The Region: Hamas's PR debacle

Gaza's terrorist leadership may seem to have won the most recent battle, but it is losing the war for hearts and minds.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit:)
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Imagine a very secret meeting held somewhere in the Gaza Strip. Around a table sit various Hamas bigwigs, and their leader makes the following speech: "OK, here's the plan. We'll wage war on our stronger neighbor, Israel, and lose; destroy our economy; make our people suffer; ensure international sanctions continue against us, and alienate almost all Arab regimes. Then, when things can't seem to get any worse, we'll turn out all the lights and get international sympathy!" "Brilliant!" is the response as the Hamas leaders leap to their feet and chant: "Just 100 more years of this and Israel will be destroyed!" Not such a great strategy, you say? Then why should anyone say that Hamas won some big public relations victory by shutting off Gaza's electricity and blowing up the border wall with Egypt? True, that's what Hamas's heads think. They are boiling over with pride at having put one over on Israel, as if this were some huge triumph. Some Israelis seem to agree. BUT THIS is pure nonsense. Actually, it reminds me of many incidents in Palestinian history. Let me choose one. After the PLO's 1982 defeat in Lebanon, when it was driven out of the country, Yasser Arafat called the catastrophe "an absolute political victory," while one of his henchmen cautioned, "We should not become arrogant in the future as a result of this victory." Remember this: You can only make illusory profits out of being an alleged victim if you always lose. Meanwhile, public support for Israel in America is at an all-time high. In some European countries, notably France and Italy, it has been rising. At any rate, no important Western states are siding with Hamas. If they have any policy obsession it is pushing the peace process, and Hamas is recognized as a barrier to that. A remarkably anti-Hamas, pro-Israel editorial in The Washington Post, January 24, stated: "As thousands stream across the border to Egypt, Hamas blockades the peace process." Two years after Hamas's election victory and six months after it seized the Gaza Strip, international sanctions show no sign of faltering. Other than Syria, no Arab state is helping Hamas. Egypt may be soft on Hamas at times, but it is very angry at the organization. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, now a Fatah regime, is not falling apart (well, not any more than usual). Ask yourself this question: Will the vision of what's been happening in Gaza persuade West Bankers that they want Hamas in power there? Today, if Westerners want to feel friendly to the Palestinians they can support "good-guy" Fatah against "bad-guy" Hamas. MEANWHILE, Israel is doing very well. Unemployment is at an all-time low; the economy is growing fast; polls show that both patriotism and personal satisfaction are high. Despite the rocket assault, for which it has no answer, Israel's defenses are strong on both the Gaza and West Bank fronts, with terrorism considerably down. But even if one is just talking about the international media, I think the Hamas publicity stunt largely boomeranged, especially in the print media. Wire services explained Israel's motives and targeting by Hamas to a much greater extent than usual. The aforementioned Washington Post editorial accused Hamas of disrupting peace efforts, stated that "no one is starving in Gaza," and noted that "Israelis have been relentlessly terrorized" by Hamas rocket attacks. It concluded, "The people of Gaza should get a consistent message that relief lies not in blowing up international borders but in ending attacks on Israel and allowing a peace process to go forward." A Chicago Tribune editorial, entitled "The Enemy Within," warned that "until most Gazans fix the blame for their miserable living conditions where it belongs - on their elected leaders of Hamas - Gaza will remain poised on the brink of crisis, sending rockets into Israel and then complaining bitterly when its foe retaliates." That editorial concluded: "As long as Hamas is in power, Gaza will be driven further into misery, further from the path that would lead to an independent state. For Gazans, the real enemy is within." Certainly, contrary reports can be found, as well as pictures seemingly calculated to mobilize sympathy for ending sanctions on the Gaza Strip. Yet this was scarcely a tidal wave, being largely concentrated in the media institutions that always take such stances. IN REALITY, there are two major problems with the Hamas strategy. From a pragmatic standpoint, Hamas's radicalism does prevent the creation of a Palestinian state and a peace that would benefit Palestinians. Its strategy of the permanent offensive guarantees not only suffering, but also failure. Even from a radical perspective, Hamas's policy of the permanent offensive is a big mistake. It would have been better advised to pretend moderation, make a deal with at least Fatah or perhaps even Israel, and then break it in a bid for total victory. If it opted for quiet, Hamas could build up Gaza's economy and social institutions, training a future generation for all-out war. But it also rejects this wisely cynical approach. Yasser Arafat, of course, made the same error. So while Hamas will never give up, it also will never win. To portray its latest antics as some kind of success is simply wrong. They are a disaster, and to understand this reality is to comprehend the central blunder plaguing the Palestinian movement since its inception. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (www.gloriacenter.org) at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.