(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad had good reason to greet Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Teheran on Sunday with the words that he was "happy that the meeting took place at a time when... we are witnessing great achievements on part of the Islamic resistance group in Lebanon and the strengthening of Hamas in Palestine, while witnessing the weakening of our enemies more than ever before."
The last few days have indeed been fruitful ones for the arc of militant radical Islam that stretches from Iran, through Syria to Lebanon, and down into Gaza.
In the latter, Hamas again demonstrated that it is prepared to take the basic step necessary for a ruling party that aspires to true sovereignty - the disarming of any group that through force of arms challenges a government's authority to act as the sole protector of its citizens, including the right to wage war or take any other offensive action in the national interest.
This, of course, is the same step never taken against Hamas itself by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, or his successor Mahmoud Abbas. Neither ever had their "Altalena moment" - so-called after the Irgun arms ship that David Ben-Gurion ordered shelled in 1948 - Arafat for reasons of expediency, and Abbas due to an excess of timidity.
Hamas has never had such qualms, demonstrating this first in its violent takeover of Gaza in 2006. Its resolve was no less evident this weekend when it cleared out that area's last bastion of Fatah loyalty, the Hilles clan compound in the Strip's Shajayieh quarter.
This operation, which left at least nine dead, dozens wounded and dozens more of the Hilles fighters fleeing for the border with Israel, was so out of proportion for the ostensible reason Hamas gave as its trigger - the arresting of suspects involved in an explosion last week on a Gaza beach - there can be no doubt it merely provided a convenient opportunity for the organization to crack down on its remaining opposition.
In taking this risky step - given the potential that the violence could have sparked ancillary incidents that might have shattered the fragile cease-fire between Hamas and Israel - Gaza's rulers made clear that calls for "Palestinian unity" by outside parties (primarily other Arab states) mean nothing besides the Islamic movement's determination to maintain an iron-fisted authority over its hard-won territory.
In that regard, at least, one could say that Gaza today constitutes a more properly-governed sovereign territory than the collection of separate enclaves and entities to the north of Israel called Lebanon.
On Friday in Beirut, new guidelines drafted for the government of President Michel Suleiman that are expected to win cabinet approval Monday went even further than previous understandings in allowing Hizbullah to maintain its own independent militia. The Iranian supplied-and-directed proxy was awarded official permission to wage war from Lebanese soil on its initiative, in a statement that granted the "right of Lebanon's people, the army and the resistance [Hizbullah] to liberate all its territories," i.e., those such as Shaba Farms it deems still held in Israeli hands.
Prime Minister Fouad Saniora's majority March 14th coalition, taking a page out of Fatah's playbook in its dealings with Hamas, blinked when it came time to demonstrate resolve while facing down its own Islamist opposition, and basically handed it the means to undermine any remaining claims of official authority left over from the 2005 election. This is a natural progression following Hizbullah's success in reversing the gains of the "Cedar Revolution" by launching its own military operations in May, taking over much of Beirut after the Suleiman-led army failed to rise in defense of the Lebanese government it ostensibly is meant to serve.
On a broader prospective, these recent events in Gaza and Lebanon serve as yet another cautionary reminder to those here and in the international community who believe that the holding of elections can push forward democratization, even when it includes armed groups that feel free to use their arsenals any time they feel their essential interests threatened.
Viewed more in the specific current regional context, Syria and Iran can be pleased with the gains made by their proxy forces in Lebanon and Gaza in tightening their holds on territory that strategically borders that of their primary enemy.
And although Israel may not have been directly involved in these intra-Arab conflicts to its north and south, make no mistake about it - this strengthening of Hamas and Hizbullah only increases their resolve to follow through on threats against the "Zionist enemy," and any temporary quiet it may buy on their home turfs with more moderate Arab parties comes at the cost of a greater chance that a broader conflict, such as the one which erupted two summers ago, will reoccur that much quicker.
Beyond that, the international community's laxity in allowing Hamas and Hizbullah to not only survive but flourish only increases the misplaced confidence of the reckless regimes in Damascus and Teheran that they can continue on their current course, without paying the price of bringing a disaster on the entire region, for which it will be they who ultimately pay the price.
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