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(photo credit: AP [file])
While European leaders gathered twice Sunday in Egypt and Israel to hail the fragile Gaza cease-fire as an opportunity to revive Middle East peace efforts, the Hamas leadership-in-exile gathered in a Damascus TV studio to essentially state: Not over our dead bodies. Or, more accurately, not over Gazans' dead bodies.
Its heroic resistance fighters had withstood the might of the Israeli occupation forces for three full weeks, said members of the Hamas leadership-in-exile, seated around a black table bearing a map of all of Palestine. Now, said Hamas spokesman Moussa Abu Marzouk, it was consenting to a tentative cease-fire, but only if Israel vacated Gaza within seven days.
Otherwise, the invincible rocket crews would again be called into action, and the valiant assault on Israel would recommence.
Just like Hizbullah in 2006, Hamas was either astonishingly cynical in provoking Israel's Operation Cast Lead onslaught by escalating its rocket fire, or it was astonishingly stupid. Either it anticipated the crushing Israeli military response and didn't care about the consequences for Gazans. Or it failed to appreciate what it was about to let Gaza in for.
Either explanation reflects dismally on Hamas. And try as it might, unlike Hizbullah, it cannot even credibly claim that it inflicted high Israeli losses, pummeled large sections of the country with 100-plus rockets per day, wrought despair and confusion on the Israeli home front or exposed an incompetent Israeli military and political leadership.
Again, unlike Hizbullah, it cannot credibly claim to have fought bravely against the IDF. Its fighters, rather, melted away into the deepest recesses of civilian protection. And while the likes of Marzouk and his colleague Khaled Mashaal sounded consistently indomitable from the comfort and safety of the Syrian capital, the local Gaza leadership simply hid.
But will the people of Gaza, who chose Hamas as their leadership three years ago, internalize any of this?
The fragile denouement of Operation Cast Lead saw Egypt and Israel graced by the presence of so many world leaders on Sunday that they barely had room to put their elbows on the shared table at Sharm e-Sheikh. They took so long to make their speeches in Jerusalem that all three Israeli nightly news shows cut away to other stories.
The European leaders put on a public display here and in Egypt that was designed to underline the illegitimacy of Hamas and its Iranian and Syrian backers. The inclusion of Turkey's President Abdullah Gul at the Egyptian gathering highlighted that, ultimately, Hamas remained beyond the pale, despite all Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's vicious criticism of Israel these past three weeks.
But will Gazans get the message? Or, confronted with the ruins all around them, will they instead redouble their hostility to Israel, forgive Hamas what was either cynicism or foolishness, and rededicate themselves to helping their elected Islamist leadership to eventually prevail over the Zionists?
One after the other in Jerusalem on Sunday night, the dignitaries from Europe declared that the cease-fire was not enough - not an end in and of itself. The unstable truce had, rather, in the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, opened "a window of opportunity" to a broad Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Each of the guests had their own stresses and nuances. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had slammed Israel on the very first day of Operation Cast Lead for its "disproportionate" response to eight years of rocket fire, was by far the most critical, declaring, in apparent contradiction of his professed support for Israel's right to self-defense, that "the IDF's role is not in Gaza."
He was "not out to lecture Israel," Sarkozy went on, and then did precisely that: "What is at stake is the future of the State of Israel," he declared with tremendous passion. And what was needed was "a major international conference," built on "trust" and the current "glimmer of hope," to "hammer out a great final peace plan" and "make peace this year."
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown was characteristically more circumspect. Unlike Sarkozy, he recognized that "permanent peace may seem a very, very distant prospect."
But, like the French president, Brown, too, said he could "see a road" opening up in the direction of a permanent accord.
Any such road, however, must of necessity run through Gaza. And there, Hamas is vowing to regain and then strengthen its capacity to hurt Israel. There, the Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin warned yesterday, Hamas will have the Philadelphi Corridor weapons smuggling operation back at full strength in two or three months if Egypt does not radically bolster prevention efforts. And there, as President Hosni Mubarak emphatically told his VIP guests on Sunday, Egypt will not allow a single foreign adviser, monitor or soldier to assist in the anti-smuggling work.
Tony Blair echoed his successor Brown and the other European leaders when he stated on Sunday that "the cease-fire won't hold" unless there was a new effort to move toward a two-state solution. But long-since sobered by his work as the international Quartet's Middle East envoy, Blair added a caveat that was not stressed by the guests in Jerusalem. A new peace effort, he said, required a new Palestinian unity based on consensual Palestinian support for a two-state solution.
What Blair left unspoken, on the day that the Hamas leadership in Damascus celebrated its victory and set out its conditions for maintaining the cease-fire, was that so long as Hamas dominates Gaza, there will be no such consensual Palestinian support for viable peace. And as of Sunday night, with the IDF starting to pull back after three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has every intention of continuing to dominate Gaza.
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