The Gaza quagmire

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

Egyptian border policeman 311 (photo credit: AP)
Egyptian border policeman 311
(photo credit: AP)
Since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary electionsin 2006, and violently seized power in Gaza a year later, Israel hasbeen seeking to expedite the Islamist group's demise without resortingto an all-out effort at military victory. The hope is that Hamas willcontinue to be denied international legitimacy and will gradually loseits capacity to run Gaza, and that an organization overtly committed toIsrael's destruction will be replaced by more moderate leadership.

Hence the Israeli government chose not to orderthe 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 siegeon Hamas, constructing an underground barrier that aims to cut off thearms- and goods-smuggling tunnels that serve as a lifeline for theHamas quasi-state.

Plainly, Hamas is worried by the potential impact on itscapacity to proceed with its campaign of jihad against Israel, and itscapacity to meet the needs of the Gaza populace. It orchestratedviolent protests at the border earlier this month, including a gunfightin which an Egyptian soldier was killed, betraying the depth of itsconcern.

But despite protests against the Egyptian barrierelsewhere in the region too, Egypt has remained unmoved. Hamas is thePalestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a perennial threat to theMubarak government, and Cairo has evidently decided that Hamas'ssmuggling activities and the threat of increased Hamas influence in theSinai Peninsula represent a challenge to Egyptian sovereignty.

At this point, there are few signs that the Hamas regime inGaza is truly shaking. Indeed, Hamas proved all-too capable ofrestoring its rule even in the aftermath of the devastating impact ofCast Lead.

Butwere Hamas to begin to lose its grip, it is far from clear that thejoint Israeli and Egyptian hope, of the return of secular Fatah rule toGaza, enabling a new stability, is well-founded.

AMONG THE alternative Gaza succession scenarios, indeed, is theprospect of the flourishing of the Al-Qaida-inspired global jihadicamp.

This camp has been trying to establish a foothold in Gaza foryears, so far with only limited success. It learned the hard way lastyear that its presence may be tolerated by Hamas only if it does notpose an open challenge.

Thus, when Sheikh Abdel-Latif Moussa used a Friday afternoonsermon at his Rafah mosque last August to declare southern Gaza to bean Islamic emirate - a first step in the process toward the al-Qaidagoal of an Islamic caliphate - the Hamas response was brutal. Hundredsof Hamas gunmen stormed the mosque, firing rocket-propelled grenadesand machine guns at the building, killing or injuring nearly everyoneinside.

Global jihadis in Gaza have been licking their wounds eversince, trying to rebuild their forces without aggravating Hamas again.

According to one recent study, they have also attempted tosolicit the support and recognition of the "official" al-Qaida networkof Osama bin Laden.

The study, carried out by the Washington Institute for NearEast Policy, and co-authored by former Shin Bet (Israel SecurityAgency) deputy director-general Yoram Cohen, said al-Qaida is provingreluctant to provide the would-be holy warriors in Gaza with its sealof approval… for the time being.

Although al-Qaida has long chastised Hamas for failing to lookbeyond Israel and link up with bin Laden's global war, it is alsoskeptical over the survivability and ideological commitment of globaljihadis in Gaza, the study said. The jihadis remain hopeful, however,and claim to be plotting large-scale attacks in a bid to earnal-Qaida's approval.

Al-Qaida has proven its ability to move into the vacuum leftbehind by failed states, and convert territories with no sovereigntyinto bases for global jihad. For now, Hamas retains a firm grip onGaza, and the prospect of its replacement by an even more radicalentity, made up of a coalition of al-Qaida-affiliated organizationsdedicated to bin Laden's global war, is remote.

But the ambition is certainly there. And the existence of sodark a scenario only underlines the escalated complexity of attemptingto resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when the Palestinian peopleare divided into two distinct, mutually hostile, geographic andpolitical entities.