationalist; one grievance-based, the other fundamental.
There is a battle, both ideological and physical, taking place within the world of political Islam. Hamas have been targetted and criticized by Al-Qaeda. Most notably AQ number two, Ayman al-Zawahri, went after Hamas after it agreed to participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections and again after the Unity Government deal with Fatah. On both occassions Hamas were rejected as apostates and their actions as kufr - an abomination to Islam, they had sold out to the 'Zionists and the Great Satan'. All this does not automatically make Hamas a partner, but it certainly begs the question and demands a serious exploration of the alternatives. AQ is a franchise and any Gazan mutation if it gains a foothold, will threaten Palestinian and Israeli society alike.
In Israel there appears to be more of an appreciation of this than in the US. Senior former Israeli security officials and Government Ministers have called for opening channels of communication to Hamas and for working with the PA Unity Government - they include ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy and ex-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami to name but two. Hopelessness, hunger, arms and anger are an attractive hunting ground for radical escapist ideologies. Even more worrying is that Palestinians have lost faith in the capacity of their political system to deliver anything - whether it be Fatah, Hamas or a hybrid of the two.
The advantage of disciplined political movements is that they can command loyalty, make new political moves or ceasefires and impose them. By arresting and assassinating an entire middle level cadre of Fatah and Hamas leadership, Israel weakened both movements as an adversary, but also as potential partners, and contributed to an environment in which what the NYT calls "Al-Qaeda wannabes" could flourish. Setting out to destroy the Palestinian national movement may turn out to be the most pyrrhic victory of all for Israel's national security interests.
As a friend and someone who I respect greatly, Ahmad Khalidi, wrote in today's Guardian blog;
Armed clans now hold sway in Gaza, as the PA's writ fades and becomes increasingly irrelevant. Meanwhile, the infestation of Al-Qaeda-type salafism has already reached Gaza and the US- and EU-sponsored embargo, support for continued occupation and promotion of internal Palestinian conflict can only feed such trends in the future.