haniyeh 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
What will happen if Israel succeeds in overthrowing the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip? This is the question many Palestinians were asking on the second day of the massive IDF operation against Hamas.
What is certain so far is that Hamas has been dealt a severe blow with the demolition of almost all its security and civil institutions and the loss of hundreds of its supporters and police officers.
Moreover, Hamas appears to have lost some of its credibility due to the fact the Islamist movement was unprepared for the surprise offensive - a fact that contributed to the deaths of dozens of policemen who were attending a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on Saturday.
Hamas's relatively moderate response to the operation (only a few dozen rockets and mortars that have killed one Israeli citizen so far) has also harmed the movement's reputation.
Prior to the attack, Hamas operatives had threatened to fire thousands of rockets at Israel, including Beersheba and Ashdod.
Hamas's top leaders in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam, have all gone underground out of fear of being targeted by Israel. Just a few days ago the three had proudly announced that they were not afraid of death and would be "honored" to join the bandwagon of Palestinian "martyrs." The general feeling on the streets of the Gaza Strip on Sunday night was that the countdown to the collapse of the Hamas regime had begun. As one local journalist put it, "We don't know who's in control of the Gaza Strip. The feeling is that the Hamas regime is crumbling."
But it's not clear at this stage whether there is any Palestinian party that would be able to fill the vacuum in the aftermath of the downfall of the Hamas government.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah loyalists are dying to return to the Gaza Strip after being kicked out by Hamas in the summer of 2007.
On Sunday, senior Fatah officials in the West Bank relayed a message to Israel to the effect that they would like to see the IDF "finish off the job" in the Gaza Strip by removing Hamas from power.
The officials made it clear that they were ready to assume control over the Gaza Strip as soon as the IDF eliminated the Hamas regime. Abbas, who held talks with the Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians over the past 48 hours, is also reported to have expressed his readiness and desire to return to Gaza.
Judging from the reactions of the Palestinian and Arab masses, it's highly unlikely that Abbas and his forces would be allowed to regain control under the current circumstances.
Ramadan Shallah, secretary-general of the Islamic Jihad organization, warned that any Palestinian "who dares to return to the Gaza Strip aboard an Israeli tank would be condemned as a traitor."
A Hamas representative said that "the majority of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would revolt against any Palestinian official who returns with the help of Israel."
Despite the heavy casualties and the demolition of most of its government installations, Hamas appears to be as popular as ever among many Palestinians, especially those living in the Gaza Strip. Ironically, the current IDF operation has earned Hamas much sympathy not only on the streets of Gaza City and Ramallah, but also in many Arab capitals.
These days even those Arabs and Muslims who disagree with Hamas have been turned into Hamas sympathizers. In the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims, Hamas is a being targeted as part of a "conspiracy" aimed at bringing about regime change in the Gaza Strip.
What's worrying about this concept is the widespread belief on the Arab street that "moderate" Arab parties such as Abbas's PA and President Hosni Mubarak's Egypt are assisting Israel and the US in their efforts to remove Hamas from power.
As of now, Abbas and Mubarak appear to be the biggest losers as a result of the IDF offensive. The two are being openly accused by many Arabs of having granted Israel a green light to launch the operation. Hamas, on the other hand, seems to have scored many points among the Arab and Muslim masses thanks to the Israeli air strikes.
As such, it's hard to see how Abbas or any other Palestinian would be able to offer himself as an alternative to the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Abbas's main problem is that he has lost much of his credibility among his people because of his failure to reform Fatah following its defeat by Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election. In addition, his open alliance with the US and Israel has turned him - in the eyes of many Palestinians - into a powerless "pawn" in the hands of the Americans and Israelis.
Finally, there are no signs whatsoever of a Palestinian revolt against the Hamas rule. In fact, only a handful of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have challenged Hamas over the past two years. It's obvious by now that a majority of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continue to support Hamas mainly because they don't regard Abbas's Fatah faction as a better alternative.
Even if Hamas is totally crushed, there is no reason to believe that those who would succeed the Islamist movement would be any better or less radical. These are days when only the voices of the extremists in the Arab and Islamic world are being heard. Or as a Hamas-affiliated academic put it on Sunday night, "If you bring down Hamas, you will get either Islamic Jihad or al-Qaida. Then the Israelis will miss Hamas."