Israel Update for June 2007

David Dolan
David Dolan

Nearly three decades after a major Middle East country, Iran, fell under the chilling control of radical Islamic fundamentalists, another piece of regional territory has been seized by Muslim extremists. Given that one of the main goals of America's post 9-11 military and political strategy was to topple the terror-supporting Taliban regime in Afghanistan and prevent the spread of Al Qaida-style rule to other lands, the fall of the Gaza Strip to complete Hamas control during June was a shocking bit of evidence that Islamic militants remain as powerful as ever in this troubled region nearly six years after New York's Twin Towers came crashing down to the ground.

Many Israeli military commentators noted that the Palestinian Islamic group, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Movement that has long been banned by Arab regimes ruling from Cairo, could not have possibly taken complete control over the strategically-situated piece of real estate if Israeli soldiers and civilians were still present in the Gaza Strip. The fact that Washington, London and other Western capitals urged Ariel Sharon-now in a deep coma for over 17 months-to uproot all 21 Jewish communities with over 8,000 residents from the coastal zone has come back to haunt them, as it does every day the thousands of Israeli civilians forced to endure intensified Hamas rocket fire ever since the pullout was completed in September 2005.

The latest Hamas triumph produced a new humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, with hundreds dead or wounded, buildings looted, food and fuel in short supply, and thousands attempting to flee the sealed off zone. Israeli political analysts say it also dealt another major political blow to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. After all, he was the principal Likud party promoter for the unilateral withdrawal scheme that was long advocated by the opposition Labour party, but strongly opposed by most Likud leaders and the rank and file.

Despite Olmert's immediate contention during a June visit to Washington that the conquest might actually revive the dormant "land for peace" process, most analysts pointed out that this proposition was extremely unlikely-given that the Hamas victory can only further embolden the Islamic clerics who run Iran and their Syrian and Hizbullah allies, not to mention Al Qaida activists: reenergizing all of them to pursue Iran's declared goal of annihilating the world's only Jewish State.

Islamic Resistance Seizes The Day

Just as Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah leaders could reasonably claim that their jihad fighters had "liberated" the Land of the Cedars from detested "Israeli occupation" when IDF forces evacuated the country in May 2000, so the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement-widely known by its Arabic acronym, HAMAS-was successfully able to claim that its violent "resistance" to Israeli rule had driven the hated Jews from the Gaza Strip five years later. This claim, widely accepted on the Gaza Strip's troubled streets, and also in Palestinian-controlled areas in Samaria and Judea, led in turn to the group's triumph in Palestinian Legislative Council elections just four months after the Gaza Strip evacuation was completed. That in turn allowed the radical group significant political cover to openly organize and arm a 3,000 man Gaza militia force, buttressed by hundreds of local armed Hamas cells.

When the corruption-ridden PLO-dominated PA security force resisted this bold Hamas gambit, the stage was set for internal armed clashes, which began in earnest just over one year ago. Battles also occasionally broke out in PA zones north and south of Jerusalem. But very few expected the official PA security contingent in Gaza-numbering some 40,000 men-to crumble so quickly, as they did in fighting that raged for five days beginning on June 10th. Many analysts said the ominous truth was that when push came to shove, many of the armed PA policemen saw the Islamic writing on the wall and stayed out of the fray, given the heavily outnumbered Hamas forces the critical advantage they needed.

The implications of the unprecedented Hamas military takeover-which overall PA leader Mahmoud Abbas termed a coup against his rule-are unsettling to both Israeli and PLO leaders, to say the least. The immediate question that both are faced with is a very troubling one: Could the frightening Fatah collapse that unfolded like lightening in the Gaza Strip be repeated in Judea and Samaria? Even more ominously, could clashes then spread to nearby Palestinian-dominated Jordan, possibly threatening the Hashemite monarchy that has ruled the country since its founding in the 1920s? And what about the several hundred thousand Palestinians living in Lebanon-will clashes break out there as well?

Short Term Sight

Faced with the worst humiliation so far in his troubled time in power, Abbas wasted no time in dissolving the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Unity Government that was formed only two months before. The PA leader replaced it on June 15 with an "emergency government" of mostly technocrats led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayad, who was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 as head of the new "Third Way" political party, along with long time Palestinian activist Hannan Ashrawi.

Born in Jordan and a graduate of the University of Texas Austin campus, Fayad spent two decades living in the United States-part of that time working at the World Bank. The former economist has strong ties to the Bush Administration. This well known fact naturally makes him an American lackey in the eyes of many Palestinians, and a probable target of Hamas attack.

Seemingly confirming Fayad's "collaborator" status in many Arab eyes, Western leaders flocked to endorse the new cabinet, followed later on by China and other world powers. However, despite the quick international support, the new PA government will only effectively hold sway in portions of Judea and Samaria, where about 2.5 million Palestinians live (as compared to an estimated 1.5 now under Hamas control in Gaza).

The emergency government will at least apparently have lots of money to play with-both the United States and the European Union rushed to lift economic sanctions imposed on the former Hamas-led government in 2006. But some Israeli analysts questioned the wisdom of this move, noting that Fatah economic corruption was a major factor in the Hamas electoral victory in the first place. They argued that opening the financial faucet once again will only breed the same results as last time-widespread Palestinian public revulsion against Fatah elites perceived to be living the high life due to generous international largess, while the masses virtually starve.

Positive Spin