Author Archives: Hussein Ibish

This region can’t afford to be tepid in its response to ISIL

http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/this-region-cant-afford-to-be-tepid-in-its-response-to-isil

Arab states can’t afford to be tepid in their response to ISIL
The US secretary of state John Kerry, centre, with Joseph W Westphal, the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Mr Kerry’s visit was aimed at pinning down how much support regional allies are willing to give to the US plan to beat back ISIL. Brendan Smialowski / AP Photo

 

President Barack Obama and his administration may have found themselves caught in a tangle of mixed messaging, but American power is now clearly directed at ISIL.

Mr Obama maintains that ISIL will be “degraded and destroyed”, two fundamentally different objectives. The White House says the US is at “war” with ISIL in the same way it has been at war with Al Qaeda, while the state department insists there is no “war”.

And there’s unmistakable tension between categorical assurances that ISIL will be defeated and strong commitments to the American public that no major undertaking is underway.

But such quibbles aside, this is indeed a necessary, unavoidable and morally unimpeachable war.

In their own interests, key US Arab allies can and must play central roles to ensure success. Since this is almost equally important to all the relevant parties, the burden should be similarly shared: from each according to their ability and to each according to their need.

Those Arabs dissatisfied with present levels of American commitment need to recognise several key realities.

First, the US is the only major outside player to have taken significant, concrete and direct action against these fanatics.

Second, it’s taking the initiative in building a much-needed international and regional coalition to address this cancerous menace. Third, the US is doing this reluctantly.

Fourth, sustaining and developing this American leadership commitment will depend, in part, on the US government and public believing that it has the appropriate level of regional and Arab support.

Mr Obama has already engaged in, and described to the American public, what amounts to an organically developing campaign.

US air strikes were initially said to be limited to protecting Erbil and relieving stranded Yazidi refugees. Then came the reconquest of the strategically vital Mosul Dam.

Later still, American air strikes supported various local forces combating ISIL in disparate places and for different purposes.

Now, Mr Obama says he’s authorising air strikes in Syria, a contingency virtually ruled out only a matter of a few weeks ago.

Moreover, the Obama administration has been moving quickly to frame the campaign against ISIL for the American public in widely acceptable counterterrorism and “war on terror” terms, and disassociate it from the highly unpopular war in Iraq.

Since ISIL is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Mr Obama has previously campaigned heavily in support of a “war” against Al Qaeda, this argument resonates with the American public, who now overwhelmingly support the air campaign.

Some Arabs doubt that such an international coalition is required to defeat ISIL, saying instead that such a broad partnership should target a wide range of violent extremists.

But the battle against ISIL alone will indeed be challenging and complex, particularly dislodging it from its strongholds in Syria, and arranging the ground forces required to defeat them. The CIA now estimates there are more than 30,000 ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq. This won’t be quite so quick or easy.

To be effective against ISIL, local ground forces cannot be perceived as sectarian, or sectarian-led. Sunni-majority Arab states have an essential role in developing effective anti-ISIL troops, and training and arming them.

They must be credible in the eyes of the deeply aggrieved Sunni populations that ISIL rules and claims to represent. Hassan Hassan, a columnist for this newspaper, describes these forces as a potential “Sunni peshmerga”, an equivalent to Kurdish militias that have, at times, successfully combated ISIL.

Arab states should also help shape public opinion so this campaign both isn’t, and isn’t seen as, bolstering sectarian anti-Sunni interests or benefiting the Assad dictatorship in Syria.

The Jeddah Communique of September 11 was a positive development that challenged sectarian divisions. The new Iraqi government, which was recognised as essential, joined the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon in jointly endorsing the American-led coalition. Saudi Arabia may finally reestablish a Baghdad embassy, amid other signs of a crucial thaw in regional tensions.

Some Arab states will have political, social, intelligence and air power capabilities that can be crucial in creating an effective and broad-based coalition against ISIL.

Other forms of cooperation such as enhanced ground support, fly-over arrangements and various forms of covert activity will also certainly be required, as will cracking down against fund-raising and recruiting. So the key Arab states have indispensable symbolic and practical roles in the struggle to crush ISIL.

But, in order to maintain the American momentum, Arab support must be enthusiastic and concrete and not vague or non-committal. While there are many other American perceptions, the New York Times’ immediate response to the Jeddah Communique was a story with the headline: Arabs Give Tepid Support to US Fight Against ISIS.

The mere presence of such an impression in the American conversation ought to be enough to urgently prompt Arab states and societies to ensure their support for the campaign against ISIL is never again mistaken in Washington as “tepid.”

ISIS has sealed its own fate

By its recklessness and miscalculations, ISIS has created a huge coalition against itself

Demonstrators hold placards as they protest against the actions of Islamic State in Iraq outside Downing Street in central London on September 7, 2014 (AFP Photo/Leon Neal)

 

At last the essential building blocks of a coalition against the ultra-violent criminal conspiracy that used to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and now calls itself simply the Islamic State (IS) are falling into place. Everyone was caught off guard by their surge out of fairly remote areas of north and eastern Syria into western Iraq, and slow off the mark in responding. But with the United States having initiated airstrikes against the organization in Iraq – and having declared, in effect, a long-term war to destroy the organization’s capability to be a menace regionally and globally – the long-overdue effort to destroy these extremists is finally underway.

One of the most important recent developments is a massive shift in American public opinion, largely engineered by ISIS itself. By beheading two American journalists it was holding as hostages for ransom – James Foley and Steven Sotloff – and threatening to murder more Westerners in the event of additional American airstrikes, and, even more foolishly, by depicting these gruesome killings in Internet videos, the fanatics have roused the American public out of its war-weary risk-aversion.

The shift is nothing less than extraordinary. A Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that 71% of Americans now favor air attacks against ISIS positions in Iraq, an increase of 17% over three weeks and 26% since mid-June. A majority still does not favor a ground intervention, but “boots on the ground” in any significant numbers are not required at this stage. Other opinion polls and surveys show a similarly dramatic shift in public opinion on the need for force against ISIS and the extent to which it’s recognized by the public as a significant threat to American interests.

Some observers have misinterpreted the ghastly ISIS beheading videos as a kind of provocation to the United States, hoping to elicit further airstrikes for reasons that are convoluted and difficult to explain. This is obviously incorrect. It’s quite clear, on the contrary, that ISIS fanatics were actually trying to use murder as leverage over Americans and their allies to dissuade them from further engagement.

It’s backfired spectacularly, of course, but it’s understandable how ISIS so badly misread the American mindset. For the past six years, dating back to a period in which ISIS itself did not exist except in the form of its precursor organization of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), these fanatics have watched the United States draw down from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and resist other provocations. They are used to the idea of an America that is backing, and perhaps in their own twisted thinking, running, away from Middle Eastern conflict.

What they failed to understand, it seems, is that what most Americans objected to was a war in Iraq that had no clear purpose and was a gigantic strategic miscalculation that cost their country enormously in terms of blood and treasure (not to mention international prestige) without yielding any clear gains. Indeed, many Americans now see the invasion of Iraq as a virtually unprecedented blunder, rivaled only by the extraordinary mistake of trying to seize control of Canada in 1812, only to have the British burn down most official buildings in Washington DC, including the White House.

But Americans don’t object to, and will support, a necessary campaign to break an extremist organization that is directly threatening their interests, murdering their compatriots and wreaking havoc in a region that is still essential to the United States. The much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” was always also implicitly a pivot away from the Middle East. Such a “pivot” never even began, and it isn’t going to in the foreseeable future, because, no matter how fed up and frustrated Americans have become with Middle Eastern conflicts given the Iraq fiasco, the Middle East remains essential to American national interests and a broad-based disengagement is simply not realistic.

International support for such a campaign is also clearly growing. British and American appeals to NATO allies last week reportedly met with a generally positive response. And support in the Middle East, particularly from the Arab allies of the United States, is obviously growing. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, recently declared: “The ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism … have nothing to do with Islam and (their proponents) are the enemy number one of Islam.” He specifically singled out ISIS as the primary example of this paramount enemy.

And in an extraordinary commentary article in the The Wall Street Journal, Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, issued what amounted to a declaration of war not only against ISIS, but against “radical Islam” in general. “Now is the time to act,” he wrote. “The international community needs an urgent, coordinated and sustained international effort to confront a threat that will, if unchecked, have global ramifications for decades to come.”

“The Islamic State may be the most obvious and dominant threat at present, but it is far from the only one,” Otaiba pointed out. He maintains that “an international response must confront dangerous Islamist extremists of all stripes across the region,” and called for a wide-ranging campaign of “direct intervention” to combat an “existential threat” from “the entire militant ideological and financial complex that is the lifeblood of extremism.”

This is by far the strongest, boldest and most far-reaching statement from a representative of any Arab government about what is at stake in the battle against ISIS and similar terrorists and extremists. There’s no doubt that the Ambassador is speaking on behalf of his government and, moreover, that although the UAE is taking a very public leadership role through such statements, its essential assessment is shared by a broader group of key Arab states that increasingly see an urgent need to combat violent extremism.

Meanwhile, the battle against ISIS will almost certainly continue to gain momentum. Tonight, US President Barack Obama will explain his strategy for dealing with these fanatics to the American public. While he’s likely to reassure them about “boots on the ground,” he’s also likely to stake out a strong position that ISIS must be destroyed, at least in the sense that it is rendered largely irrelevant.

Obama was elected president in the first place partly on the basis of his strong opposition to the Iraq war. He was right in this assessment, and also in his criticism of the prolonged nation-building folly in Afghanistan. And there was broad public support for his promise to end both campaigns, which he has indeed done. Some critics on the far left and right will no doubt claim that he is now leading the United States back into Iraq and resuming the conflict he promised, and was elected, to resolve.

Such critics can and should be prevented from making this specious claim, because while Obama was opposed to the war in Iraq, he was strongly supportive of the “war on terror,” which he specified as a war against Al Qaeda. And this is a war (of sorts) that his administration has pursued vigorously, most notably through covert actions and controversial drone strikes that have succeeded in killing terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Obama and his Administration can and should present the battle against ISIS not only as necessary and unavoidable, but also as a continuation of the war against Al Qaeda, since the group is a direct spinoff of the AQI. The battle against Al Qaeda was always Obama’s war, and it has now evolved into the struggle to defeat ISIS. Even with strong US public, international, and regional support, it may take time (the Obama administration is speaking in terms of three years or so) and require an intricate series of deft political and strategic maneuvers. But prevailing against the most dangerous group of extremists to have arisen in the Arab world in living memory is now both necessary and achievable.

Battle Ground: A look at the tangled political history of modern Gaza

http://bookforum.com/inprint/021_03/13649

As this review was going to press, the latest bout of hostilities between Hamas and other Gaza-based militants and Israel had become even more bloody and destructive than 2009’s brutally named Israeli incursion into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. An estimated 1,700 people have been killed. Between 70 and 80 percent of them were Palestinian civilians, and at least 200 were children. Israel has so far attacked seven UN schools serving as refugee shelters, provoking harsh condemnation even from the United States. Meanwhile, Hamas has drawn criticism from the global community for using abandoned schools to store ordnance. Sixty-four Israeli troops have been killed, along with three civilians—a stark contrast to Operation Cast Lead, which claimed the lives of just nine Israeli soldiers, four of them killed by friendly fire. The cost reckoned in damage to infrastructure and property in Gaza remains all but impossible to calculate. The war has reportedly displaced some 460,000 people—nearly a quarter of Gaza’s entire population. The present conflict appears unlikely to come to a complete stop—and if it does, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t flare up again at any moment.

With so much international attention focused on Gaza, it’s finally occurring to many Americans and other Westerners that the region has its own history, and that this history is key to sorting out the present conflict. So in this sense, Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Gaza: A History arrives at a propitious moment; if anything, Filiu’s book—“the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language,” the publisher claims, probably correctly—is long overdue. Gaza isn’t exactly exhaustive; it dashes through the area’s lengthy and complex ancient, classical, and Islamic imperial histories in a mere thirty pages or so.

Filiu’s account of Gaza’s modern political history is certainly comprehensive. However, the book lacks narrative flair and at times gets bogged down in laundry-list details; it also follows a rigid chronological sequence that can be downright turgid. On the other hand, anyone who makes it through Filiu’s relentless chronology will be thoroughly briefed in a way one could not be from any other source.

Filiu explains how the narrow-yet-pivotal terrain known as the Gaza Strip has shaped the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, he notes, almost all of its inhabitants are refugees from southern Israel displaced by the hostilities of 1947–48. Other Palestinian refugee populations, including those in the occupied West Bank, are much farther from the Israeli border. But here is a huge group of refugees who can virtually see their former lands, and who contend with the Israeli occupation on a daily basis. Second, Filiu lays out Gaza’s strategic location between Egypt (and hence the rest of Africa) and Palestine (and hence the rest of Asia)—a convergence of influence that has shaped the region’s history since ancient times. Even the British campaigns that targeted Palestine during the First World War had to pass through Gaza.

For those and other crucial reasons, Gaza has always played an outsize political role in Palestinian collective life. The first aborted attempt at creating a Palestinian national government arose and failed in Gaza after the 1948 war. Gaza was also home to several of the core parties of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and many of its leaders. As Filiu notes, “It was in Gaza that the fedayin [the early Palestinian guerrilla fighters] were moulded and the Jewish State would soon make Gaza pay for it dearly.”

But also, crucially, the Muslim Brotherhood laid down deep roots in the territory—both under Egyptian rule, following 1948, and after Israel’s conquest of Gaza in 1967. For most of its history, the Brotherhood in Palestine was quietist, refusing to engage in or endorse the PLO’s armed struggle. But under the leadership of Ahmed Yassin, the Brotherhood in Palestine acquired a political arm, Mujamma, that increasingly developed militant tendencies. As Filiu notes, at the end of 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood “finally called for a struggle against the occupation” and founded Hamas.

It was no accident this decision came a mere five days after the outbreak of the first intifada, which began in Gaza. Hamas was a militant enterprise from the outset, with an allied faction attempting to capture Israeli soldiers. But it was only in December 1991 that Hamas fully established its paramilitary wing, the Ezzedin al-Qassam brigades.

The second intifada did not begin in Gaza, but its first iconic—and still highly controversial—moment happened there: the 2000 death of twelve-year-old Mohammed al-Durra. Hamas quickly seized the initiative through violent attacks on Israel, including suicide bombings, which were fueled by the group’s confrontational religious rhetoric. Their secular-nationalist rivals in Fatah mimicked both of these stratagems, in order not to be outbid, but repeatedly called for the demilitarization of the intifada, which Hamas flatly rejected. Palestinian president Yasser Arafat ordered the arrest of Yassin and outlawed his brigades. As the fighting continued, Israel assassinated Yassin and a slew of other Hamas leaders, while also carrying out more generalized onslaughts against Gaza.

As Filiu notes, by the mid-aughts, with both Arafat and Yassin dead, the two rival Palestinian movements “had not yet finished their work of dividing the Gaza Strip, now the orphan child of both its iconic leaders.” This division was subsequently finalized by a twofold process. First, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon strategically pulled Israeli troops and settlers from the center of Gaza, transforming the occupation to one based on controlling the periphery rather than the heart of the Strip. Hamas claimed that the shift in Israeli tactics vindicated the group’s policy of armed “resistance.” Second, while Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah won the 2005 presidential election with 62 percent of the vote, a year later Hamas-backed candidates got 44 percent in legislative elections and secured the largest bloc in parliament.

The experiment in cohabitation was tense from the outset and soon proved unworkable. Then as now, the square peg of Hamas’s commitment to armed struggle could not fit into the round hole of the PLO’s commitment to a negotiated peace agreement with Israel. Adding to the tensions have been completely incompatible visions of Palestinian society: the roles of religion, women, minority groups, and so forth. The only thing the two groups really agree on is that their members are all Palestinians.

These tensions boiled over in 2007, when Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, and Fatah moved to consolidate control of Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank. The division was complete.

As Filiu puts it, the public was now faced with “one Palestine against another.” The new governing structure was, and is, a veritable Noah’s Ark, with two of everything. As Hamas rule commenced, “the trap was closing on the Gaza Strip,” Filiu adds. Israel and a number of other nations subjected the territory to a significant blockade, and Gaza faced at least two major conflicts with the Israelis, in 2009 and 2012. Hamas and the Gaza economy found some relief through smuggling tunnels to Egypt and support from sponsors.

But in recent years, the crisis for Hamas and Gaza has metastasized. Because of the dispute within the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Gazan leaders lost their major sponsors in Damascus and Tehran. An even more bitter blow was the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by a major Egyptian-government crackdown on both the Brotherhood and Hamas and its smuggling tunnels. Both Hamas and the Gazan economy went into complete financial meltdown, with virtually no goods leaving the Strip—and therefore no income or foreign exchange coming in.

This is the immediate backdrop to the “national unity” agreement with the Palestinian Authority and the current conflict with Israel. Hamas is desperately looking for a way to open Gaza and to get beyond it, into the West Bank. As Filiu puts it, “Only inter-Palestinian reconciliation would permit the reversal of the long-term downward spiral” in Gaza. However, this reconciliation is, and will remain, largely meaningless until elections are held—and, far more important, security forces are merged. If Hamas were to keep its independent brigades in the context of a unified political Palestinian entity, the result would be much like what Hezbollah has experienced in Lebanon, with Hamas serving nominally as part of the political system but also retaining an independent military and foreign policy. The ensuing merger would produce unity in name only.

Challenging as this scenario may be, Filiu is right to conclude that a viable political destiny for Gazans will be elusive “unless the nationalist and Islamist components of the Palestinian resistance, both of which had come into existence in the territory, were able to reach an agreement on peace between themselves.” The problem, which he does not acknowledge, is that to achieve such a Hegelian (or, perhaps more properly speaking, Maoist) synthesis of opposites, one group must prevail over the other. A militant group committed to armed struggle cannot have a coordinated strategy with a diplomatic organization focused on negotiations and being part of the international community. Until one party or the other is ascendant, the division will almost certainly continue to bedevil Palestinians and play directly into the hands of Israeli hard-liners.

Nonetheless, Filiu is undoubtedly correct that Gaza has no future without the rest of Palestine, and that Palestine needs Gaza: “It is vain to imagine that a territory so replete with foundational experiences can be ignored ormarginalised.” The present round of violence is yet another demonstration of this obvious and undeniable truth.

The MB is on a continuum with ISIS, not a corrective to it

http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/the-brotherhood-is-a-version-of-isil-not-a-solution-to-it

The Brotherhood is a version of ISIL, not a solution to it
Supporters of Hamas gather during a rally in Gaza (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)

 

Opportunism, prejudices and emotional baggage often interfere with the accurate evaluation of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood movement and more extreme Salafist-jihadist groups. At the extremes are ideas promoting a conflation of the two trends in Islamism versus those that suggest Brotherhood ideology is the natural and appropriate corrective to violent extremism.

Both of these assessments are clearly wrong.The Brotherhood is a radical movement, but that doesn’t make it the equivalent of more extreme and violent groups.

But the fact that it is clearly different from groups to its religious and political right doesn’t mean that the Brotherhood is an effective or appropriate corrective to the growth of more violent extremist groups.

The conflation agenda is currently being pushed most vigorously by Israel and its various supporters, particularly in the United States. Ever since the murder of journalist James Foley, they have been pushing the line that “Hamas = ISIL”, trying to draw connections between the Palestinian militant group and the murderous extremists who now control large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

This is pure opportunism, of course. Israeli officials have a long history of doing this. Recall that immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States by Al Qaeda, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon famously pronounced that “Arafat is our Bin Laden”.

Having just emerged from a bruising battle with Hamas in Gaza – which took its toll, among other things, on Israel’s international reputation with more than 2,000 Palestinians killed and a quarter of the population rendered homeless – Israel’s political leadership clearly saw the opportunity to try to score more points with their friends and others by drawing this direct analogy with ISIL.

As with previous uses of this kind of propaganda, its effect is very limited. Even some of Israel’s closest supporters can be seen, quite literally, rolling their eyes at this.

Those who tried to defend the analogy sounded distinctly desperate and flailing. Yet it will have some impact among those already primed not to distinguish too carefully between Islamists.

Yet such a distinction is important where there are obviously clear differences. Otherwise, the policy approach to them will be similarly conflated, and therefore similarly confused.

Groups like Hamas are, in the end, nationalistic ones, rather than global in their perspective. They do not practice “takfir”, as defined by the process of declaring other Muslims to be apostates worthy of death. And their attitude towards others is much more nuanced. The Brotherhood appears to be willing to live with the existing regional and global state system, whereas ISIL is in open warfare with it.

On the other hand, there are those in the United States, as well as in the Middle East and Europe, who overcompensate in the opposite direction.

They have held from the outset of the “Arab Spring” that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only real authentic and legitimate political force among the Sunni Arabs.

Moreover, these voices insist, “moderate” Islamism is the only real hedge against more violent, extreme Islamism.

If only the Muslim Brotherhood were better positioned in the contemporary Arab world to be a major political force, this argument suggests, the more stability there would be and the less appeal more extreme groups would have.

What this argument fails to acknowledge is that in spite of their clear differences, there are also too many points of commonality between the Brotherhood ideology and more extreme groups like the Islamic State for Islamists to check each other.

One of the founding aims of the Brotherhood is, in fact, the restoration of the caliphate.

But while the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t talk much about the caliphate these days, it hasn’t changed its fundamental attitude either.

Of course, it shares this desire with many Muslims around the world, but the concept has been uninterrogated in any meaningful sense.

No one has really picked apart what this would mean in the present day, who can make such a declaration, and whether it’s really significant or desirable in the modern era. Instead, that has simply left the “caliphate” card to be picked up by ISIL, which has become just the latest in a long line of contemporary claimants.

ISIL is among the most violent groups in the world, and while many Brotherhood-aligned parties have turned away from violence as a primary strategy or publicly-acknowledged policy, it doesn’t have a doctrinal prohibition on violence.

Brotherhood groups have used it in the past, and always made an exception when it comes to the Palestinians – and this long before the advent of Hamas.

Both groups also publicly espouse the virtue and necessity of “jihad”.

Clearly each of them mean rather different things with this same term, but both groups of Islamists appeal to the same core language about “holy war”.

There are just too many common origins for Brotherhood-style Islamism to serve as a plausible corrective to ISIL-style more extreme Islamism.

It’s no coincidence or surprise that it was Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb who did more to inspire the takfiri and Salafist-jihadist movements than any other modern figure.

If nothing else, Qutb demonstrates the hinge that links Brotherhood-Islamism to more extreme and violent versions now most terrifyingly embodied by ISIL. This is a continuum, not a corrective.

Child abuse, ISIS-style

https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentaryanalysis/562352-child-abuse-is-style

The IS is trying to indoctrinate a loyal citizenry for its new “caliphate”

Displaced Iraqi Shiite children, who fled their homes a few weeks ago, due to attacks by Islamic State (IS) jihadists in the northern city of Mosul, rest outside a tent at the Bhrka camp ten kilometers west of Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq

 

One of the many striking differences between the so-called “Islamic State” (IS; formerly ISIS) and its ideological brethren and predecessors in the Salafist-jihadist movement is the unusual degree of interest the IS has shown in children and education. This reveals a great deal about how the organization conceptualizes the “state” it is trying to construct and what its long-term vision for the future looks like. All of this underscores how different and dangerous the IS is, even as compared to other offshoots of al-Qaeda.

For well over a year, the IS and its rivals in the “official” al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra, among others – have stood accused of indoctrinating, conscripting, and fielding child soldiers and terrorists, particularly teenage boys. Human Rights Watch recently released a report in which the IS is specifically accused of having “recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions.”

A 13-year-old boy going by the assumed name of “Mohammed” is making the rounds in Western media telling harrowing tales of conditions and activities taking place in IS youth camps. He says he and others were forced to watch gruesome punishments such as crucifixions and stonings, and were being groomed as future terrorists and suicide bombers.

But the IS’s twisted relationship with children, particularly in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, goes far beyond the exploitation of youths in combat. Reports from Raqqa about the IS approach to ruling a sizable Syrian city in which it has developed uncontested control suggest implicit surprise that the new “caliphate” would be involved in entertainments and activities aimed at seducing and winning over to their ideology the children under their control. The group was said to be “holding ‘fun days’ for kids replete with ice cream and inflatable slides.”

What is really going on is a long-term project to create, through indoctrination and brainwashing posing as education, a new generation of genuine, committed followers of the IS’s new “caliphate.” They reportedly see the children under their control as the up-and-coming “generation of the Khilafah.” This reflects an implicit understanding that most of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis who have come under their control, or either fought alongside or not opposed the IS, did so out of desperation. The IS knows full well that their sudden rise says more about the policies of Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki than it does about the specific or long-term appeal of the IS ideology and worldview.

So it’s no surprise at all that the IS – which believes it really is a state, and which is consciously trying to think and act like a state (or at least how it thinks a state would conduct itself) – would be so interested in children and education. As a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War explains, “both ISIS rhetoric and the resources it has devoted to educational programming suggest its core motivation is to train the next generation of ISIS members, the actual citizenry of the Caliphate. ISIS sees itself not as a terrorist organization indoctrinating children, but as a sovereign state educating its citizens.”

In this context, it’s vital to understand that the IS sees its new “state” as not just another state, but another kind of state. This is not the familiar challenge to the existing state system of an entity that wishes to join it, with or without permission of a majority of others. Rather, it is a thoroughgoing and absolute rejection of the existing state system, particularly among the world’s Muslims, but ultimately globally. The stated and explicit intention of the IS is to bring down that system altogether and replace it with… you guessed it: itself.

Needless to say, this seems vainglorious bordering on the insane. But the IS is seducing youth online throughout the Muslim world and beyond to come and join it as fighters. And it is indoctrinating and brainwashing the children under its control in its new educational systems. Its schools insist on endless rote learning of the most retrograde and literalistic versions of Islamic fundamentalism, and have reportedly “permanently” banned numerous subjects including philosophy, chemistry, “fine arts, music, civics, social studies, history, psychology, and religion, including Islamic and Christian studies.”

Like all good hardcore revolutionaries, the IS is attempting to create a new man and a new society for the entire world. And it hopes to do that by exploiting these young people both now and into the future. Of course this is an absurdity that will fail spectacularly in the long run. But until it actually does collapse under the weight of its own bizarre contradictions, the fanatical project of the Islamic State threatens to consume all those who encounter it.

Chief among these victims will be the young people who have the dreadful misfortune of finding themselves caught in that maelstrom. It’s the worst form of child abuse imaginable.

Palestinians Must Redefine Martyrdom for Nonviolent Resistance

http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/non-violent-resistance-is-palestines-most-powerful-weapon#full

Non-violent resistance is Palestine’s most powerful weapon
Palestinian women look at the shattered remains of a building complex that was destroyed by Israel this month. The best form of resistance to such brutality is non-violent, argues Hussein Ibish. (AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT)

As the dust settles in Gaza – and both Israel and Hamas fatuously claim “victory” in a conflict that, yet again, produced no real victors – there is no question who the biggest losers were: the long-suffering people of Gaza. For all its empty boasting, Hamas’s strategy of armed struggle has once again been exposed as not merely a dead-end for securing Palestinian rights, but a disaster.

Yet the diplomatic impasse – with no continuing process or talks, or grounds for expecting, or even hoping for, a significant breakthrough in the short-term – leaves the Palestinian movement agonising over what approach to national liberation would secure successes and not cause more harm than good.

Multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations and various agencies can be costly while delivering limited benefits. And they cannot change any core political and strategic realities on the ground. Boycotts of Israel’s settlements are heartening, but hardly game-changers. Israel and its occupation project are more offended than threatened by them.

But, combined with other non-violent approaches – especially state and institution-building initiatives as pioneered by former prime minister Salam Fayyad – astute, well-calculated multilateral initiatives and precise, focused anti-settlement boycotts could be significant tactical elements in a broader, integrated and effective Palestinian national strategy.

As many have long noted, perhaps the single most powerful such tool that the Palestinians potentially have at their disposal – but which has not been systematically implemented or adopted as a core tactic by the national movement – is non-violent resistance to occupation on the ground. The occupation is a system of discipline and control over a subjugated people by a powerful foreign army. Worse, one of the main tasks of those occupying troops is to facilitate and protect the settlement project, which basically means taking land from its owners and illegally giving it to colonists.

The settlements themselves, and all the hideous apparatus of the occupation like the checkpoints, walls, bypass roads and closed areas, are perfect targets for strictly non-violent mass protests, disruptions, non-cooperation techniques and so forth. To be effective, such efforts would have to be carefully integrated into a coordinated society-wide programme that allows the national leadership to translate gains into political results towards national liberation. But even more crucially, Palestinians would have to be firmly united and highly disciplined to maintain its strictly non-violent character (no stone-throwing, for instance).

This would be exceptionally challenging since Israeli occupation forces would, almost certainly, and quickly, resort to violent responses to a campaign of sustained, nationwide and relentless non-violent protests. Palestinian extremist groups would then seek to hijack this non-violent movement through violent retaliation of their own. Unless this was unanimously and forcefully repudiated and rejected by Palestinian society rising as one to insist on maintaining non-violence in the face of the occupation’s violence, all would be lost. Such discipline would also be key in allowing Palestinians to become an unruly people towards the occupation yet an orderly one in developing self-governance.

But how to accomplish this in a context in which Israelis and Palestinians have been primarily communicating with each other through the language of violence for decades? Where in Palestinian culture can an ethos of non-violence ground itself? To be sure Palestinians have always used non-violent, as well as violent, forms of resistance. But how could non-violent protests become sufficiently hegemonic as to truly define Palestinian resistance to occupation?

One path could be to redefine one of the central tenets of the Palestinian struggle: martyrdom. Although in the West it is sometimes thought Palestinians mainly refer to militants as “martyrs,” in fact they define everyone who perishes in the conflict with Israel as a martyr. The term has traditionally been used indiscriminately, including everyone from babies killed in their sleep to suicide bombers.

Not only is there no need to dispense with the concept of martyrdom in the Palestinian cause. There is a crying need to clarify the term and strictly apply it to those who willingly risk – and unfortunately who will have to also give – their own lives for freedom without trying to harm others. Those who damage the Palestinian cause through counterproductive violence should be excluded from this honorific. But so, too, should random victims.

Martyrdom status should instead be reserved for those who actually act like martyrs and who step forward to accept injury or death, without evil intent towards anyone else, in order to free their people from outrageous oppression.

Religious leaders, especially, and other Palestinian opinion-shapers, would be key figures in a conscious, coordinated and sustained campaign for as long as it takes to change the way martyrdom is understood in Palestinian society.

Is this an absurd pipe-dream? Possibly. But there is no other way to successfully unleash the massive power potentially at the disposal of the Palestinian people. Israel would have no effective answer to a campaign of non-violence, and the power-dynamics between the occupier and occupied would be totally upended.

Just imagine if 2,100 Palestinians had died in a campaign of non-violent protests instead of the Gaza war. If Palestinians ever embrace an ethos of non-violent martyrdom as part of a broader national strategy, Israel’s occupation wouldn’t stand a chance. The Palestinians would actually and decisively win.

Attacking the Islamic State IS attacking Assad

https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentaryanalysis/561536-attacking-the-islamic-state-is-attacking-assad

The Assad dictatorship has worked hard to create a binary between itself and extremists. The destruction of the IS will leave the dictatorship exposed and vulnerable as never before.

Syrians feed pigeons on a square where are displayed giant campaign billboards bearing portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on June 1, 2014 in the capital Damascus (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

 

With the United States being sucked inexorably into an unavoidable and wider conflict with the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS; formerly ISIS) in Iraq, attention has quickly turned to the fact that the terrorist group’s main redoubt is in northern Syria. Therefore, if there is to be a broad confrontation with the IS, as US military Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey warned last week, it would have to extend itself into Syria. And there is every indication that the United States is preparing contingencies for just that.

Inevitably, the cry has gone up in some quarters that the only logical thing to do is to partner with the ghastly dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in order to defeat these crazed fanatics. Indeed, a recent report, although apparently based largely on conjecture, by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent, suggests that Western intelligence agencies are already sharing information on the IS with the Damascus dictatorship through the German intelligence agency.

The Assad regime smells yet another opportunity to rehabilitate itself, similar to the outrageous chemical weapons deal that was struck after numerous instances of chemical attacks against Syrian civilians and rebels. That turned Assad into a partner of the West, at least insofar as the chemical weapons decommissioning project was concerned. But that implied that Assad had to keep controlling key areas of the country and that his rule had an important, positive purpose, at least in that narrow framework. He discovered a new formula in international relations: dumping chemical weapons on innocent people is a potential path to new diplomatic and political legitimacy.

And how has that gone? Well, in May, France and Human Rights Watch simultaneously accused the Syrian dictatorship of continuing to use chemical weapons, including chlorine gas. Big success!

But the notion that Assad is a plausible or useful long-term ally against the IS can only be based on the most superficial and pseudo-logical understanding of Syrian realities. In fact, the IS has been, and remains, the linchpin of the survival of the Damascus regime.

From the outset of the uprising against him, even when he was faced by only unarmed demonstrators, Assad and his cronies wove an elaborate mythology about an assault by international jihadists backed by Al Qaeda. And over the course of the next year-and-a-half his regime worked night and day to ensure that this mythology became a reality.

And, after all, the Syrian regime had a long-standing relationship with the Islamic State’s immediate predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Throughout the American occupation, Damascus gave a laissez passé to foreign fighters who wanted to go to Iraq and join the AQI in order to attack Americans, Shiites and others. As long as they kept their heads down in Syria, they were welcome to pass through. So these two entities have a very long history of not only knowing each other, but knowing how to make each other useful. The sordid history of Assad-AQI/ISIS collaboration was neatly encapsulated in a short but invaluable essay by Peter Neumann in the London Review of Books last April.

As the uprising gained steam, the Syrian dictatorship released the most notorious Salafist-jihadists they were holding from prison. They concentrated their fire power on the Free Syrian Army and other nationalist groups that actually threatened to potentially overthrow the regime successfully, while ignoring the steady gains of ISIS. As Hassan Hassan has pointed out, “When [ISIS] Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, … the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.” Instead, it did nothing. Except purchase large quantities of oil from ISIS, fattening their coffers even further.

It’s not so much that the regime welcomes the loss of these relatively remote areas in northern and eastern Syria. It’s that it can do without them if it has to. What’s central to the survival of the Assad dictatorship is a long strip in the western half of the country beginning at the Lebanon border, continuing up through Qalamoun, Damascus, and Homs and thence into the Alawite heartland around Latakia. As long as those areas can be secured, the fundamental interests of the dictatorship are guaranteed. If Kurdish areas in the north fall to local fighters, or the IS overruns large areas of the West, that’s just unfortunate.

But there is a distinct upside to the rise of the IS for the regime. It has established, in the minds of many Syrians, and particularly many in the West, a false binary in which the choice is between deranged jihadist monsters versus a criminal mafia regime that is largely responsible for the death of at least 200,000 people in the past three years and that will stop at nothing to cling to power.

So now Assad and his henchmen say they want to be part of the battle against the IS. It’s a perfect example of the arsonist showing up at an uncontrolled blaze posing as a fireman. Obviously, nobody wants to have an uprising against them. But if you must have enemies, the more deranged and terrifying they are, the better. So as long as there is a war in Syria, Assad simply cannot do without the Islamic State or something extremely similar.

The notion of partnering with the Syrian government against the IS is just silly at every level.

First, his forces show no interest or ability in actually or effectively fighting these lunatics. Indeed, they just lost control of the Tabqa airfield, 25 miles outside the IS’s stronghold and capital of Raqqa. This means that Raqqa Province is the first region of Syria to fall entirely out of the control of the regime, and it should surprise absolutely no one that it has fallen to the IS.

Second, for the Damascus dictatorship, the IS is the perfect enemy. It’s not as if there won’t still be an uprising afterwards, should the IS be defeated or badly degraded. On the contrary, it’s likely that opposition forces would be greatly strengthened and the arguments and appeal of the regime profoundly weakened.

So, in the short run, Assad might want to try to pose as a partner to the West in attacking the terrorists. But in the long run, he needs them, and he knows it. He cannot afford a situation in which less-repulsive alternatives present themselves, or his chances of losing power will increase exponentially. The battle against the IS was first a mythology, and then a reality, that he created with a great deal of calculation and skill. Abandoning that strategy in the long run is almost unthinkable for him.

Finally, the IS cannot be successfully countered by sectarian non-Sunni troops, either in Syria or Iraq. Anyone who imagines that an Alawite-dominated Syrian army or extremist Shiite militias in Iraq can be the solution to crushing or profoundly degrading the IS has failed to understand how and why the group has risen to prominence. It feeds off of the deepest Sunni Muslim rage, both locally and internationally.

Therefore, neither Damascus nor Baghdad, directly, are the key to defeating them. The IS clearly can only be countered by other, local Sunni Muslim forces on the ground, and by an international coalition that does not reflect the sectarian and dictatorial tendencies of Assad and outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This has been done before, and it can be done again. There are innumerable incentives and disincentives (weapons, money, intelligence, etc.) that can tap into already-existing and profound discontent with Islamic State extremism in local and national Sunni groupings in both Syria and Iraq. And, of course, Arab Sunni-majority regional powers need to be heavily involved in this effort.

The key fact is that attacking the IS in Syria is, in the long run, a way of attacking the Assad regime as well. At the very least, it deeply damages, if not destroys, their primary political strategy for survival. Note the profoundly ambivalent reaction of regime henchman to the idea that Western powers might intervene – as some imagine, “on their behalf,” against the IS – a contingency that is surely coming sooner rather than later.

Having, on the one hand, pledged an interest in partnering with the UN and others in combating the IS, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Monday declared categorical opposition to any American or international airstrikes against the group in Syria. “Any breach of Syrian sovereignty by any side constitutes an act of aggression,” he thundered.

It’s hardly surprising. Where would the Damascus regime be without the bogeyman rival that it dreamt up and tirelessly to bring into reality? Even a temporary marriage of convenience against the IS with Damascus would be entirely fraudulent, and would be undermined by the Assad dictatorship at every stage, probably even more brazenly than the chemical weapons farce.

In the end, the Catch-22 for Assad and his cronies is that the only real way to defeat the IS and similar groups is not only to crush them militarily and strangle them financially, although that is immediately necessary. No one should be interested in Syrian or Russian objections to airstrikes against IS positions on the now-erased Syrian/Iraqi border. The deeper threat is that really defeating these extremists means creating new power structures in both Syria and Iraq that give Sunni Muslim communities in those countries a stake in the future and a reason not to listen to the rantings of new “caliphates” and criminal gangs posing as saviors.

It means, in short, an end to the family, clan and sect (in that order) rule of Syria by the Assads, their relatives in the broadest sense, and their privileged Alawite community. 200,000 dead people in three years mean that the old regime, in the long run, simply cannot survive except in a rump form, and if it does, that will mean that the IS and similar groups will continue to thrive. Much the same applies in Iraq, where the Sunni minority urgently needs to be courted and included both in the new systems and in the struggle against the IS, which, on the ground, they will have to be a major part of.

Creating a new reality in which such terrorists do not run rampage will instead require building more inclusive, less repressive and more equitable structures of government in both Syria and Iraq in which the rights of Sunni Arabs are respected and lunatics are not able to pose as their protectors. That means, by definition, an end in Syria to the Assad dictatorship as we have known it.

Does anybody really imagine that the Assad dictatorship is going to be a genuine partner in its own demise? Because that’s what finally defeating the IS is going to take, and that’s what that victory is ultimately going to mean. And the regime knows it. Attacking the IS, in the long run, IS attacking Assad and his rotten, brutal dictatorship. All the more reason not to hesitate for a moment in this necessary, moral, and unavoidable war against two monstrously evil targets – the Islamic State directly and immediately, and Assad indirectly and in the long run.

America is waging war in the Middle East once more

http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/america-is-waging-war-in-the-middle-east-once-more#full

America is waging war in the Middle East once more
The Islamic State is, US administration officials now admit, a terrorist threat on a magnitude not seen before.

Although most Americans don’t know it, and certainly haven’t endorsed it, the United States is back at war in the Middle East. Its latest, and most hideous, antagonist is the monstrous aberration that calls itself the Islamic State. And no matter what the present intentions, there seems no way this conflict in Iraq and Syria can fail to metastasise.

For the past year or so, the Islamic State has been on a roll and a rampage, sweeping across huge sections of northern Syria and, more recently, western Iraq. Nobody did much of anything to stop them, and American intelligence officials have acknowledged that they were taken aback by the lightning speed of the Islamic State’s advance.

Last week, the Islamic State presented the Obama administration with an impossible two-fold conundrum. On the one hand, it had driven thousands of Yazidi religious minorities onto an isolated mountaintop where they faced certain death if not relieved. On the other hand, it was threatening to advance towards the Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Ebril where the United States has a consulate and numerous offices. From both a humanitarian and a practical point of view, the president had no choice.

Barack Obama interrupted his holiday to inform Americans he had authorised the first US air strikes in Iraq in years, to address both problems. In the event, they turned out to also be acting in direct support of a counter- offensive by elite Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters aimed at seizing control of the strategically vital Mosul Dam from Islamic State terrorists. The US has now flown dozens of sorties and Mr Obama says the retaking of the dam was successful.

No one was quite sure where that left matters, but subsequent events seem to have answered all questions. First, the use of American air power against the terrorists continues. Second, Islamic State fanatics, apparently operating in their Syrian stronghold, beheaded a captured American journalist, James Foley, on video. They openly said it was retaliation for the American air strikes and threatened to murder more captured Americans, at least one of whom was displayed on camera. They also threatened to drown westerners with blood and issued similar blood-curdling threats.

It is often said that the Islamic State is a crafty and calculating organisation. There is no sign of that here. Had they been intelligent, the fanatics would have allowed the American system to produce its own push back against Mr Obama’s initiative to challenge them. There was, and still is, a good deal of scepticism in Congress and among the public against any further American military engagement in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East.

But with the Foley murder, and particularly the gruesome video and photographs they distributed, the Islamic State poked the lion in the eye.

The Islamic State seemed to be sending a series of calculated messages with the video: if you attack us, we will murder you. You didn’t pay the $132 million ransom for this guy we demanded, so it’s only natural that we kill him, especially if you are attacking us. I’m speaking loudly and clearly in a distinctly British accent, so understand that we can very easily come to you. And don’t forget that our main base is in Syria, and you’re not coming here.

If I had wanted to give the followers of the new “caliphate” terrible advice, I couldn’t have come up with anything more foolish than that. It strongly suggests that the Islamic State just doesn’t know what it’s dealing with in the United States. Such threats will only provoke Americans, particularly the implicit threat to carry out terrorist attacks in the West and, especially, in the United States itself.

Given the way that the stakes have been raised by both sides very quickly, it’s hard to imagine that they will not continue to escalate. It’s true that a month ago, few Americans would have been ready to embrace the current conflict, and many still are not. But they’re getting there quickly. The threat, and even more, the reality of terrorist attacks against Americans will only increase that determination.

This is, after all, very much already Mr Obama’s war. In campaigning for the nomination and the presidency, he emphasised his opposition to the war in Iraq and the nation-building programme in Afghanistan, contrasting them with the war on terrorism that he strongly supported. And he’s proven that during his presidency with covert actions and drone attacks that have been controversial, but gained such scalps as Osama bin Laden.

The Islamic State is, US administration officials now admit, a terrorist threat on a magnitude not seen before. It seems a combination of the worst of the Taliban and the worst of Al Qaeda rolled together, in the heart of the Middle East and with a growing contingent of international fanatical volunteers, including many westerners.

How, precisely, to roll them back without relying on sectarian Shiite forces in Iraq or, even worse, aiding Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, are conundrums inherent in the mission. But America’s new war in the Middle East is a necessary, and not optional or avoidable, one.

Indispensable but Elusive: Palestinian National Reunification

http://mepc.org/journal/middle-east-policy-archives/indispensible-elusive-palestinian-national-reunification

With the latest round of Israel-Hamas hostilities giving way to a tense truce and cease-fire negotiations in Cairo, the Palestinian national-unity agreement has suddenly, and unexpectedly, become central to the thinking of all major players. What had looked strongly like a pro forma and essentially failed political initiative may be salvaged and transformed by the Gaza war into a centerpiece of the post conflict scenario. It will not, in reality and in the short term, involve full Palestinian political reunification. That would require a merging of the security and armed forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas and, in effect, the disarming of Hamas’s paramilitary wing, the Qassam Brigades. There is no chance Hamas would agree to this unless the organization were truly broken, and nothing in the foreseeable future appears likely to achieve that result. However, a degree of Palestinian political transformation now appears possible.

Why Hamas Signed the Unity Agreement

Since the split between Hamas’s rule in Gaza and the PA’s rule in the West Bank in 2007, nearly all Palestinians have regarded this national division as a political disaster. It has meant that much of what both parties do is defined by their competition rather than the cause of national liberation and the goal of ending Israel’s occupation. Hamas, in particular, has been guided almost entirely by its determination to try to marginalize Fatah and either eliminate or take over the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Much of what the Ramallah leadership does is also guided by the goal of fending off this challenge. However, both parties may now feel obliged to maintain the new unity government established on the basis of the agreement they reached on April 23, 2014.

Knowing that most Palestinians desperately wanted and indeed demanded an end to that division, Hamas and Fatah had made several earlier aborted attempts at reconciliation, most notably the agreements in Doha and Cairo. But in neither case were they implemented. None of the issues that destroyed the brief period of cohabitation in 2006-07 between a Hamas-led parliament and a Fatah-led presidency had been resolved. It was not possible to fit the square peg of Hamas’s strategy of armed struggle to secure the liberation of all of historical Palestine into the round hole of the PA/PLO strategy of seeking to establish an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories through diplomacy, nonviolence and, especially, an agreement with Israel. Moreover, the two parties had incompatible visions of the nature of their society, the role of religion in state and society, the status of women and religious minorities, and virtually everything else.

Hamas entered into the most recent agreement through a complex process of increasing desperation. It suffered a series of devastating blows over the past three years, which led it to completely rethink its strategy. Hamas had, incongruously, long been both a core Muslim Brotherhood party, and hence Sunni Islamists, yet at the same time a key member of the mainly Shiite pro-Iranian alliance. This political feat was accomplished through the mythology of an “axis of resistance” that seemed to transcend sectarian differences. However, as sectarianism became a dominant narrative in the region over the course of the so-called Arab Spring, the space for such a complex, and increasingly counterintuitive, position collapsed.

The Syrian rebellion, in particular, forced the issue. Because the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was not only a core member of the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but at the early stages of the uprising perhaps the most important political grouping opposed to the dictatorship, Hamas found itself in an untenable position. Hamas’s dominant political bureau was headquartered in Damascus, and its primary funding, arms supplies and military training came from Iran. The Syrian situation forced Hamas to choose between its essential identity as a Muslim Brotherhood party and continuing good relations with its main patrons in Syria and Iran. Hamas could not but choose to maintain its core identity, and key Hamas leaders had to leave Syria (in the process abandoning large amounts of property and investment belonging to both the organization and its leaders). Funding from Iran also dried up, and Iran’s attention in Gaza began to focus much more on Hamas’s rival, Islamic Jihad.

All was not lost, however, despite this heavy blow. Hamas remained optimistic; like many others, it believed that post-dictatorship dynamics in an emerging new Arab world would bring Muslim Brotherhood parties to power in many Arab states, especially Egypt. Hamas’s hopes were encouraged by the election of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in June 2012. Although Hamas did not gain any specific tangible benefits from having an ideologically sympathetic Egyptian leader during Morsi’s actual presidency, nonetheless they could console themselves with the notion that, eventually, Morsi’s policies would lead Egypt in a more friendly direction. They saw Morsi’s election, along with the (also short-lived) triumph of the Brotherhood-oriented Ennahda party in Tunisia, as harbingers of a broad trend of political victories for the Brotherhood movement. They were confident they were part of the wave of the future.

Those hopes were dashed by the July 3, 2013, ouster of Morsi by a military-led coalition after an unprecedented public outcry against his rule. The new Egyptian government, under the guidance of the military, launched a massive crackdown against the Brotherhood, including the violent suppression of protesters involving hundreds of deaths, the jailing of most of its key leaders, and other harsh measures. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was accused of being a terrorist organization and of collaborating with established terrorist groups operating out of the Sinai Peninsula, especially Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), which had been openly conducting a terrorist campaign against the Egyptian military in Sinai.

The accusations did not stop at the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. They were, in many cases, extended to cover Hamas as well. Shortly after the ouster of Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into northern Sinai in a massive crackdown against insurgents and rebel groups there. They claim that they discovered Hamas forces operating on the Egyptian side of the border in collaboration with bandits, terrorists, insurgents and others. Indeed, they claim to have killed some two dozen Hamas cadres in the initial operations. Hamas denied all of this, but to no avail. Egypt implemented a massive crackdown on Hamas, which it now treated as a hostile entity.

Egypt has always regarded the Gaza border area and the Rafah crossing as more of a domestic and national-security issue than a foreign-policy challenge. This sense was heightened by the perception that Gaza was governed by an entity, Hamas, that actively supported subversion and even terrorism inside Egypt itself. Following this logic, Egypt moved to shut down smuggling tunnels, make it much harder for anything or anyone to pass between Egypt and Gaza, and close the crossing except for humanitarian purposes or other special exceptions.

Gaza had never in its history been this cut off. The Egyptian blockade was, if anything, tighter than the Israeli blockade. And Egypt was in no way constrained, as Israel is, by the responsibilities accruing to the officially designated (by the UN Security Council) occupying power in Gaza. Israel has both the rights and the responsibilities of an occupying power in all of the Palestinian territories seized in 1967; Egypt’s lawful prerogatives are much more elastic. Hamas soon found itself politically isolated, diplomatically squeezed and economically strangled at a whole new level, even considering that the blockade had existed since the 2007 split with the PA in the West Bank. Every survey, poll and other evidence suggested that, not only was Hamas itself now experiencing unprecedented woes, its popularity in Gaza was suffering a precipitate nosedive. Goods were unavailable, electricity and water were unprovided, and salaries were unpaid.

What Hamas Hoped to Achieve

This was the context under which Hamas agreed to the unity deal, signed in Gaza City on April 23, 2014, between its de facto “prime minister” in the Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, and a PLO delegation representing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. At first glance, the provisions of the agreement appear to be highly disadvantageous to Hamas. The government that was eventually formed under its provisions contained no Hamas members. It was led by Abbas as president and, more directly, the incumbent Abbas appointee, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Most of the key ministers in the existing PA government in Ramallah were simply transferred into the new “unity” government.

Moreover, from the outset, Abbas pledged, and in practice the new government affirmed, that it would strictly abide by three conditions demanded by the United States and other key actors in the international community: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and affirmation of the inviolability of existing Palestinian treaty commitments. These amount to the conditions laid down by the Middle East Quartet (United States, European Union, Russia and the UN Secretariat). Hamas had refused them. In other words, the new Palestinian government embraced the policies of the PLO towards both Israel and its approach towards Palestinian national liberation.

However, while the advantage in the arrangement seemed, at least at a superficial level, to be entirely with the PA and the PLO, Hamas had its own interpretations and its own intentions. It had secured Fatah, PA and PLO acceptance of the biggest single requirement from its own point of view: the issue of the Hamas Qassam Brigades was not raised or dealt with by the accord. Therefore, even in the context of the “unity” agreement and government, Hamas would retain its large, independent and powerful paramilitary force. Therefore, it would continue to be the dominant presence in Gaza, especially at crucial moments, and would continue to practice, in effect, its own security and foreign policies. Hamas had not compromised its trump card.

Moreover, ceding nominal authority over most aspects of governance in Gaza to the PA might have been humiliating, but it held certain key benefits for Hamas. It promised, for example, to potentially open the way for an influx of cash from Ramallah, and, via Ramallah, from Arab states and the international donor community. Hamas could leverage the international reputation and diplomatic standing of the PA and the PLO in order to resuscitate the Gazan economy and claim some credit for that in the process. Moreover, Hamas was never particularly interested in, and failed abysmally at, the workaday chores of local governance. The PA has a better, though mixed, record of governance in Area A of the West Bank, peaking with a heartening performance during Salam Fayyad’s tenure as prime minister.

Hamas may have concluded that Gaza had become more of a political a trap than a useful base for them. Inside the narrow Strip, they were contained, indeed quarantined, by Israel and a now-hostile Egypt. In terms of governance, the territory was as much a burden as an asset. With 1.8 million people crammed into a tiny area and subjected to an unparalleled blockade — particularly regarding exports, which were almost entirely prohibited by its two neighbors — Gaza was proving ungovernable, nonviable and increasingly restive. The idea of handing governance and economic responsibility to somebody else must have had a certain appeal.

Furthermore, Hamas seems to have concluded that its long-term campaign to seize dominance within the Palestinian national movement, its primary goal since its founding, was simply not possible to accomplish using Gaza as a base. Hamas was not only diplomatically isolated and financially impoverished, it was far away from the Palestinian heartland in the West Bank, and the epicenter of Palestinian political life and aspirations: East Jerusalem. There is every reason to believe that Hamas leaders decided that giving up a degree of power and authority in Gaza would be worth it — if the agreement would allow them to operate more freely, openly and effectively in the West Bank.

Why the PA/PLO Signed the Unity Agreement

The leadership in Ramallah was also naturally disinclined to implement any real power-sharing agreement with their rivals. At least two other major unity agreements had been signed but not enforced, in April 2011 in Cairo and in February 2012 in Doha. The terms of both of these earlier agreements were similar to the 2014 accord. Both parties had thereby proven their sensitivity to public pressure, but also their profound reluctance to actualize these agreements. However, unlike the two earlier false starts, the 2014 agreement did, in fact, lead to the creation of a new government.

As Hamas was facing an unprecedented meltdown in Gaza during 2013-14, the Ramallah leadership was also in a severe, albeit less extreme, crisis of its own. Like Hamas, its leaders lacked a popular mandate; no elections had been held since early 2006. Its policy of negotiating with Israel had not produced any tangible benefits in years, but had occasioned significant frustration. Its controversial policy of security coordination with Israel helped to secure law and order and stability, but in the absence of diplomatic progress, it often was painted as simply providing calm for the occupier. The sense of patriotic duty and national purpose was being weakened both within the security services, and, especially, in the public perception of their role.

Abbas and the PLO had faced down the West and Israel twice at the United Nations, first in a failed 2011 attempt at the Security Council to gain full UN membership. This produced a series of punitive measures, including a reduction in aid, but because the attempt failed, the backlash was manageable. A year later, in 2012, however, the PLO was able to successfully upgrade its UN status, via the General Assembly, from “Observer Mission” to “Non-Member Observer State.” This did not change Palestine’s prerogatives or responsibilities in the General Assembly much, but it demonstrated the PLO’s willingness to use its very solid majority in any global body that conducts its business on the basis of one state, one vote. This development is also significant because every entity that has attained the status of UN Non-Member Observer State has eventually become a full UN member, either on its own or as part of a larger national entity. The sole exception is Vatican City, which does not wish to be a UN member state.

In addition to signaling a PLO willingness to defy Israel, the United States and some European states, and to “internationalize” diplomacy on the issue, the second, successful, UN initiative also hinted at further potential Palestinian measures to join other multilateral organizations and treaties based on the same international majority. Israel was particularly alarmed at the prospect of Palestinians acceding to the Statute of Rome and thereby joining the Assembly of Parties at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Through such means, Palestine could potentially not only be a party to the statute, but invoke its provisions in complaints against Israel, providing that the Palestinian non-member UN observer state was ruled to be sovereign in the territory in question, most notably Gaza (Israel is not a signatory to the statute). This prospect potentially threatened Israeli officials and military officers with war crimes investigations, and possibly prosecutions, over the long run.

The United States, while also opposed to a Palestinian ICC initiative, faced potential concerns of its own. Still binding, although profoundly anachronistic, American legislation mandates that the United States defund any international agency that recognizes or admits Palestine as a member. The validity of this law was already tested in the case of UNESCO, which Palestine joined in 2011, and seems to be as applicable as when it was passed in the 1990s. The United States withdrew all funding from UNESCO in 2011 and in November 2013 was stripped of its voting rights in the organization. Americans worried that they could be forced out of key multilateral agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the centerpiece of global nonproliferation initiatives (currently focused on Iran), and the World Intellectual Property Organization, through which the United States protects the copyrights, patents and trademarks held by Microsoft, Apple, Disney and other U.S. companies, particularly in the information-technology and entertainment fields.

For all these reasons, the backlash against the 2012 Palestinian UN initiative was intense and had profound and extremely negative consequences. American aid was, in effect, cut by three quarters, while European aid was similarly reduced. Israel withheld the Palestinian tax revenues it collects on imports and exports and is bound, under the Paris Protocol, to hand over to the PA. These alone constitute at least 50 percent of a typical monthly PA budget, and often much more. Most of that budget is used to pay public-sector employees. As a consequence of this economic backlash, the PA experienced its own fiscal meltdown and found itself unable to pay salaries or fund programs. Fayyad’s institution-building program, which had been so promising and had exceeded all expectations, was virtually halted. The prime minister himself came under an unprecedented barrage of personal and vitriolic attacks, particularly by angry Fatah cadres, on the pretext of the economic situation. Ironically, Fayyad was the only prominent Palestinian official on record about the cost-benefit ratio of the UN initiative, pointedly asking Abbas and others what they were going to do about the potential budget shortfall. They, of course, had no answer. When that inevitable shortfall began to severely undermine the PA fiscal status and the economic conditions in the West Bank, Fayyad took the blame.

On April 13, 2013, Fayyad had enough. He resigned, refusing to reconsider even under enormous pressure from many quarters, especially U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But the damage had been done. When properly supported politically and funded internationally, the Fayyad-led state and institution-building initiatives had indeed served, as they were supposed to, as an invaluable bottom-up support structure for top-down negotiations. But without its leader in the premiership, and without much interest in the program from other Palestinian leaders, Israel or the United States, the project began to atrophy. Some of its achievements, particularly regarding reform and governance, were even somewhat reversed. The idea that improving conditions for Palestinian daily life was important to the overall project of achieving a two-state solution, buttressing diplomacy and creating conditions for successful statehood had, at least temporarily, been abandoned. The conditions of daily life not only stopped improving; they began to deteriorate.

The most recent American-led peace initiative, operating under a nine-month deadline established by Kerry, held out some hope for diplomatic progress, although almost everyone except the secretary of state appeared highly skeptical. Even President Barack Obama was on record expressing doubts. Israelis and Palestinians at every level were dubious. Nonetheless, no American diplomatic initiative can be casually dismissed, and as long as the talks continued, PLO diplomacy remained a politically viable proposition.

By March 2014, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that Kerry was getting nowhere. He was being stonewalled by Israel, which was pressing forward aggressively with settlements in a manner that seemed intended to humiliate the U.S. government in general, and Kerry in particular. Palestinians were even more exasperated. For the PA, the prospect of another looming collapse of diplomacy with Israel and the United States was profoundly alarming. For years, its approach had been dealt repeated blows because of the apparent inability to achieve progress with Israel on core final-status issues or towards Palestinian national liberation. Public confidence in not only PLO diplomacy, but PA governance and, even more alarmingly, the viability of a two-state solution with Israel, was being severely undermined.

This formed the essential backdrop to the PA/PLO interest in another agreement with Hamas, which this time seemed to have a better chance of being implemented. While most of the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring demanded regime change or government reform, this was not the case among Palestinians. The popular protests that erupted in both the West Bank and Gaza in the aftermath of the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak instead called for national unity and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. One of the reasons for this is that the worst governance failure, in the perception of many Palestinians, was the 2007 split between the two major parties and between the two major parts of Palestine — far more serious misrule than the lack of accountability, arbitrary abuses, corruption and one-party rule that drove protests in many other Arab societies. Another often overlooked, but vitally important, reason was that the reforms being pursued by the PA under Fayyad-led state-building initiatives actually anticipated many of the demands of the Arab Spring. They had certainly not been completed, but had they continued, the reforms might have constituted a model for other Arab societies.

However, when the most recent American peace initiative collapsed, the leadership in Ramallah faced few attractive options. It could intensify diplomatic efforts to secure greater recognition in multilateral agencies and UN bodies, but that did not actually change realities on the ground. While it might produce a brief spike in popularity, the costs were potentially significant in terms of aid and cooperation from Western states, as well as Israel’s potential retaliation. The PLO was also not receiving the encouragement of Arab states to take this route, or promises that Arab support would replace Western shortfalls (pledges that had been made in the past but often not fully implemented). Promoting another intifada has been ruled out by the PA for the entire Abbas era, and a solid majority of Palestinians in the West Bank do not appear to want anything to do with the repetition of a bitter experience. Boycott campaigns aimed at Israel in general appear to do as much harm as good, and while European efforts to target the occupation were welcome and helpful, they were easily absorbed by the Israelis as an affront and a nuisance.

Yet something had to be done to regain the initiative and to move beyond the impasse with Israel. Therefore, an agreement with Hamas, despite deep reservations and significant costs, became much more attractive to Abbas and other Ramallah-based leaders. At the very least, they were hoping to shore up their legitimacy and popularity by once again demonstrating they were more sincere about national reunification than Hamas was, and by taking bold steps to prove it. In the past, Fatah has expressed much more serious interest in elections, for example, than Hamas has (the Hamas position being that unification had to precede elections, an excuse that distracts no one from their generally abysmal poll numbers). Moreover, the PA was obviously interested in an agreement that might give it more of a foothold back in Gaza than it had had since 2007. The goal of both parties, ultimately, is to marginalize each other in their respective areas of control. The PA and PLO seek to consolidate their longstanding but threatened control over the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement, while Hamas seeks to gain control of it.

PA/PLO interest in the agreement was obviously intensified by the perception that Hamas was negotiating from a position of weakness and was likely to agree to, and perhaps even implement, terms advantageous to Ramallah. In the event, that is what happened, particularly given that the PA never expected Hamas to discuss, let alone agree to, anything regarding the Qassam Brigades. But an understanding in which Abbas could remain president and be authorized as PLO chairman to conduct negotiations with Israel; retain his prime minister and most of his serving, and all of his key, ministers; and in which the new government would adopt the longstanding PLO positions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and upholding existing Palestinian obligations, proved very appealing.

Israel’s Reasons for Opposing the Unity Agreement

The response from the Palestinians’ key interlocutors was mixed. The United States laid down its core positions reflecting the Quartet principles, and, when they were met, Washington announced it was prepared to work with the new Palestinian government. Israel took a much harder line. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others insisted that they would never recognize or negotiate with any Palestinian government approved by Hamas. The general Israeli government line was that, by concluding an agreement with Hamas, the PA and the PLO had “chosen terrorism over peace,” and that Palestinian nationalists could either negotiate with Israel or cooperate with Hamas, but not both.

This extreme stance seems to reflect a general lack of interest on the part of the Netanyahu government to seriously negotiate, let alone reach an agreement, with the PLO on core final-status issues. The Israeli prime minister has a long history of opposing a two-state solution in theory, as well as in principle. However, in his June 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu declared himself a supporter of a two-state solution, at least in theory. Since then, there has been a widespread debate about his sincerity in this stance, which was essential for maintaining good relations with the United States. These doubts persisted throughout the negotiating process, reinforced by each impasse, whether fairly or unfairly. However, Netanyahu’s undisguised commitment to the settlement project spurred Palestinian fears about his intentions at every stage. And his July 14, 2014, comments, as hostilities with Hamas were intensifying, that Israel could never give up security control in the occupied West Bank seemed to solidify the idea that Netanyahu would never agree to a fully-realized two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Some in the Israeli government at the time of Hamas’s founding clearly hoped that dividing the Palestinian national movement between competing nationalist and Islamist camps would weaken the other side and strengthen Israel’s hand. Indeed, this may still be a strong feature of the strategic thinking in some Israeli circles. It would reflect an attitude that fundamentally does not distinguish between the nationalists in the PA/PLO who have been pursuing a strategy of nonviolent diplomatic efforts to secure Palestinian independence and end the occupation — even extending to security coordination with Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank — and Hamas, which continues to both preach and practice the doctrine of armed resistance and rejects in principle recognizing Israel in a two-state solution. Such a conflation almost certainly arises only in the context of the rejection of a two-state solution as either undesirable or unattainable, or both, on the part of those Israelis who share this perspective.

Therefore, Israeli attitudes towards Hamas are frequently shaped by underlying attitudes towards a two-state solution and the acceptability of Palestinian statehood. Those who are fundamentally opposed to Palestinian statehood as a security threat to Israel and/or incompatible with a long-term Greater Israel agenda tend not to distinguish between Hamas and the PA. And, where there are such distinctions, the impulse is to erase them at the slightest provocation. The instinct is to see all Palestinians as fundamentally part of the enemy camp and therefore as suspect and probably hostile. The same is true in reverse for Palestinians. Those who are committed to a two-state solution tend to recognize the significant differences that exist in the Israeli political spectrum. Those who do not believe such a solution is either attainable or acceptable dismiss these distinctions and view all Israelis as simply the occupiers.

Many members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition openly oppose a two-state solution and give every appearance of reflecting the thinking outlined above. Although the political center and left in Israel did better in the last parliamentary elections than anticipated, this was probably a consequence of the focus during the campaign on economic and other domestic political issues to the exclusion of national security, the Palestinians or the occupation.

Given these political realities and the ascendance of Israel’s territorially aggressive political right, it’s not surprising that the Israeli response to the Palestinian national-unity agreement of 2014 was so hostile. Those Israelis who are genuinely fixated on security saw the threat of Hamas’s potential greater reach into the West Bank, using the same logic Hamas leaders did. Those who are committed to the settlement project, eventual annexation or even simply the indefinite extension of the status quo, often value the political division between Palestinians as a form of “divide and rule.” The split between Hamas and Fatah or the West Bank and Gaza or, indeed, any major division within the Palestinian ranks in this zero-sum logic automatically accrues to the benefit of Israel and to the detriment of the Palestinians. Israel, after all, can — and indeed often does — question the logic of diplomacy when there is a national division on the Palestinian side. “Why should we talk with Abbas,” the argument goes, “when he cannot deliver the whole Palestinian people?”

The Palestinian political division also allows Israel to enhance its longstanding policy of creating a multiplicity of legal and political statuses for Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction, another form of divide and rule. The split between Gaza and the West Bank adds yet another distinction on top of the already vast array of differences in Israel’s relationship with Palestinians, including those who are citizens of Israel; residents of occupied East Jerusalem; and those living in Areas A, B or C of the occupied West Bank, all of whom are distinguished from each other. There are a minimum of six distinct legal categories defining the relationship of the approximately six million Palestinians who live under Israeli rule. On the other hand, even the most lawless and renegade West Bank settlers face no legal distinctions or discrimination by the Israeli government.

Therefore, the Israeli government’s hostile response to the Palestinian unity agreement met little resistance in the cabinet or Knesset. Few noted that, had the Israeli government been more forthcoming in peace talks or even less aggressive about new settlement activity — if not towards the Palestinians, at least towards the United States — the PA might not have felt compelled to enter into the agreement with Hamas. In Israel and even the United States, internal Palestinian political dynamics are rarely considered seriously, even as demands are made on Palestinian political leaders to take bold and politically risky steps in pursuit of peace and to accommodate Israeli security concerns. When it was first promulgated, the Palestinian unity agreement was declared a non-starter by Israel; it was, in effect, an excuse to reject the prospect of any further negotiations with the Palestinians until they abandoned the popular and widely supported initiative.

The Future of the Unity Agreement

The calculations of all parties regarding the unity agreement were reshaped by the hostilities in Gaza, the subject of an uneasy truce and uncertain negotiations. Indeed, the Hamas-Israel war appeared to breathe new life into an arrangement that once seemed, in effect, to have reached the limits of its potential with the establishment of the new government led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (already serving that function for the PA before the agreement). Hamas, in particular, appeared profoundly disappointed in the early lack of results of the “reunification” process. At the very least they had expected the PA to begin to pay the salaries of approximately 40,000 public employees hired by Hamas since 2007, who had been unpaid for several months (in addition to the approximately 70,000 civil servants in Gaza who have been continuously paid by the PA treasury in Ramallah). Such payments were not forthcoming in a timely or sufficient manner from Hamas’s point of view; their hires continue to remain largely unpaid.

Moreover, Hamas did not experience an opening up of space to operate more freely in the West Bank, although little time had passed in order to test that. They might have been willing to be patient, but either they decided that they could not afford to wait, or their hand was forced by internal factions or rogue elements. On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers at an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank were kidnapped. The Israeli government told the public they were being searched for, although it was later revealed that a phone call to the police from one of the kidnapped youths left little doubt about their fate. On a recorded call, one of the youths is heard telling police he had been kidnapped, followed by gunshots and other unmistakable indications that the teenagers were killed during the call. The Israeli government used the purported search to break up Hamas cells in the West Bank and arrest hundreds of Palestinians suspected of being connected with Hamas. Those arrested included 55 Hamas cadres who had been released in the October 2011 prisoner swap for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. So, whatever progress Hamas might have made in the West Bank during the brief life of the unity agreement was more than reversed.

Israel’s heavy-handed response in the West Bank, and the July 2 kidnapping and burning alive of a 16-year-old Palestinian teen in occupied East Jerusalem by Israeli extremists, led to widespread protests in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The unrest even spread to Palestinian areas of Israel. There was more tension between Palestinian citizens and Israeli authorities than at any time since early in the second intifada when, in October 2000, 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli police during a protest. Worse, all of this was taking place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Despite repeated Hamas calls for “days of rage” and similar efforts to stoke the flames by Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners, another uprising did not explode. Most Palestinians, it seemed, did not wish to repeat the devastating experience of the second intifada. And swift action by PA security forces helped to cool the anger at certain key moments, apparently allowing the public to more carefully consider the best course of action.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this dynamic occurred on July 24, during a protest of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, on the eve of Laylat al Qadr (Night of Power), one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar. An estimated 10,000 Palestinians marched on the Qalandia checkpoint near occupied East Jerusalem. In the confrontation with Israeli occupation forces, at least two Palestinian protesters were killed and an estimated 100 injured. PA security forces prevented some large groups of Palestinians from Area A joining the march to Qalandia, helping to contain the incident. Although many rushed to announce the outbreak of a third intifada, since this was by far the largest demonstration in the occupied West Bank since the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, that did not occur. Hamas and its allies, and other groups in the West Bank, attempted to maintain the momentum by calling for and attempting to organize additional protests in subsequent days, but they met with little popular enthusiasm.

Although this most dramatic of incidents happened after tensions had already shifted from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where they had begun, to Gaza, it illustrated several key points. First, the ongoing volatility of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, the fact that another Palestinian intifada, if one occurs, will almost certainly start in the West Bank, and even more probably in East Jerusalem, but not in Gaza. Third, that the biggest barrier to the eruption of a third intifada is the lack of popular enthusiasm. Fourth, that such an uprising will be violent, particularly since the Israeli occupation relies entirely on force to subdue the disempowered Palestinians living under its control. Fifth, that PA security forces continue to be an effective barrier between Palestinian passions and better judgment. And sixth, that Hamas and other groups seeking to shape the future of the Palestinian national movement can only do so effectively on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not from Gaza.

But all of these lessons had been understood by Hamas before the Qalandia incident on Laylat al Qadr. Its efforts to encourage a popular uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had decisively failed by the time hostilities with Israel boiled over into full-fledged conflict on July 8, 2014. For its part, Israel had appeared satisfied with its crackdown on Palestinians in general, and Hamas in particular, in the occupied West Bank during the purported hunt for the kidnapped (and murdered) Israeli teenagers. Hamas, on the contrary, could not allow the situation to continue as it was. They remained trapped, isolated and impoverished in Gaza, dissatisfied with the results of the unity agreement with the PA, and severely degraded in the West Bank by Israel. The situation was apparently perceived to be intolerable.

During the fighting, Hamas and its allies launched a sustained barrage of rocket attacks not only on their traditional targets in southern Israel, but on most of the country and even parts of the occupied West Bank. These attacks were largely ineffective in causing deaths and destruction (although three Israeli civilians, one of them an Arab, were killed), both because the rockets are relatively primitive and unguided and because Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system is apparently capable of shooting down a percentage of rockets that would otherwise hit an identifiable target. The Israeli response was predictably harsh and punitive. Almost 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, according to the United Nations, had been killed at the time of drafting this paper, and something approximating a quarter of the population of the Gaza Strip had been displaced. Numerous incidents involving significant civilian casualties that could not be rationally explained by Israel, including seven attacks on six UN schools being used as housing for displaced Palestinians, seared the conscience of the world. The seventh attack on a UN school even drew heavy condemnation and criticism from senior American officials and the State Department.

At the time of writing, both parties appear to have reached the point of diminishing returns, at least in the short term. As the parties began looking beyond the immediate exigencies of what amounted to the third, and in many ways the largest, Gaza-Israel war, which may in fact not yet be over, the Palestinian unity deal began to take on a different shape in all of their perceptions.

Hamas continued to see the unity agreement as a potential back door into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More important, they needed the unity agreement and the “new” (although extremely familiar-looking) PA government to secure diplomatic concessions in the cease-fire negotiations from Israel, or from Egypt. Although Fatah-Hamas tensions continue to run very high, the PA and the Gaza factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, formed a joint delegation to negotiate directly with the Egyptians and, indirectly, with the Israelis. Palestinians agreed that their main aim must be easing the blockade of Gaza in some significant manner.

Given the Egyptian national-security concerns outlined above and Israel’s profound reluctance to allow Hamas anything that could be spun as a “victory” and an explanation for why the group persisted in fighting despite numerous Egyptian cease-fire proposals, Palestinians could not expect the other parties to agree to simply open the crossings without fundamentally changing the underlying realities. Palestinians are demanding the creation and maintenance of a port in Gaza. More realistically, they are also demanding the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, along with the extension of fishing rights off the coast of Gaza. In the case of both the port, and, more immediately, the Rafah crossing, the Palestinian unity agreement becomes crucial as a vehicle for a potential agreement that all parties could live with.

It has long been proposed, and long ignored, that the Rafah crossing be reopened, but with PA security forces instead of Hamas fighters on the Palestinian side of the border, along with international monitors and inspectors. In the past, this has appeared to be something of a pipe dream. However, the 2014 Gaza hostilities have made Egyptian and Israeli acquiescence to such an agreement far more imaginable. Unnamed Israeli officials hinted as much when they reportedly said that Rafah was a matter between the PA and Egypt. This was repeated by Fatah officials, with the apparent tacit agreement of Egypt. Such an arrangement could also be applied to a potential Gaza port, and, indeed, to reconstruction efforts generally.

To Palestinians, this has appeal for both sides. Hamas could bear the humiliation of ceding control of a crucial part of the territory under their de facto rule since 2007 to their rivals as part of a broader plan that already seemed to anticipate downgrading its control in Gaza in order to upgrade its presence in the West Bank. If, in the process, the Gaza economy could be revived and the Hamas coffers restored, all the better. For the PA, such an arrangement would reconfirm its centrality as the diplomatic representative of the Palestinian people and give it a new foothold in a part of Palestine from which it has been almost entirely excluded for the past seven years.

Israel, too, could find such an arrangement a useful means of decoupling its policies towards Hamas, which have been and are likely to remain fundamentally hostile, and its harsh and counterproductive policies towards Gaza and its innocent population. These policies have provoked sustained and strong international condemnation and, apparently, only strengthened Hamas’s control of the area by intensifying public dependency on the group. Israel’s repeated demands that any adjustment of the blockade regime be developed in the context of the “demilitarization” of Hamas and other groups in Gaza are probably not expected to be literally realized, assuming they are not simply designed as a demand that can never be satisfied. Israel, like the PA in the national-unity negotiations with Hamas, surely realizes the group will not give up its trump card, the paramilitary Qassam Brigades. However, Israeli leaders may be using the rhetoric of “demilitarization” as code for an intensified regime of very strict inspection and monitoring of all “dual use” imports into Gaza. Duality, in this context, and especially in light of the extensive Hamas tunnel networks discovered and destroyed during the course of the 2014 Gaza war, can refer to such a vast range of commodities that it includes all the basic materials for reconstruction, including cement, and all forms of metal and other basics.

Egypt, too, might find such an accommodation acceptable. It could allow Egypt also to decouple its policies towards Hamas on the one hand and the population of Gaza on the other, and to begin to ease the blockade without incurring, from its perspective, unacceptable national-security risks. This would be highly popular with the Egyptian public and in the Arab world generally. It could be presented as a triumph of Egyptian diplomacy and strategic vision and a clear boon to the Gaza population after years of Egyptian policy stagnation under prior regimes in Cairo. Moreover, since it would give Egypt’s allies in the PA a strong foothold in Gaza, and a day-to-day working relationship with Egyptian forces in the border region, it could be seen as greatly enhancing Egypt’s security stance in northern Sinai and promoting greater stability in that volatile area. There is no doubt that the Egyptian government and public would be much more comfortable with people and goods going to and from Gaza via a normal, regulated and secure border rather than surreptitiously through an unknown and shadowy network of underground tunnels. Like Israel, Egypt, too, would probably want a stricter inspection and monitoring regime for imports into Gaza, and this commonality of purpose could serve as another reassurance to Israel not to try to derail such an understanding.

An arrangement along these lines, should it prove to be the key, in the short or medium term, to ending this round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, would fundamentally change the basic arrangements that define, not just the triangular relations between Gaza City, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, but also more broadly between Israelis and Palestinians, and, indeed, even among Palestinians themselves. There are many other potential scenarios for ending the current spasm of violence between Gaza and Israel. Almost all of them — except the distinctly possible eventuality of a return to the status quo ante — involve deploying the Palestinian unity agreement as a practical and formal vehicle to facilitate cooperation between Hamas and the PA. Simply put, Israel and, especially, Egypt are going to insist on continuing to work primarily with the PA and will not enter into arrangements that depend on Hamas’s sincerity or enhance its diplomatic status, particularly at the expense of the PLO. And Cairo has been diligent in maintaining that the PLO remains the diplomatic address for all of Palestine and the Palestinians, including the territory and population of Gaza. Israel and Egypt, and their allies, have an interest in doing their best to prevent Hamas from emerging from the hostilities in a strong position to argue that it has won a “victory” and that its strategy of armed struggle has, once again, proven its efficacy, particularly in contrast to the PA/PLO commitment to nonviolent strategies like international diplomacy and negotiations with Israel.

Any such agreement or analogous arrangement would, in effect, determine the political outcome of the 2014 Gaza war by structuring the perception among the Palestinian public of its cost-benefit ratio. If Palestinians, especially in Gaza, perceive Hamas to have gained for them an acceptable benefit, which could be symbolic or tangible, deliverable or a matter of national morale, then Hamas’s political position and standing will undoubtedly be substantially enhanced. If, however, most Palestinians conclude, as the dust settles and costs and benefits are calculated, that Hamas recklessly gambled with lives and property in Gaza without achieving anything significant, the political damage to the organization could be enormous.

The PA, too, faces a dangerous situation. During the months of fighting so far, it has appeared largely marginal and ineffective, as Hamas’s rocket attacks and other armed actions defined the Palestinian side of the conflict for all practical purposes. Hamas did not succeed in forcing other parties to treat it as if it were the diplomatic representatives of, and address for, Palestinians in Gaza. Egypt’s policies ensured that the PLO remained the primary Palestinian interlocutor. However, the PA/PLO face the prospect of Hamas’s policies being perceived by many Palestinians as dynamic and proactive, albeit dangerous or even reckless. The Palestinian public is one that, given the reality of seemingly unending occupation, can sometimes be moved by arguments involving an implicit message of “nothing left to lose.”

If such an agreement about Rafah or an analogous arrangement regarding reconstruction is achieved, the PA and Hamas would both find themselves in unenviable circumstances, but with a case to make. The PA and PLO could assert, without danger of contradiction, that without its strong relations with Egypt, track record of security coordination with Israel, widely respected security forces, and international diplomatic legitimacy, this breakthrough regarding the blockade could not have happened. Hamas could retort, all of that notwithstanding, the PA and PLO had been demanding an easing of the blockade for many years without result. It could point out that until its 2014 conflict with Israel — which demonstrated a significantly enhanced military capability, including the ability to target, however imprecisely, almost all parts of Israel, and the use of ambushes and improvised explosive devices to kill considerably more Israeli troops than they had in the last major ground confrontation in 2008-09 — no one was seriously talking about changing the blockade regime. Both Palestinian factions would face the potential for roughly equal amounts of credit and blame from the Palestinian public, and neither can be confident about what public perceptions will, ultimately, conclude.

The only obvious scenario for the end of the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict in which the Palestinian unity agreement is not, at least temporarily, strengthened and enhanced, is a return to the status quo ante, with no agreement whatsoever. Even then, both Palestinian parties would have significant practical and political reasons for continuing to uphold and perhaps even further implement the national-unity agreement. After the formation of the new Palestinian government, which has already been accomplished, the next phase mandated is the holding of both presidential and parliamentary elections six months after the signing of the agreement on April 23, 2014.

This date may now be considered aspirational under the circumstances of the Israel-Hamas conflict. In any event, its implementation was always doubtful. Palestinians desperately need national elections, but neither party has a clear incentive to engage in them, given that their rule in their respective areas of control is virtually uncontested. Hamas, however, as noted above, may have concluded that retaining governance authority in Gaza is, ultimately, less important than making significant progress on the ground in the West Bank. The PA and Abbas himself may see elections as essential for gaining the legitimacy to continue their policies. However, both of these considerations could just as easily militate in the opposite direction. There is no guarantee that either party, let alone both, will in reality want anything to do with Palestinian national elections in the next year or so.

Nonetheless, the Gaza hostilities could well mean that the unity agreement has a much longer shelf life than was originally anticipated by most observers. If there is an arrangement involving PA security forces replacing Hamas fighters on the Rafah crossing or elsewhere, Israel will have to change its implicit, and perhaps even explicit, position towards the unity agreement. It could well be argued that Israel has already done so, by signaling a willingness to go along with such an arrangement if it is coupled with a “demilitarization” regime of greatly intensified inspections and monitoring of imports to Gaza. If Israel does not adapt its policies towards the Ramallah leadership, it can virtually guarantee that Hamas will eventually and plausibly insist that the 2014 war with Israel constituted a “victory” for the Islamist organization and its policy of armed struggle — if not over Israel, at least over the PA and PLO. If Israel does decide to adapt its policies in order to deny Hamas that opportunity, this will require a new approach to the PA and, if there is an explicit understanding on a lasting cease-fire or reconstruction, perhaps also to the Palestinian national-unity agreement.

Turning point against the Islamic State?

https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentaryanalysis/560765-turning-point-against-the-islamic-state

Arab states should have a vested interest in following through to the demise of the most fanatical and dangerous movement in modern Middle Eastern history

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory as they head to the front line near Mosul Dam on the outskirts of the northern city of Mosul on August 18, 2014 as fighting continued with Islamic State militants for control of the strategic site  (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

 

It’s a turning point. Or at least it should be. Kurdish guerrilla fighters, aided by the Iraqi Army and American airstrikes, have managed to retake the crucial Mosul Dam from Islamic State (IS) extremists. They have delivered these bloodthirsty fanatics their first major strategic setback in many months. The fundamental vulnerability of Islamic State forces has been demonstrated. And one method by which they can be defeated, particularly by an array of different forces working together, has been successfully realized.

Indeed, the initial reports were considered by many too good to be true. Doubts were fueled by the lack of video footage demonstrating that the Dam was back under the control of Kurdish and Iraqi government forces. However, when President Barack Obama interrupted his family vacation at Martha’s Vineyard on Monday to publicly confirm the development, and defend the use of American aircraft in the fighting, virtually all doubts were put to rest.

Assuming Islamic State fighters really have been routed and their hopes of controlling the Dam are permanently crushed, the momentum must be seized. It would be almost criminally negligent to allow the Islamic State to regroup, lick its wounds and prepare to fight another day. Instead, this dramatic reversal of fortunes needs to be relentlessly built on, both on the ground and at the symbolic register of narratives.

Kurdish forces were hardly ideally suited to this task. For decades they have been focused on defending the largely mountainous regions now governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. They have become exceptionally effective and adept at doing this. However, the operation at the Dam required these fighters to project their force far beyond their normal area of operation, in very different terrain and under very different circumstances than they are used to, and to take on an offensive posture.

The support they received, particularly from punishing American airstrikes, were undoubtedly crucial to their success. But it’s still striking that Islamic State militants appear to have crumbled when confronted with a concerted military opposition. Even an unlikely and jerry-rigged combination of forces demonstrated that these extremists are highly vulnerable to any robust challenge.

That fact needs to be communicated in no uncertain terms to the Islamic State’s constituency and target audience, who often seem primed to believe that its military and political success is divinely ordained. And it needs to be reinforced by a series of additional defeats, even if they are less dramatic and indeed perhaps modest, in fairly short order.

The ultimate goal of a concerted campaign against the Islamic State must be to drive it out of Iraq, if not altogether, then at least in the main. This will obviously have to be done in stages and over time. Patience is as important as determination in such a mission. However, a combination of incentives and disincentives is urgently required to isolate the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s appeal to both its core constituency and its allies of convenience such as Sunni tribesmen and former Baathists is its reputation as an effective, if not invincible, fighting force.

That mystique, precisely, is what needs to be smashed to pieces. It has just been badly cracked. Clearly, the current moment provides a crucial opportunity to inflict further damage on this mythology.

But that’s going to require all serious parties to put their differences aside and work together, or even independently, towards the same goal. Given that, for one reason or another, it’s in all of their interests, this should certainly be possible. Acting in their own interests, Kurdish groups and the United States are now leading the battle against the Islamic State. The key missing element is the Arab world.

Arab states have an obvious and urgent interest in obliterating the Islamic State. The raison d’être of the organization, after all, is not merely to become a state to rival existing ones. That would be bad enough. Instead, it is a far more serious challenge: the Islamic State sees itself as the alternative to the existing Arab state system. Its goal is to eliminate that system altogether and replace all existing states with itself writ large.

Attitudes that may have once existed towards the Islamic State in the past, whether disinterest, ambivalence or even perhaps some vague sympathy, given that they were perceived to be fighting obnoxious regimes in Syria and Iraq, should have been dispensed with long ago. At this stage, there is simply no intelligible argument for anything other than alarm among Arab states and mainstream societies.

The Islamic State threatens everyone simultaneously. Therefore the response to it should be similarly mutual.

The process of ridding Iraq of the Islamic State cancer is probably going to be complicated and protracted. Even greater patience will be required when it comes time to confront the Islamic State in its redoubt in Syria, especially since strengthening the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship must not be a byproduct of a necessary and unavoidable campaign against IS terrorists. But none of this is beyond the ability, assuming they wish to fight back, of those targeted by the Islamic State, either at present or in some aspirational future.

The Mosul Dam defeat is likely to be a defining moment for the Islamic State. Either this will set off a chain of events that ultimately leads to its collapse, even if that’s a relatively slow process, or it’s a defeat that demonstrates the limits of the ambitions, but not the inevitable defeat, of the IS.

Arab states will play a crucial role in determining whether or not this is the beginning of the end for what is by far the most fanatical and dangerous movement in modern Middle Eastern history. They must, in simple self-defense, become part of a concerted campaign to rid the Middle East of the Islamic State, or live to rue the day.