From Lebanon’s refugee camps to Iraq’s desert sands to Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas, Islamic extremism is on the march across the Muslim world, while mod¬erate, secular regimes are under siege — if not in retreat.
One of the newest trouble spots is the Gaza Strip, a sliver of land wedged between the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt that just witnessed the first violent takeover of a Sunni Arab political authority by a radical Islamist movement. Welcome to “Hamastan.”
What is Hamas? Designated a terrorist group by the U.S., the European Union and Israel, Hamas was founded during the 1987 Palestinian intifadah (uprising), when it splintered off from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’ military wing, the al Qassam brigades, conducts attacks against Israel, including suicide bombings. Hamas receives funding, training and weapons from its state sponsors, Iran and Syria. Its politi¬cal-social branch is involved in social work (e.g., charities, schools, clinics), fundraising and political activities. It has an untold number of supporters among Palestinians, sympathiz¬ers and expatriates worldwide. A political office in Damascus, Syria, sets the group’s agenda. Although Hamas hasn’t directly targeted Americans or U.S. interests, the group doesn’t avoid Israeli locales visited by foreigners.
Hamas stunned the international community when it pulled off a victory in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elec¬tions against its political rival, Fatah, the party run by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was named prime minister and assumed control of the Palestinian Authority's Legislative Council. A unity government was formed in February in a Saudi-brokered agreement at Mecca.
A number of governments, including the U.S., declared they wouldn’t deal with Hamas, initiating an effort to politically and financially isolate any Hamas-led Palestinian government.
Despite its electoral victories, Hamas continued to refuse to recognize Israel, abide by previous agreements reached between the Palestinians and the Israelis, or give up its com¬mitment to “resistance.” Following the formation of the new Palestinian government, Israeli security experts became increasingly worried that Hamas-style militancy would spread from Gaza to the West Bank. Israel believed terrorists, weapons and funding were being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah crossing and a system of tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor that divides Gaza from Egypt. Despite promises to the contrary, Israel continued to be rocketed from Gaza. Suicide bombings persisted. Hamas also kidnapped an Israeli soldier in June 2006 just outside Gaza. While Hamas denied responsibility, it was widely believed it was complicit with other local terror groups in the violence: al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
In a pitched, bloody paramilitary battle in mid-June of this year, Hamas’ forces overthrew Fatah’s security apparatus in the Gaza Strip, forcing Abbas and his supporters to retreat to Ramallah in the West Bank. The international community expressed outrage at the violent turn of events in Gaza. President Bush perhaps summed up the feelings of many when he said on July 16: “In Gaza, Hamas radicals betrayed the Palestinian people with a lawless and violent takeover. By its actions, Hamas has demonstrated beyond all doubt that it is [more] devoted to extremism and murder than to serving the Palestinian people.”
Although no outside powers claimed credit for Hamas’ coup over Fatah, it’s unlikely Hamas’ security forces could have done it without outside funding and weapons — and the political go-ahead from sponsors such as Iran and Syria.
The change in political hands of a piece of territory only 10 kilometers by 14 kilometers might seem to be insignificant on its face, but the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip could, indeed, have significant repercussions. Politically, such a major victory for radical Islam against Israel, the U.S. and Muslim “traitors” that collabo¬rate with the West might incite other Islamists to action. For instance, Hamas’ ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could portend more problems for Cairo. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, encouraged by Hamas’ triumph, could put more pres¬sure on the already shaky Beirut govern¬ment. Jordan, which borders the West Bank, already being harassed by al-Qaida in Iraq, and can’t be sanguine about the possibility that Hamas might come to run the West Bank, as well. Iran and Syria must be pleased, too. Gaza provides Tehran and Damascus with a staging base to pressure Israel — and undermine the largely pro-Western governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
Should the West Bank fall to Hamas, Lebanon to Hezbollah, and Iraq to Iranian influence, Tehran and Damascus would establish an arc of influence across the Middle East from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.
Another burning question is whether Gaza will become a rally¬ing point for a wide variety of Islamic terrorists, extremists and radicals akin to Khartoum, Sudan, in the 1990s or Mogadishu, Somalia, in recent years. In some eyes, Gaza could become a Club Med-style haven for jihadists to meet, recruit, plot, train and carry out terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond, including in the U.S.
Indeed, some regional analysts believe large amounts of arms and explosives — as much as 40 tons this summer alone — have already made their way to Gaza — and the situation will only get worse as Hamas consolidates control. Hamas rep¬resentatives reject this notion, saying the Israelis are using this as an excuse to squeeze Gaza. (Israel controls Gaza’s sea and air space, and Israel and Egypt separately control the land crossings.)
But the biggest fear is al-Qaida setting up shop in Gaza. It’s not clear whether al-Qaida already has a foothold in the Palestinian areas. It’s been posited that groups such as al-Qaida in Palestine, the Righteous Swords of Islam and the Army of Islam have al-Qaida ties. Some ana¬lysts believe Gaza extremist groups are more al-Qaida wannabes than the real deal. In other words, various groups are al-Qaida-inspired, rather than al-Qaida-affiliated — at least for the moment. In either case, these groups seem to share al-Qaida’s nihilistic, anti-U.S., anti-Israel worldview, and support the eventual establishment of a global caliphate under Shariah law, stretching from Spain to Indonesia.
At the official level, not everyone agrees. The 2006 State Department Country Report on Terrorism refers to an Israeli case that charged two Palestinians with conspiracy and active member¬ship in al-Qaida, among other terror-related crimes. According to the rap sheet, the two men — one a Hamas member — cre¬ated a West Bank al-Qaida cell. They were recruiting other cells for terrorist attacks in Israel, while receiving funds and instruc¬tions from al-Qaida in Jordan. In July, the new French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, said Hamas has contacts with al-Qaida. He emphasized this wasn’t the result of Western pres¬sure on Hamas. Begging to differ, in a mid-July interview with Reuters, Haniyeh said, “There is no al-Qaida in the Gaza Strip, and talk of Gaza becoming a foothold for al-Qaida is an invita¬tion to international hostilities.”
It would be foolish to think al-Qaida isn’t interested in the Palestinian territories, considering their strategic location astride Israel. Indeed, a number of Palestinians are, or have been, senior members of al-Qaida’s core group. Considering Hamas’ growing stature, it’s not clear whether Hamas would ally itself completely with al-Qaida, especially as a junior part¬ner — or allow al-Qaida free rein in Gaza, risking the chance of losing pre-eminence there. Al-Qaida may keep Hamas at arm’s length, too, seeing it as too compromising in the past with sec¬ular Fatah. But, Hamas might embrace al-Qaida if for no other reason than to use it as leverage against those who seek to isolate it.
Militarily, the options for dealing with Hamas are risky. The Israelis could go into Gaza en masse against Hamas, despite the weakness of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government after last summer’s stalemate with Hezbollah. But Israel could get dragged into protracted urban warfare with as many as 13,000 Hamas armed fighters in one of the most densely populated pieces of land on earth. (Gaza’s population is estimated to be 1.4 million.) Plus, a full-out Gaza engagement could leave Israel militarily vulnerable to an opportunis¬tic Hezbollah or Syria opening another front for the Israeli Defense Forces in the Sheba Farms area or the Golan Heights.
Diplomatically, Hamas’ opponents, such as the U.S. and Israel, are embracing a so-called “West Bank First” policy aimed at strengthening Fatah in the West Bank while weaken¬ing Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The strategy seems to rely on a calculation that a majority of Palestinians will come to support Fatah over Hamas, while comparing life in the relatively afflu¬ent West Bank with impoverished Gaza. Indeed, some polls show that nearly half of Palestinians believe things have gotten worse in Gaza since Hamas took control. This notion was bol¬stered by mass protests against Hamas in Gaza in late August.
Pro-U.S. Arab governments seem to want to split the differ¬ence by supporting Fatah in the West Bank, but only so it will have confidence to open direct negotiations with Hamas, aimed at reconciling the two.
Surprisingly, Abbas originally left open the possibility of mediation with Hamas, initially warming to a possible Russian offer to broker talks; his position has hardened since then.
Another diplomatic option is the Middle East peace confer¬ence proposed by Bush for this fall, currently slated for November.
Economically, the White House is propping up Fatah with an influx of U.S. aid. Others, including the European Union and Canada, have lifted sanctions against Abbas’ government in the West Bank, but not Hamas.
Israel has allowed small arms to pass from Jordan to the West Bank to bolster Abbas’ security forces, released Palestinian prisoners and returned tax revenues, hoping the decision may lead to progress on the peace process with Fatah.
But Abbas doesn’t control the West Bank entirely. There is plenty of Hamas influence there, and Abbas doesn’t control terrorist groups such as the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which may try to scuttle any peace efforts with Israel.
Moreover, there are downsides to the West Bank First strategy. Leaving Hamas out of the political process might further radicalize the group, leading to an alliance with al-Qaida.
And cutting off Hamas economically so Gaza becomes a completely failed entity could lead a desperate Hamas into waging a spoiler strategy against any semblance of regional peace and stability.
Plus, Hamas will attempt to escape its seclusion with the support of Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern extremists, especially as they consider the effect of what success for Fatah in the West Bank means to their viability.
Hamas seemingly has no plans to take this lying down. Inspired by Hezbollah’s success in its 2006 summer war, Hamas is building up its forces for a sustained campaign against Israel, if necessary. In addition to the inflow of arms and explosives, reports indicate Hamas is sending hundreds of fighters abroad for training (mostly to Iran) and building fortifications, mean¬ing the current stalemate could be protracted
In the end, there’s no doubt there are big stakes in tiny Gaza, in terms of Iranian and Syrian aspirations, the fate of Islamic extremism, the struggle against terrorism and the future of the Middle East peace process.