- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

Israeli raids on Hamas‘ infrastructure, along with troop movements around Gaza and the shelling of Israel by that organization, are troubling but certainly not surprising. Sadly, it’s not the first time we’ve seen these images. Tragically, seven years after September 11 they seem to connect with similar bloodshed in Mosul, Kabul and Mumbai.

Even if both sides in the current Gaza conflict insist that their confrontation is at the center of the world, in reality it isn’t. Car bombs and missiles in Beirut, Baghdad and Islamabad are all horrifying. There is no “top horror” anymore, even in the never-ending cycle of Gaza’s turmoil. It has all become part of the so-called “War on Terror,” even though the Palestinian-Israeli quarrel is a conflict all its own. But why is this escalation so dramatic? Who triggered it at this particular moment? What can we expect going forward?

After decades of unstoppable enmity, Israel and the PLO struck a deal in 1993 under the sponsorship of the United States: The Oslo agreements. But by the mid-1990s, the Syrian-Iranian “axis” (and some Wahhabi quarters) backed Hamas to “sink” the process. Israelis and Palestinians blamed each other; suicide bombings triggered air raids on the Palestinian territories. In short, it has been a struggle between the fledgling peace process and an Iranian strategy to destroy it.

Despite the barrage by the “axis” via Hamas against the Israeli-Palestinian settlement, small steps were achieved. By 2005 Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was closer to statehood than ever. But Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January 2006 thanks to massive Iranian support, refused to follow the course of the Camp David process. As it cannot ideologically recognize the existence of a “Jewish state,” Hamas is not simply another part of Palestinian politics. It is a jihadist organization with a clear goal: establishing an “emirate” in Palestine (not a secular Palestinian state). It would be similar to what al Qaeda wants to establish worldwide - but with a much better international reputation.

In June 2007, Hamas organized a bloody coup against Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency, executing and torturing hundreds of Palestinians, and established a “regime” in Gaza. Two “Palestines” emerged: The Iranian-supported entity in the enclave and the embattled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Since then Hamas blocked negotiations while the rest of the territories moved to normalization. Meanwhile, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza. Last week, the radical movement ended the cease-fire, which obviously triggered this war.

The West has been overwhelmed with footage from the so-called “Arab street,” a term coined by regimes and ideologues in the Arab World to claim that the “region” as a whole has one voice, one set of feelings when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict and all issues related to the “Umma” (Arab or Islamic nation). In fact the “street” in mostly non-democratic societies reflects the desired agenda of both regimes and ideologues. But under the surface of this strong ideological force which dominates the political culture, there is a divided region regarding Gaza. Syria, Sudan, Hezbollah, the Wahhabis, Qatar and the Iranian regime support Hamas. But Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and most of the Gulf States are nervous about Iran’s influence in the enclave.

Since Hamas’ decisions are made in Tehran, Israel has three options: an air campaign followed by a cease-fire; engaging ground troops at the edges of Gaza to alter the capacity of Hamas to shell Israel; or launching a full-fledged incursion inside the enclave. Its goal seems to be a Lebanon-like arrangement with a U.N.-sponsored security arrangement to change the military landscape in Gaza.

The current conflict is not really about the classic Arab-Israeli process, which can resume between Israel and the Palestinian Authority anytime it is not obstructed. The Gaza fight is about Iran’s confrontation with Israel, and perhaps with the United States. A strategic reading shows that - just as we saw in Lebanon in 2006 - Tehran is pulling the strings and very smartly. By timing the Hamas end to the cease-fire between two American presidencies, the mullahs thought they would provoke Israel into battle on an Iranian timetable, triggering a “street” show of anger, boosted by the jihadist propaganda machine in the region with all the usual ramifications in the West. The astute Iranian move is to drag Israel enough into Gaza’s mud to indict it internationally so that potential Israeli strikes at Iran’s nuclear program will be seen as catastrophic. Tehran projects Hamas to win this round, and that the Obama administration will begin its “talks” with Iran from an inferior position (since Israel will be blamed for the violence rather than the jihadists in Gaza). But the game has lots of risks, including the possibility that Hamas may lose its ability to be a military event maker after this campaign is over.

Walid Phares is director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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