The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) recently renamed itself merely the Islamic State and declared its government a “caliphate”. All other considerations aside, just how much of a “state” is this Islamic State anyway? What state attributes does it have and which does it lack?
The first and most important attribute of statehood that the Islamic State shares is its determination to be a state and conviction that it is a state.
The American comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen reportedly once said that showing up is 90 per cent of anything. It’s also a frequent adage among the devout that one should act as if one had religious belief, in order for that belief to grow organically.
This public and private insistence that it is a state and behaviour commensurate with a state distinguishes the Islamic State from other highly successful – indeed, perhaps more successful – non-state groups in the Arab world.
Hizbollah, for example, does not claim to be a state. However, it almost always acts in the name of Lebanon and the Lebanese state. As a practical matter, in the areas under its control it practices some of the key attributes of sovereignty, particularly having a private military and the ability to work independently of the rest of the country. But, rhetorically at least, Hizbollah does not claim to be a state.
On the contrary, when it does exercise direct governance in those parts of Lebanon it dominates, Hizbollah frequently does so in coordination with the Lebanese authorities, and sometimes even pretends subordination to them. It’s all a complete act, of course.
In reality, Hizbollah does what it likes. Trying to dominate Lebanon is part of that. Denying and attempting to obliterate Lebanon is not.
States are typically held to require a permanent population, a fixed geographical area of control or sovereignty, a single government and the ability to enter into relationships with other states.
The Islamic State can certainly claim to have a permanent population, although its attitude towards that population is almost as dismissive as its disregard for Iraq and Syria as countries worth preserving. The Islamic State insists that the areas it controls are no longer part of Syria or Iraq, and it says that Muslims from around the world have a religious duty to come and settle there and contribute to the development of this totalitarian entity. Under the Islamic State, foreign fighters typically have the most important jobs and roles.
The areas under complete and total Islamic State control in northern Syria and western Iraq creep like a spider’s web across the landscape. But if you add in the areas in between that are largely dominated by the Islamic State, the area becomes far larger. Millions find themselves living under its rule in some of the most important towns and cities in the areas, including Mosul.
It is in Raqqa, Syria, that the governing style of the Islamic State has been most clearly illustrated. Raqqa is the regional capital of the group and is by far its most advanced experiment in direct control.
And there, the Islamic State is definitely trying to behave like a state. It is the model for what is likely to be eventually attempted in Mosul and other newly acquired areas.
The single government practices a thoroughgoing totalitarianism. It imposes strict religious law, including through courts and a special “religious police”, its own extensive religious outreach programme, and other extreme measures designed to impose order on what had been a chaotic situation and to terrorise any critics into silence. The Islamic State is also trying to brainwash its first generation of citizens through intensive indoctrination and “Islamic” education that focuses almost entirely on literalistic fundamentalism to the exclusion of all other subjects.
The Islamic State has proven adept at making populations dependent through social services, including subsidised bakeries, but has had less luck with more complicated service-orientated activities. It has continued to struggle to deal with water and electricity services, although it has been operating a thermal power plant near Aleppo that requires significant organisation and expertise.
Perhaps the area in which it is most lacking is the ability to enter into relationships with other states. This implies strongly that states exist because of, and through, the recognition of other states. But the Islamic State doesn’t want relations with any other government – especially not in the Islamic world – because it sees itself as the radical alternative to all of them. It shows neither any interest nor ability to enter into such arrangements.
There also real questions about how stable its rule is in the areas now under its control, and it has suffered military setbacks as well as military expansions in recent months. Therefore, the precise area under its control remains ever-changing.
However, clearly the Islamic State sees itself as, and is behaving as, a state. In this sense, it has already won half of the battle. This is an organisation, after all, committed to the idea that narratives create self-defining realities, especially among its supporters, and the unfortunate populations that fall under its control.
Is the Islamic State a state? Not really and not yet. But it is much closer to being one than most people would guess, or that anyone should be comfortable with.
The IS should provoke profound introspection in the Sunni Arab world. Instead, various forms of Baghdadi Denial Syndrome are getting all the attention.
One of the most alarming features of Arab responses to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is a persistent pattern of neurotic denial in the form of conspiracy theories and other escapist fantasies. But running away from the truth will only complicate the ability of Arab states and societies to comprehend where the IS came from, how it has unexpectedly managed to surge into so much power so quickly, and how it can be effectively countered.
One of the most persistent and widespread delusions is that the IS did not, in fact, emerge from Sunni Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria over the course of the wars there in the past decade. Instead, it is increasingly asserted, the IS is a creature of, and was established by, intelligence services such as the CIA or the Israeli Mossad. An extraordinarily large number of Arabs, Muslims and others appear to have taken refuge in these conspiracy theories. Call it Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.
The most outlandish version circulating online holds that IS leader and “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, in fact, a Jewish actor named Elliot Shimon, or some such plausibly-Jewish name. Shimon, it’s laughably alleged, was trained for a year by the Mossad in various skills, including theology and rhetoric.
Even some who don’t embrace this detailed self-parody are still clinging to the notion that Baghdadi and the IS are, somehow, foreign impositions on the Sunni Muslim social and political landscape of Syria and Iraq. An astounding number and range of Arabs, in my own experience in recent weeks, embrace some version of a conspiracy theory holding that the IS and Baghdadi are not what they seem and are, in fact, the creations of Western or Israeli intelligence services.
In a way, this thinking reflects a positive impulse. There is a desire to reject Baghdadi and the IS, and an unwillingness to accept the fact that such vicious malefactors could actually have been organically produced by elements of Syrian and Iraqi society under extreme pressures. Like Arab and Muslim 9/11 conspiracy theories, it begins with a disavowal – “that can’t have had anything to do with any of us” – that, rather than producing serious introspection, gives way to denial through conspiracy theory and a terror of the truth.
And, indeed, the truth is terrifying. For the reality is that Baghdadi and the IS are not the products of the CIA or the Mossad or anything like that. They have arisen, and gained power, in the heart of the Sunni Arab world. Accordingly, they cannot but be recognized as reflecting a profound crisis in the culture and hierarchies of moral and religious values that have taken root in parts of those societies.
Of course it’s true that Baghdadi and the IS would not have arisen without the ill-conceived and disastrous American invasion and occupation of Iraq a decade ago. And they would not have swept to power but for the concerted policies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Assad relies on the IS to help defeat the Syrian opposition by making the IS appear more horrifying than himself, and has promoted their role in the opposition at every stage. And Maliki’s outrageously sectarian and abusive policies created the space for the IS to operate successfully within Sunni communities in Iraq that otherwise probably wouldn’t have existed.
And yet, while one cannot hold the entirety of Iraqi or Syrian Sunni communities responsible for the IS and its depredations, one cannot exculpate them entirely either. Without significant public support the IS would not have been able to seize and control the amount of territory it has acquired in recent months. If its message did not resonate, the group would not have grown so quickly. At the very least, Sunni tribes and other Sunni militias have stood aside while the IS has seized victory after victory in Iraq. Whatever they thought they were accomplishing by either supporting or not opposing the IS, they must bear some responsibility for its outrageous conduct.
Christians have been forced out of newly-acquired IS territories, apparently without any pushback from their Sunni Muslim neighbors. In some cases, there appears to be popular collaboration in this cleansing. Even worse, the murderous assault on the Yazidi minority has also gone apparently unopposed on the ground.
Is it expecting too much to wonder why people are not standing up to these savages when they have the guns and many others don’t? Perhaps. But there don’t appear to be any real signs that these communities are stricken, or even upset, by IS abuses against their neighbors.
As long as there is a way of blaming others – whether it’s the CIA and/or the Mossad via conspiracy theories, or implicating the United States, Iran, Assad or Maliki by emphasizing the context of the IS rise, rather than the rise itself – the true meaning and impact of the Islamic State will be denied. In fact, there is no way to look at the fact of the surge of these extremists without seriously questioning the cultural and moral health of the Arab Sunni Muslim communities in which they are operating and which they claim to represent. It cannot but be a manifestation of the most profound crisis.
And this spiritual and moral crisis cannot be analyzed until it is accepted as fact, and cannot be addressed until it is analyzed. So as long as many Sunni Arabs hide behind conspiracy theories or point the finger elsewhere, the real meaning of the horrifying IS phenomenon will remain unexamined, and a serious response aimed at correcting the social and cultural distortions that have produced it will be unattainable.
And, in turn, that will ensure that the pushback against the IS and similar fanatics is, at best, delayed or ineffective. The Islamic State itself should be delighted. Nothing could be better calculated to facilitate a continuation of their string of successes than Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.
Barack Obama’s decision to order limited air strikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq must be the first salvo in a coordinated, long-term and broad campaign by a large, even if undeclared, coalition to attack and ultimately break this monstrous evil. A key target must be Islamic State’s powerful messaging and aura of success.
Arab states cannot afford to be bystanders while Americans, Kurds and the Iraqi government confront this deadly menace. A broad campaign is required, involving many states working, independently if necessary, towards the same goal: a determined effort to degrade, discredit and ultimately eliminate this cancer.
Arab governments should put their differences aside, recognise that the Islamic State is an unprecedented threat to their interests, societies and futures, and act accordingly. If it is allowed to continue to grow in prestige and power, the danger is that it could become a defining feature in an evolving Arab political landscape. Its strength must be systematically degraded and its mystique shattered.
Challenging the Islamic State’s marketing is crucial. The group has a clear, simple and readily digestible ideological message that taps into its target audience’s deepest fantasies with alarming precision. It’s basically just another regurgitation of standard Salafist-Jihadism. However, it’s not the novelty of the ideas, but the slickness, simplicity and accessibility of Islamic State online propaganda that has been uniquely effective with its target audience.
These messages have succeeded in drawing thousands of foreign fighters, first to Syria and now to Iraq, to pursue a goal that is explicitly anti-Syrian and anti-Iraqi. Islamic State propaganda is not just well-calculated and produced, it has successfully popularised the mythos of an “Islamic success story”.
By coupling extreme rhetoric with apparently stunning battlefield successes, the Islamic State has captured the imagination of an international constituency of young fanatics hungry for “martyrdom”.
Fighters enthusiastic about dying are formidable enemies who strike terror into the hearts of their foes. By promoting this theme to both its own cadres and potential enemies, the Islamic State has greatly magnified the effectiveness of its relatively small forces.
Their line is so simple that it might be, and in many ways actually is, aimed at children. Muslims everywhere, they say, are besieged by everyone else. Muslims suffer these abuses because they have not been sufficiently rigid, literalistic and merciless. The restoration of a “caliphate” is a religious duty – as are the draconian laws and vicious terrorism – that the Islamic State practices. It presents a diagnosis for real and imagined Muslim woes and a prescription: to embrace its assault on Syria, Iraq and, eventually, all other Muslim states. “Syria does not belong to the Syrians and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis,” thunders self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Instead, the Islmaic State offers the vision of a utopian Muslim universalism in an undifferentiated and gigantic caliphate across the Islamic world, without distinctions among individuals except their degree of zealotry.
This simple message resonates because it is coherent, idealistic and fills a void. But most of all, it promises, and appears to be delivering, tangible and striking political and military successes. All that is required, Islamic State rhetoric implies, is unrelenting extremism and patience. It’s the political equivalent of clerics who preach that giving money to them or their institutions will prompt God to reward the credulous faithful with even greater income in recompense. It’s a familiar and dastardly scam.
But the Islamic States’s message taps into deep-seated ideals among some Muslims, including enraged young men, such as restoring the long-lamented caliphate; radical Muslim egalitarianism (but only for those who embrace its most extreme iteration); an alleged return to purported originary Islamic virtues; and a supposed purification of religion and society.
Its vision of replacing the current state system with a putative re-created pan-Islamic empire is utterly preposterous. But it resonates deeply with some who are disgusted with the present circumstances and yearn for a return to what they imagine had been a golden age. This propaganda is not being sufficiently challenged by other, more healthy narratives and success stories about how Sunni Muslims can defend their rights and protect their interests.
Breaking Islamic State’s narrative spell requires two key manoeuvres.
First, because in society and culture something will always beat nothing, this message must be countered with alternative models of empowerment. This answer cannot be “less radical” forms of Islamism such as the Muslim Brotherhood, since their ideology has provided a crucial conceptual basis and a prime training and recruiting hub for Salafist-Jihadist groups.
Second, serious measures to attack the Islamic State both from the air and on the ground by its enemies in Syria and Iraq, must be promoted and supported with urgency and intensity in order to debunk the Islamic State’s promises of divinely ordained success.
There is no excuse for failing to act now. As things stand, if a sufficient kinetic and ideological campaign – the elements of which are all in place – is pursued with indispensable determination, the Islamic State and its mystique can be broken, perhaps more quickly than most imagine. But if it is allowed to continue to grow, not only will the cost and difficulty of opposing it multiply, the damage it does before it is finally destroyed may be unimaginable.
In its war with Israel, the Palestinian group has accomplished none of its aims.
Palestinian children wave Hamas flags on top of an abandoned Israeli vehicle. (Khan Younis/Reuters)
With a tense three-day truce on the ground in Gaza having expired Friday morning with rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes, Hamas faces a series of extremely difficult choices. On the one hand, a month of fighting with Israel has left the organization, so far, with no credible achievement. On the other hand, the level of death and destruction in Gaza—most notably the deaths of at least 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians and many of them children, according to the United Nations—made it politically impossible for Hamas not to go along, for about 72 hours, with a ceasefire that delivered them no results.
The situation is particularly humiliating and frustrating for Hamas because the “calm for calm” arrangement they briefly accepted was practically identical to the one offered to them by Egypt, and accepted by Israel, at the very earliest stages of the hostilities. Even though Hamas probably did not plan, or particularly desire, a confrontation with Israel this summer, both parties found themselves dragged into a tit-for-tat that exploded into a full-fledged and apparently unintended conflict. But once the fighting started and took on a life of its own, both Israel and Hamas had to craft strategic goals to define the conflict both politically and militarily.
Israel fell back on its long-standing doctrine of “mowing the grass” in Gaza—a non-policy of periodic spasms of violence in which Hamas’s capabilities are degraded, and the people of Gaza severely punished or killed, so that Israel can supposedly “re-establish deterrence” by demonstrating the costs to both the group and Gaza in general of Hamas using force. The problem is that this approach does not change the reality on the ground in Gaza, and explicitly and consciously does not seek to unseat Hamas from its rule over the territory. Although Israel’s commitment to allowing Hamas to stay in power there has atrophied recently, the alternatives—generally seen as either anarchy or the rise of an even more extreme Islamist movement—look even worse to Israeli decision-makers. So what Israel buys itself through its deeply destructive behavior toward the civilian population of Gaza is simply a period of calm before the next round of carnage. In addition to degrading the moral fiber of Israeli society, the cost is the outrage and indignation of the world.
Still, just because Hamas has yet to achieve anything from this round of fighting doesn’t mean it has concluded that its strategy of armed struggle is fundamentally incorrect. On the contrary, internally and particularly in the paramilitary Qassam Brigades, Hamas may be largely satisfied with its military performance, despite the horrifying civilian toll. In 2008-2009, during the last major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, nine Israeli soldiers died, four of them from friendly fire. This time, Hamas has killed 64 Israeli soldiers. Similarly, Hamas has demonstrated a greatly enhanced rocket and missile capability, with the ability to reach virtually any part of Israel, even the occupied West Bank. Hamas’s rockets remain crude and unguided, and almost entirely ineffectual, but they did kill three Israeli civilians and prompt many international carriers to stop flights to Ben-Gurion International Airport for two days. Hamas’s tunnel capability, particularly those tunnels running from northern Gaza into southern Israel, was apparently much greater than the Israelis had understood. Although Israel has now destroyed most if not all of the tunnels, Hamas could dig more, and additional innovations in the future are likely. Hamas’s leaders must be saying to themselves, “This time we did better, and next time it will be better still.”
However, none of these actions translated into any exchangeable asset, such as a captured solider, nor did they yield any political or strategic benefit. Hamas has accomplished none of its aims. Not one. For example, Hamas sought recognition as the primary diplomatic representative of Palestinians in Gaza. But the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have kept that role, including on matters regarding Gaza, despite the fact that Hamas has held the territory since 2007. Indeed, the recent “unity deal” between Hamas and Fatah, which led to the formation of a new government with no Hamas ministers that adopted the PLO’s policy of seeking peace with Israel, did nothing to enhance Hamas’s international standing either.
Hamas also failed to conduct any kind of dramatic attack on an Israeli target, notwithstanding repeated efforts. It failed in several infiltration attempts by land and sea, and none of its rockets hit any major target, whether civilian or military. Hamas was not even able to capture a single Israeli soldier whom it could exchange for prisoners. It did execute a few successful ambushes in Gaza in which it killed Israeli soldiers. But dead Israeli troops don’t translate into a direct benefit for either Hamas or any group of Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Hamas’s efforts to foment unrest in the West Bank, perhaps in the hopes of sparking another intifada, similarly failed, although several tense moments demonstrated that such an uprising could either be engineered or erupt spontaneously given the wrong conditions. But it’s almost impossible not to conclude that the main reason there was no generalized uprising in the West Bank, despite all the necessary elements being in place, is that the majority of the public there does not have any appetite for repeating bitter past experiences. And Hamas’s effort to gain a greater foothold in the West Bank was severely undermined by the crackdown Israel orchestrated there under the pretext of looking for three teenagers the Israeli government knew had been murdered. Four hundred individuals affiliated with Hamas, including approximately 60 major figures who had been part of the prisoner swap for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, were arrested, and many cells were disrupted.
Finally, Hamas’s demands—in this case shared by most if not all Palestinians—for an easing of the blockade of Gaza have also not been met. The talks Cairo convened this week could ultimately result in a formula that is being widely discussed: that Egypt would open its Rafah crossing into Gaza for human and some commercial traffic, but with PA security forces, not Hamas, and international monitors on the Palestinian side of the border. Egypt closed the border except for humanitarian purposes after the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi, when Cairo concluded that Hamas was, in effect, a hostile entity because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and activities along the border. Israel has indicated it could live with Rafah’s opening, including through a statement that the crossing is an “Egyptian-Palestinian Authority matter.” Israel could also extend the rights of Gazans to fish off their own coast, and allow more material to be brought into Gaza, but probably with a much stricter regime of inspection and monitoring.
Such a development would be a double-edged sword for Hamas. On the one hand, their arch-rivals in the PA would gain a new security foothold in Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas could claim a relaxation of the blockade as a significant victory and another demonstration of the efficacy of armed resistance. Both Palestinian parties would have a plausible case to make. The PA could maintain that without its good relations with Egypt, security coordination with Israel, internationally respected security forces, and diplomatic standing, the Cairo negotiations would not have been possible. Hamas could counter that the PA has been asking for an easing of the blockade through diplomatic channels for years, but that it was only armed conflict that prompted anyone to seriously consider it. There is a good chance that such a development would be a political wash, with both parties taking relatively equal amounts of credit and blame for it, if it were to happen.
Hamas also faces the strong possibility of a return to the status quo ante, but perhaps with an even harsher blockade and strangulation by the Israelis. The political perils are enormous. The Gaza public, which may have rallied to Hamas’s cause during the actual fighting, could well start asking pointed questions about what so much devastation achieved. At present, Hamas has no answer. If Hamas negotiators do not get a tangible benefit either for the group itself or for the people of Gaza from the Cairo negotiations, the political damage could be considerable. From Hamas’s perspective, that could be mitigated if the PA also emerges from the talks discredited and marginalized. All of this will depend on the diplomatic and political fallout that develops, mainly in Cairo, in the coming weeks.
Hamas remains committed to armed struggle against Israel as its primary tactic. Right now, it almost certainly cannot sustain the public backlash in Gaza and the rest of the Arab world that would result if it resumes full-fledged hostilities now that it has ended the ceasefire. But, equally, it may not be able to live with a reality in which it paid such a high price for no achievement whatsoever. Given that nothing fundamental has changed in the structural relationship between Hamas and Israel, or in Hamas’s ideology and strategy, another round of violence with Israel ultimately may be inevitable.
There are already clear signs that Hamas is internally divided between those who want to lick their wounds, regroup, and try to find some kind of political advantage or at least avoid political catastrophe, versus those eager to return to the battlefield and determine what can be accomplished by more fighting. If Hamas does not emerge from the conflict with any kind of benefit that can be spun as a victory, no matter how hyperbolic and pyrrhic, internal pressure for an early resumption of hostilities in order to try to rectify the situation will mount. Yet any resumption of sustained, wide-scale hostilities with Israel—beyond some inevitable containable and brief flare-ups—in the near future would be a colossal political gamble by Hamas. There’s every danger that the Palestinian public in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Arab states as well, would consider it the last straw, particularly if Hamas once again did not succeed in producing anything resembling a victory. In short, it could be political suicide. But, given their desperate situation, Hamas may find such a drastic gamble irresistible.
The future of the organization depends entirely on the extent to which, in the long run, it can claim its strategy of armed struggle is more successful than the PA and PLO approach of negotiations. If there is no progress toward peace through diplomacy, Hamas will almost certainly find a ready audience for the line that, painful though it might be, their militant approach is the only one that offers Palestinians any hope of liberation.
The apathetic regional and international response to ISIS is mysterious and alarming
The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) – now grandiosely renamed simply the Islamic State and declared a “caliphate” – raises a series of the most perplexing questions to have emerged in the Middle East in recent decades. At least as extreme as the most radical incarnations of Al Qaeda, this Salafist-jihadist group now controls a swath of territory approximately the size of Belgium across northeastern Syria and western Iraq. In the process, they have gained control of several key oil installations and major cities, including Mosul. Worse, their expansion appears virtually unchecked, and every setback they suffer seems offset by a new advance.
But who, exactly, are they? It’s not a question of identifying the individual local and foreign fighters who have been drawn into their midst. The real question that is so pressing, yet few are asking, and even fewer trying to answer, is: who is backing this group? It’s true that ISIS has effectively functioned as a well-oiled crime syndicate for many years. But it’s hard to imagine that foreign backing – private if not governmental – hasn’t been a key factor in their ascendance.
It might be argued that at this stage ISIS has achieved financial independence, given the resources they have commandeered, especially in petroleum. But it doesn’t explain how they got to this stage in the first place, and who helped them do that and why. Anyone who believes that backing ISIS was a radical but either necessary or clever idea is bound to rue the day, if they haven’t yet.
In Syria, they charged, in effect, to the rescue of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and are one of the most important factors keeping him in power in those parts of the country he most values. After all, if the choice is between the rule of a monstrous gang of lunatics who smash Sunni mosques and shrines, as well as those of other faiths and denominations and ancient artifacts; chase religious minorities out of the areas under their control; impose the most misogynistic and draconian restrictions against women; and enforce barbaric systems of “justice,” on the one hand, versus a vicious but well-understood mafia regime, the latter suddenly looks less intolerable.
In Iraq, anyone who thought using the black banner of ISIS to terrify Shiites and others was a brilliant strategy to get rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and reassert Sunni prerogatives in their own areas made a criminal mistake. Maliki will probably go, but given the behavior of ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere, two key illusions must have been shattered: first, that they are simply a front for many other groups who will dispose of them when they have achieved their aims, and second that their presence is an overall benefit for the Sunni cause in Iraq. In fact, they are quite out of control and are a catastrophe, as all the people under their rule are quickly discovering.
The landscape of history is littered with monsters whose creators hoped they would do some small service and go away, but who ultimately proved more dangerous to their authors than anyone else. Who those authors are, precisely, isn’t clear. Syria and Iran have clearly benefited from ISIS’s rise, but in the long run the group does pose a major threat to them. As for most of the Arab states and the state system, ISIS is a terminal cancer. It is starting to intrude into Lebanon and possibly Jordan. It lurks on the borders of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
As Arab state disintegration and systemic failure continues to metastasize, ISIS and similar groups are a mortal peril. They not only bring death and destruction, mayhem and chaos, and the worst kind of vicious obscurantist rule imaginable, they threaten to replace the existing state system with substate actors that are autonomous criminal gangs ruling over little fiefdoms – the Hezbollah and Hamas model writ large and spreading fast, but in a much more savage and extreme form. The Arab world has entered into a growing phase of terrorist warlordism. It’s a calamity hitherto unimaginable.
And, of course, it’s a major threat to countries beyond the region, as well. ISIS has attracted countless foreign fighters, fanatical Muslims or converts from around the world, who have gathered in Syria and Iraq only to become even further radicalized, and worse, battle-trained and hardened. They can easily return to their home countries primed for mayhem, even though ISIS shows no interest at present in international terrorism. Instead, they have decided to seize and control territory and create their own de facto state. If anything, that’s even more terrifying. And, in time and if they can consolidate their rule in those areas, international terrorism is potentially a logical move for them. Even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent their protégés from turning to it.
So the deepest question is: why isn’t anybody doing anything serious about this mind-boggling peril? At present only Kurdish fighters, with some Iraqi government support, are really taking on ISIS on the ground. They don’t appear to be receiving much international or regional support. The Arab states purport to be alarmed, but in practice their response to the creation of the ISIS mini-, petro- and terrorist-state in their midst has been a shrug of the shoulders. If that’s unfair, it is at least undeniable they haven’t mobilized quickly to take action.
The latest ISIS advance apparently left them in control of Iraq’s largest dam, with the ability to flood major cities, potentially including Baghdad. Meanwhile Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities flee for their lives. Tsk, tsk. Ho-hum. Oh well.
The international community appears equally inexplicably sanguine. The latest American response to ISIS is to order American air carriers to fly over 30,000 feet if they’re crossing Iraqi airspace. That’ll learn ‘em! ISIS’s successes are completely disproportionate to their size: an estimated 8,000-20,000 fighters in Iraq, as opposed to at least 30,000 other Iraqi Sunni insurgents, not to mention the Iraqi army (such as it is) or Kurdish guerrillas. This is simply not an overwhelming force. It may be driven, fanatical and well-organized, as well as well-funded whether from crime or foreign backers, but if it were confronted by a serious armed response it could certainly be broken.
The biggest question now, therefore, is: why is no one, either regionally or internationally, moving to do that? Is everyone – or anyone, for that matter – content with the growing power of ISIS? Do governments really believe there is nothing to be done? Don’t they understand that they could be next, in one way or another? Perhaps even more mysterious than the genesis and support-base of ISIS is the lackadaisical response to it. It’s as if no one is really all that bothered by it in practice, no matter what they say. And that might be the scariest thing of all. Will a small but determined and well-organized band of crazed terrorists really be allowed to reshape the Arab world largely unopposed? Because that’s exactly what’s happening now.
As Hamas’s conflict with Israel continues to play out despite failed ceasefires and mounting, scandalous human carnage in Gaza, its long-term aims are becoming clear.
From the outset it was obvious Hamas found itself trapped in a dreadful box in Gaza and was looking for a way out. So attention focused on easing the blockade and, above all, shifting Egypt’s policies. But as the war has continued, it seems increasingly clear that what Hamas really wants is to gain a solid and permanent foothold in the West Bank.
Hamas’s reported capture of an Israeli soldier – which it denies – could constitute the first tangible and exchangeable asset it has acquired during the fighting.
If true, and the soldier can be retained by Hamas, the primary aim of the unlikely coalition that has emerged to try to thwart its most sweeping ambitions, which is to deny the organisation a major political benefit, will fail.
Israel always seeks to exchange prisoners, much as it never freezes settlements. Therefore, release of the “security prisoners” recently arrested by Israel could actually be secured in the long run by Hamas.
Moreover, Hamas has survived, and given the Israeli army a few painful hits, to the evident surprise of its enemy.
Another primary aim of Hamas has been to establish itself as the principal Palestinian diplomatic and political address for Gaza, placing it on a par with the PA in Ramallah. President Mahmoud Abbas has been struggling to undermine any such development by remaining crucial to Palestinian discussions with Egypt and other key Arab states.
Yet the inclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members in a Fatah-led delegation to Cairo today could be seen as a step forward for the militants.
So can the United States seeking to use the good offices of Turkey and Qatar as leverage with Hamas, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and to some extent Egypt, and to the outrage of Israel.
But despite all of this Gaza-centric manoeuvring Hamas’s conduct suggests a more sweeping ambition. Gaza was always a burden. It is overpopulated, underdeveloped, impoverished and non-viable. And since the Egyptian crackdown following the removal of former president Mohammed Morsi, Hamas has felt politically strangled there amid a profound budget crisis and economic meltdown. Its governance has been beyond abysmal.
Rather than serving as a launching-pad for a broader takeover of the Palestinian national movement, Gaza turned into an open-air prison, not just for its long-suffering people but also for Hamas. Gaza was increasingly a liability more than an asset. For many months now, Hamas’s eye has been squarely on the West Bank.
One of the first real efforts to break out of Gaza and into the West Bank by Hamas was the unity agreement with Fatah. But this brought neither much financial relief from Ramallah nor a stronger foothold in the West Bank. And whatever progress they were making was strongly disrupted by Israel’s crackdown last month.
There are at least two ways Hamas might be trying to parlay the current conflict into a greater presence in the West Bank. First, if it can emerge with tangible benefits, whether political or strategic for the organisation, or deliverables for the people living under their rule, their message of “resistance” will gain a great deal of traction against the PA policy of peaceful negotiations.
Second, if Hamas can somehow engineer a third intifada in the West Bank, or if one erupts spontaneously, it’s almost certain that this will almost immediately become violent and the organisation could quickly manoeuvre to play a leading role.
Last week’s unprecedented demonstrations in Jerusalem, the largest in living memory, gave a hint of how such an uprising could emerge. And Hamas has been repeatedly calling for “days of rage” and so forth in an effort to stoke the flames. If such a conflagration were to emerge, it might be exceptionally difficult for the PA, or Israel for that matter, to stop Hamas from being a primary beneficiary.
Hamas is sticking doggedly to the unity agreement with Fatah for several reasons, including hopes that it will still provide the basis for a greater presence in the West Bank. The PA, too, keeps reaffirming that agreement to position itself for a major role in a ceasefire. One potential solution could involve stationing PA security forces and international observers, rather than Hamas, along the border crossing with Egypt.
At one register, this could give the PA a new foothold in Gaza. But Hamas might be looking beyond that in an effort to exchange exclusive control of Gaza for a greater presence in the West Bank, that it hopes will eventually lead to the eclipse of the secular nationalists and the final triumph of the Islamists.
Those who do not wish to see Hamas emerge politically triumphant from this chaos, and in a greatly enhanced role in the West Bank, is going to have to make sure that, as the dust settles, the PA acquires greater clout, credibility, centrality and deliverables for the public. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to counter Hamas’s message that its approach alone achieves results.
Rescue workers carry the body after removing it from under the rubble of a home following an Israeli air strike on Khan Yunis in the southern of Gaza strip. Israel insists it “does not target” civilians and civilian sites, even if history tells us otherwise. Said Khatib / AFP
In the ongoing Gaza campaign, Israel and its supporters have once again fallen back on the shopworn idea that civilian casualties are justifiable because its primary intention is not to specifically target non-combatants.
Israel’s arguments – that this can all be explained by either error or Hamas’s use of innocents as “human shields” – simply cannot be squared with the huge proportion of civilian and children’s deaths. More than 1,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the UN.
Israel insists it “does not target” civilians and civilian sites, even if history tells us otherwise. For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Israel really has never or very seldom actually targeted civilians. There’s still a crucial missing category between intention and culpability: that of inevitable consequence.
Israel’s rhetoric focuses entirely on primary intentions, without acknowledging the problem of responsibility for civilian deaths when they are a predictable and inevitable result of voluntary, calculated actions.
The Israeli military has been very reluctant to explain its conduct, even when asserting there was no mistake. Entire families have been wiped out in the recent campaign in attacks that remain not only apparently indefensible but also inexplicable. In some cases, Palestinians have suggested that a neighbour or relative might have been a Hamas employee or operative possibly targeted by Israel for assassination. But that often doesn’t rationally explain the decision to take or risk so many innocent lives.
International courts have been increasingly ruling that a decision to carry out a strike on what might otherwise be considered a legitimate military target, despite knowledge of the potential for a huge number of innocent and civilian deaths, constitutes an example of unlawful recklessness or negligence. This principle isn’t mentioned in either the Statute of Rome or the Geneva Conventions, but it’s making its way quickly into international law through these rulings.
Courts are thereby undermining the traditional categorical differentiation between “unlawful” murderers, who deliberately seek to cause civilian casualties, versus “lawful” regular armies that foresee and expect, and are willing to accept, the deaths of innocents.
Israel’s incongruous actions and rhetoric highlights uncomfortable moral grey areas between those who may hope to hit a military target with a random weapon versus those who hope not to hit civilian ones with more sophisticated and guided tools (especially when both are almost certainly hoping in vain). There is a clear ethical difference between the two.
But it is precisely the contrast with those who deliberately want to kill civilians that indicts soldiers who are also knowingly responsible for non-combatant deaths. If the effect is the same, even when the primary intention is distinct, can those intentions really exonerate the conscious decision to produce that same effect?
The principle of “proportionality” would be the primary recourse under such circumstances. But in almost every practical case, proportionality boils down to a subjective value judgement. Is the military objective “worth” a given number of innocent lives? That certainly depends on whether one identifies with the military or the people who are the potential “collateral damage”.
Similarly subjective are efforts to establish “responsibility” – for putting civilian lives at risk in the first place – as the essential criterion to defend militaries that might otherwise be seen as acting with disproportionate force or reckless disregard for human life. But, again, subjectivity rules the day. Who “started it?” It’s almost never clear-cut.
No wonder, then, that both “proportionality” and “responsibility” have fared so badly in the proceedings and rulings of international tribunals into war crimes since the end of the Cold War. Fascinating in theory, they are virtually useless to an actual trier of fact.
Which brings us back to intentions.
If it really were a matter purely of intent, to pluck only one random incident out of today’s headlines, whoever shot down the Malaysian civilian airliner over rebellious parts of Ukraine couldn’t be held particularly culpable. Their evident intention, after all, was almost certainly to hit some sort of military aircraft. The minute one starts interrogating what they were doing firing surface-to-air missiles at vaguely identified targets in international flight paths, one abandons the question of direct intention and raises those of recklessness, negligence and the likely consequences of calculated actions. The principle of intentionality, unattenuated by that of predictable consequences, might actually absolve these murderers.
Intentions are important. People instinctively understand this.
But they also instinctively understand, unless taught to think otherwise, that inevitable and unavoidable consequences of an action are important as well and have a major impact on the question of culpability. Simply asserting that one had a legitimate overriding intention (killing an “enemy combatant”), and that this renders moot the predictable if not inevitable consequences (the deaths of non-combatants), is repugnant to reason and universal human values.
Although obviously “better” than deliberate mass murder for its own sake, the moral validity of such arguments will be rejected by most people with indignation and contempt. Predictable, inevitable consequences are an essential criterion for culpability in the deaths of innocents.
The incredible level of human suffering and civilian casualties in Gaza will haunt Israel for years to come
Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza has brought with it two things that are disturbingly familiar: first, huge numbers of civilian casualties; second, endless protestations by Israel that it is not only trying to do everything it can to reduce those casualties, but that it has “the most moral army in the world,” no less. The horrors being meted out on the innocent people of Gaza are bad enough, but they are compounded by Israel’s endless and fatuous claims of unique morality, which are entirely inconsistent with the known facts.
At least 600 Palestinians have been killed in the violence so far. The UN has estimated that over 70% of them are civilians. Even if the UN is overestimating, that still means an enormous percentage of those killed by Israeli fire are civilians. I haven’t seen any estimate in which the number of child victims was less than 100. The death tolls on Sunday and Monday both reached over 100 Palestinian dead, a shocking figure in any conflict.
Israel cites two reasons for these deaths. Either they are the consequence of “regrettable mistakes,” which Israel has acknowledged on a small handful of occasions during this campaign, or they are the result of Hamas using the Palestinian population as “human shields.” As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cynically and cruelly put it, Palestinians, including Hamas, seek “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”
I have been very critical of Hamas’s rule in Gaza and its role in the current conflict, but it’s just not possible to dehumanize the 1.8 million innocent Palestinians of Gaza as being simply “human shields” for Hamas. Even if Hamas does have a practice and policy of seeking to deter attacks on strategic targets by ensuring that civilian deaths will occur, it doesn’t explain numerous instances in which Palestinian civilians, and indeed children, appear to have been deliberately targeted for death. And it’s not logistically possible for Hamas to actually make the entirety, or even the majority, of the Gaza population into literal “human shields.”
What never gets mentioned is that Israel’s military had a deliberate policy of using Palestinian civilians as, literally, human shields, in its operations in the occupied territories until this practice was made illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005. The Israeli military protested that ruling, arguing that the use of Palestinian civilians could “defuse tensions.”
The dozens of disturbing and inexplicable incidents in which civilians have been killed either deliberately or with wanton disregard for their lives during this campaign appears to have struck Secretary of State John Kerry. Appearing on the Fox News Sunday television program, Mr. Kerry mumbled during a break, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”
Among the incidents that led to this widespread international reaction was the killing of 24 members of the Abu Jamaa family in a single airstrike. Israel says it ordered the evacuation of the area, and many others, but in Gaza there is often nowhere to go. The UN says its facilities are full to the brim with over 100,000 internally displaced persons, and that they have no more space for those fleeing the conflict.
Other targets include various health centers, mosques and a home for the handicapped. Hamas is cynical enough, to be sure, to have placed some of these targets in danger. And they have urged Palestinians to stay put when they were better advised to try to flee, if possible. But none of that explains or excuses the extraordinary proportion of civilian and child deaths in this bombardment.
Hamas can be criticized for refusing an Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire proposal that would have been politically difficult for the organization but also would have brought relief to the innocent people of Gaza. When the dust settles, they will have to explain to the Palestinian and Arab public why they preferred to keep fighting when the cost was so extraordinary.
But that will not exempt Israel from having to explain how, if their forces follow even the elementary rules of warfare, let alone the elevated ones it claims, so many of the dead are civilians, women and children. Israel’s international reputation, already badly battered, has now suffered another grievous, self-inflicted wound. Even its friends around the world are deeply disturbed by what distinctly appears to be a wanton disregard for innocent life, a willingness to engage in indiscriminate attacks, and a lack of accountability when its forces deliberately target noncombatants. Israel, too, will have difficult questions to answer.
The American biologist Barry Commoner famously observed as a fundamental law of ecology that “Everything is connected to everything else”. That truism has rarely been more applicable than in the contemporary Middle East. Hostilities between Israel and Hamas may superficially appear to be a limited conflict, but powerful regional and international forces are expressing their influence in both the fighting and the diplomatic wrangling over a ceasefire.
One of the most significant regional fault lines clearly at play is the sharply diverging attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
To put it crudely but accurately, there are essentially pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood factions among states in the region. This context is having a major impact on Hamas (the Brotherhood organisation in Palestine), the Palestinian Authority and Israel in their unhappy triangulation. Egypt, several key Gulf states and Jordan are the most significant in opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, and hence sceptical about Hamas.
This does not, of course, mean that these states are insensible to the tragic death and destruction being meted out by Israel primarily against the civilian population of Gaza. But they view Hamas’s willingness to place that population at risk by engaging in a desperate and bloody confrontation with Israel partly in the context of the regional fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a whole.
The most obvious manifestation of this perspective is Egypt’s barely concealed sense that Hamas rule in Gaza, along their troubled border with Sinai and its various insurgents and terrorist groups, is a significant national security concern. Hence Egypt’s ceasefire proposal that offered Hamas “calm for calm” and, crucially, the people of Gaza immediate relief from Israeli bombardment, but denied Hamas any major political or strategic gains. “Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian initiative, at least 40 Palestinian souls would have been saved,” Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri bitterly complained when it was rejected.
On the other hand, Turkey and Qatar, the regional champions of the Muslim Brotherhood, have attempted to bolster their allies. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of “genocide”. Qatar has a standing aid package to salvage Hamas’s budget, but the transfer of these funds is being blocked by Egypt physically and the United States and Saudi Arabia in terms of financial institutions.
Hamas has been attempting, without success, to bring Turkey and Qatar into the diplomatic process regarding a potential ceasefire. The United States appears to have some interest in trying to leverage Qatar’s influence with Hamas, but as a practical matter Egypt remains the decisive player in any potential ceasefire, because of its political importance and geographical location.
Another major regional fault line that is rippling through the conflict concerns the role and influence of Iran. The once solid patron-client relationship between Iran and Hamas has been shattered by the Syrian conflict, which cost the Hamas politburo its headquarters in Damascus and its primary funders in Tehran. Yet Hamas’s paramilitary wing, the Qassam Brigades, never fully broke with Iran. There were also Hamas political leaders that, early on, wanted to try to recuperate as much of the relationship as possible.
In the run-up to this current phase of violence, splits within Hamas – between factions who wanted to focus on repairing relations with Iran versus others who wanted to see what could be done about mending fences with Egypt, Jordan and some Gulf states – were clearly discernible.
They still are, in spite of considerable wagon-circling in the face of a massive Israeli onslaught. And while most of the rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel (and sometimes the occupied West Bank) are made in Gaza itself, the expertise and some of the material that makes this possible are indisputably Iranian in origin.
Yet if Hamas is perceived by some Arab states, including some presently sympathetic to Hamas, as once again leaning too closely towards Tehran, there will certainly be a cost for that. However, the rise of even more extreme non-state actors, particularly the so-called Islamic State, in the short term at least, may offer a counterintuitive form of protection for Hamas. Israel, for all its fury, ultimately does not want Hamas to fall from power in Gaza, fearing the rise of anarchy or Islamic State-style extremists far more radical than Hamas, and perhaps to keep Palestinians divided.
And it’s even conceivable that the threat from the Islamic State and similar next-generation takfiri hyper-radicals will prove so threatening to mainstream Sunni states and societies (as well as to Shiites including Iran), that the common peril may undermine the starkest of sectarian suspicions.
That could open the space for Hamas to resume closer ties with Iran while mitigating outrage in some Arab capitals. Alternatively, the rise of Islamic State could cast all armed non-state actors, including Hamas, as part of a universal menace.
The Middle East is in a radical state of flux, characterised by instability, disintegration and the rise of militias and armed gangs to local power. Significant question marks hang over most established alliances and sources of regional order. The fate of Palestine, including Gaza, will depend on, and affect, how these questions are answered. In the Arab world today, everything is connected to everything else as never before.
Neither Israel nor Hamas can win in Gaza, but the PA could be the biggest loser
With Israel having launched a significant ground operation in Gaza following Hamas’s refusal of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the latest wave of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities is intensifying yet again. To what end and from what beginning, however, is unclear. While both Israel and Hamas have publicly stated and implicit objectives, neither side seems poised to achieve any significant strategic gains.
In the meanwhile, more than 260 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them civilians, including children, have been killed — as well as at least two Israelis — and the grim tally of death and destruction is only likely to increase as long as the seemingly pointless fighting drags on.
Israel’s stated goals to “restore deterrence” and degrade — if not eliminate — Hamas’s rocket capabilities are straightforward, but unachievable unless the country were to fully reoccupy Gaza and reverse the “unilateral disengagement” enacted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for such a reoccupation, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed these ideas as “background noise.” There appears to be no real possibility that Israel’s military will once again police the streets of Gaza as an army of direct occupation. Under such circumstances, even given the significant ground operations launched on Thursday, all Israel can really do is single out stores of rockets, secure or demolish launching sites, destroy tunnel infrastructure, and target the homes and offices of Hamas officials and members.
At first glance, such an imperative might seem rational, since Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza have been firing missiles at not only southern Israel butvirtually the whole country and even parts of the occupied Palestinian territories. However, each time invasion has been the response to missile attacks from Gaza, Israel has failed to find a long-term — or even a mid-term – remedy. And each time, Hamas has emerged better equipped and more technically capable.
The implausibility of Israel’s avowed goal of destroying Hamas’s rocket capabilities (some officials even speak in terms of Gaza being “demilitarized”) is all the greater given that most of the missiles Hamas is currently using are actually manufactured in the Gaza Strip rather than imported from Iran. Iranian expertise and spare parts are undoubtedly crucial, but since Hamas (and possibly other militant groups in Gaza) is manufacturing its own rockets — even when Egypt has ensured that smuggling is more difficult than ever — there’s every reason to expect that more can be manufactured locally and in short order.
Israel’s conundrum gets even more complicated when one considers that while it wants to degrade Hamas’s capabilities and strike a blow at the organization, it does not wish Hamas to fall from power in Gaza. Israel fears the potential for anarchy or more extreme groups emerging in a power vacuum were Hamas to collapse. So, in addition to pursuing a strategy that has proven to be ineffective, Israel has goals in Gaza that are greatly circumscribed by its counterintuitive, but undeniable, preference for a weakened Hamas to remain in power.
Hamas, too, has a long list of goals, all of which also seem to be out of reach. A key demand is that Israel release “security prisoners” who had been part of the Gilad Shalit swap but were rearrested in a West Bank crackdown a few weeks ago. It’s virtually impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to this.
Most of Hamas’s other key demands are aimed at countries other than Israel. For Hamas, this conflict is about trying to break out of an impossible situation in which it has found itself in recent months. It is broke. It is isolated. And internal divisions and its growing unpopularity in Gaza bedevil the group. Hamas may have hoped that the “unity government” agreement with Fatah would strengthen its hand and give it a new foothold in the West Bank. But as it happened, Hamas gained nothing from the agreement.
But to understand the root of Hamas’s current frustration, one must look not northeast from Gaza, but west. The epicenter of Hamas’s growing desperation lies in the policies of the new Egyptian government. Following the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into Sinai and the border area with Gaza. They reportedly killed up to two dozen Hamas operatives in Sinai whom they believed were operating in cahoots with insurgent groups, and virtually shut down Hamas’s smuggling tunnel network. In the ensuing weeks, as the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracked down on its opponents, it treated Hamas as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorist campaign in Egypt being conducted by the extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and, according to the government, the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The Egyptian government sees itself as being at war with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas ss the Brotherhood group in Palestine. The relationship between Egypt and Hamas is therefore distinctly unfriendly, if not outright hostile.
In addition to seeking Egyptian and American support for the transfer of promised funding from Qatar to pay its employees, Hamas wants Egypt to permanently open the Rafah crossing and effectively end the blockade of Gaza, at least insofar as the movement of people is concerned. But for Egypt the crossing and the whole border area is a major national security issue and its level of trust in Hamas is nil.
However, the question of Rafah has major implications for Ramallah, which has brought the beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) and the sidelined (and seemingly impotent and irrelevant) President Mahmoud Abbas to the fore. The only real prospect for reopening Rafah on a permanent basis is an old idea now suddenly revived: that PA security forces, along with international monitors, would control the Palestinian side of the crossing rather than Hamas.
Whether Egypt would be willing to agree to this is not clear, although Abbas has expressed interest. In light of Cairo’s cold shoulder, Hamas has attempted to bring its current patrons, Turkey and Qatar, into the center of diplomatic activity to help secure a cease-fire, to little avail. The centrality of Egypt to a potential cease-fire is simply unavoidable. It is the only Arab state that borders Gaza, and therefore has a direct influence on what does and does not happen there.
But Egypt’s priority is not, as some mistakenly think, to preserve its allegedly coveted role as the go-to mediator and broker of Israeli-Hamas truces. Instead, the Egyptian government is determined to ensure that Hamas is not able to coerce it into modifying what Sisi regards as key national security policies regarding Gaza. Hence its initial proposal, essentially of “calm for calm,” offered Hamas no major gains. It was predictably, if not inevitably, rejected.
But now, Cairo has brought Abbas and the PA back into the talks, center stage. The Egyptians have grasped, even if Israel and some others have not, that the long-term political impact of the conflict probably depends more on restoring and enhancing the credibility of the PA than any other factor.
The PA has been badly damaged by the failure of the last round of peace negotiations and the lack of a viable ongoing diplomatic track towards Palestinian independence. Other strategies, such as U.N. recognition initiatives, have demonstrated limited impact and a prohibitive cost. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the improvements in governance, reforms, economic development, and public services achieved by the state- and institution-building program led by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been stagnant, at best. In many cases, the palpable, measurable successes of that program are fraying.
There is no question that Abbas and the PA were suffering a crisis of legitimacy in recent months, at the same time that Hamas was enduring an even greater crisis at virtually every register. But now, at least, Hamas has seized the initiative, albeit at a hideous cost. It alone appears to wave the Palestinian flag, however speciously. It alone claims to have a strategy for national liberation — armed struggle and “resistance” — no matter how implausible.
The danger is that the bloody and reckless hostilities between Israel and Hamas at least constitute something, which a PA armed with nothing may find difficult to counter politically. With each successive flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group has taken more blame from both Palestinian and broader Arab public opinion for the deaths and destruction. Hamas’s political “bounce” from nationalist sentiment against Israel has been more fleeting. But if the PA still appears ineffective, marginal, and irrelevant, even the heaping of public blame on Hamas might not stop it from gaining significant ground in the Palestinian political landscape.
If we are, as it appears, looking at a lose-lose scenario between Israel and Hamas, the biggest loser of all could be the PA. That loss of legitimacy will be good for no one — not Egypt, not Israel, and certainly not for the cause of peace. Thus, even as Israeli tanks roll into Gaza, regional and international powers must move quickly to help the PA restore its diplomatic and political relevance. This means ensuring that Ramallah, not Gaza, remains the primary address for Palestinian issues, and that a clear and credible contrast in both governance and the consequences of their policies can be drawn by each and every Palestinian who compares the PA and Hamas. Otherwise it will be hard for Palestinians and others not to conclude that Hamas is right when it claims that armed struggle and violence yield dividends — albeit at a high cost — while negotiations, diplomacy, and security coordination are a pointless dead end.