The Gaza quagmire

There are few signs that the Hamas regime in Gaza is in danger.

Since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, and violently seized power in Gaza a year later, Israel has been seeking to expedite the Islamist group's demise without resorting to an all-out effort at military victory. The hope is that Hamas will continue to be denied international legitimacy and will gradually lose its capacity to run Gaza, and that an organization overtly committed to Israel's destruction will be replaced by more moderate leadership.
Hence the Israeli government chose not to order the IDF to oust Hamas from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead a year ago, and is instead maintaining an economic blockade on the Strip.
Now, on its side of the border, Egypt is tightening its siege on Hamas, constructing an underground barrier that aims to cut off the arms- and goods-smuggling tunnels that serve as a lifeline for the Hamas quasi-state.
Plainly, Hamas is worried by the potential impact on its capacity to proceed with its campaign of jihad against Israel, and its capacity to meet the needs of the Gaza populace. It orchestrated violent protests at the border earlier this month, including a gunfight in which an Egyptian soldier was killed, betraying the depth of its concern.
But despite protests against the Egyptian barrier elsewhere in the region too, Egypt has remained unmoved. Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a perennial threat to the Mubarak government, and Cairo has evidently decided that Hamas's smuggling activities and the threat of increased Hamas influence in the Sinai Peninsula represent a challenge to Egyptian sovereignty.
At this point, there are few signs that the Hamas regime in Gaza is truly shaking. Indeed, Hamas proved all-too capable of restoring its rule even in the aftermath of the devastating impact of Cast Lead.
But were Hamas to begin to lose its grip, it is far from clear that the joint Israeli and Egyptian hope, of the return of secular Fatah rule to Gaza, enabling a new stability, is well-founded.
AMONG THE alternative Gaza succession scenarios, indeed, is the prospect of the flourishing of the Al-Qaida-inspired global jihadi camp.
This camp has been trying to establish a foothold in Gaza for years, so far with only limited success. It learned the hard way last year that its presence may be tolerated by Hamas only if it does not pose an open challenge.
Thus, when Sheikh Abdel-Latif Moussa used a Friday afternoon sermon at his Rafah mosque last August to declare southern Gaza to be an Islamic emirate - a first step in the process toward the al-Qaida goal of an Islamic caliphate - the Hamas response was brutal. Hundreds of Hamas gunmen stormed the mosque, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the building, killing or injuring nearly everyone inside.
Global jihadis in Gaza have been licking their wounds ever since, trying to rebuild their forces without aggravating Hamas again.
According to one recent study, they have also attempted to solicit the support and recognition of the "official" al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden.
The study, carried out by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and co-authored by former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) deputy director-general Yoram Cohen, said al-Qaida is proving reluctant to provide the would-be holy warriors in Gaza with its seal of approval… for the time being.
Although al-Qaida has long chastised Hamas for failing to look beyond Israel and link up with bin Laden's global war, it is also skeptical over the survivability and ideological commitment of global jihadis in Gaza, the study said. The jihadis remain hopeful, however, and claim to be plotting large-scale attacks in a bid to earn al-Qaida's approval.
Al-Qaida has proven its ability to move into the vacuum left behind by failed states, and convert territories with no sovereignty into bases for global jihad. For now, Hamas retains a firm grip on Gaza, and the prospect of its replacement by an even more radical entity, made up of a coalition of al-Qaida-affiliated organizations dedicated to bin Laden's global war, is remote.
But the ambition is certainly there. And the existence of so dark a scenario only underlines the escalated complexity of attempting to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when the Palestinian people are divided into two distinct, mutually hostile, geographic and political entities.