Israeli Military Strikes: The Mideast Version of Bay of Pigs Fiasco
Following a disastrous policy of not engaging with Hamas, the Israeli government has commenced a very heavy-handed military operation to destroy or batter the Islamic movement. Aside from being an egregious crime against humanity, this bombing campaign (likely soon followed by a ground incursion) will undoubtedly result in failure as it represents a complete misunderstanding of Gazans' relationship with Hamas. Not only is Hamas deeply connected to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip through its long history of social services and welfare provision in the refugee camps as well as its reputation for non-corruption; it is host of an attitude and a style of opposition, something that cannot be eradicated with bombs or incursions. Indeed, the Western narrative about the group omits its large-scale insistence on political and social rather than military engagement. According to Israeli scholar Reuven Paz, 90% of the organization's activities are in the social sector. Hamas, in many ways, is a balancing act -- a set of dissenting projections, constructed with different degrees of influence by its variegated constituencies and wilfully filtered and distorted by its students and opponents. Like all large and complex organizations, it is a construct with fluctuating consistency and changing internal power relations, not simply a set of bombing coordinates and targets.
Neither is Hamas, as the Western and Israeli narrative would have it, an unapproachably reactionary and ideologically impenetrable organization. It has shown remarkable political pragmatism and ideological flexibility as it maneuvered for a position in the last parliamentary elections. It has effectively co-opted Islamist zeal within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (highlighted by the fact of al Qa'ida's remarkable absence from the Palestinian theatre, despite its central rhetorical insistence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) as well as secular disappointment with corrupt government. The elections of January 2006, which gave Hamas a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, presented a window of opportunity for elevating the more peaceable pragmatists within the movement and making it an accepted player within a Palestinian democracy. With any degree of real political power, Hamas would have had too much to lose had it listened to the unaccommodating extremists in its ranks, who view violence as the only way to oppose Israeli occupation. As an exasperated Ismail Haniyyeh, under increasing pressure after the withdrawal of humanitarian aid following Hamas' electoral victory, wrote in a guest editorial in the Washington Post, "[w]e want what Americans enjoy -- democratic rights, economic sovereignty and justice. We thought our pride in conducting the fairest elections in the Arab world might resonate with the United States and its citizens."
The complete unwillingness of Israel, most of Western Europe and the U.S. to engage with the pragmatists within Hamas and their complete disdain for the outcome of what was widely considered a fair election empowered the hardliners around Khaled Mashal within the Hamas movement, who had argued from the outset that "mainstreamed" political participation within a democratic framework was ineffective. Likewise, the punitive embargo on the Gaza Strip which followed heinous rocket attacks from Gazan territory on Israeli towns such as Sderot, did little to undermine the movement itself, though it certainly did not help the pragmatists who were willing to engage with Israel and had long accepted it as a reality. Just as the U.S. embargo on Cuba failed to undermine Fidel Castro so the Israeli embargo of the Gaza Strip failed to bring down Hamas and merely gave the organization a way to deflect often legitimate criticism of its own failures. Given Israel's misunderstanding of Hamas' social foothold and its military hubris (manifest in its thinking that it can resolve sociopolitical problems by sheer military force), it is troublingly possible that the current Israeli military operation will be a local equivalent of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba.
The fundamental mistake that Israel and her allies are making is in thinking that Hamas is a marginal organization that can simply be pushed out; rather, it fills a large ideological and activist vacuum in Palestinian society that would, upon its demise, be filled by potentially more radical organizations. As Alastair Crooke, former special advisor to Javier Solana, the European Union High Representative, wrote in 2007, "If Hamas is forced to abandon institutional politics, it will not be by-passed by Fateh – it will be supplanted by al-Qaeda. Ironically the West will not have facilitated the passage of a resistance movement into politics. It will have facilitated the passage of radical al-Qaeda type movements into the West Bank and Gaza."
Ehud Olmert, thinking of the future of his political party which will face election on February 10th, has been caught up once again in political posturing with a more hard-line competitor, Benyamin Netanyahu. For short-term political gain, he seems willing to gamble away the relationship with an organization that, despite all Israeli military actions, will be here to stay in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre in some unavoidable form. Despite my complete personal disdain for the organization and its tactics, it is my belief that for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians the Israeli government must find a way to come to terms with Hamas as the key stakeholder that it is. Talking to its more reasonable members would be a good first step.