The decisive rout of Fatah in Gaza last week has led to a series of calls for new strategies designed to seize the opportunity created by the sudden turn of events.
The current thinking among the world's leading "peace processors" is that Hamas should be isolated in Gaza, but for Israel to work closely with the Fatah-led Abbas government in the West Bank to structure a new relationship, with Israel taking concrete steps to prop up Abbas - easing roadblocks, releasing funds, and most significantly, pulling back from much of the area. Abbas' Arab allies, and the US or EU will also be asked to supply weaponry to Fatah, much as they supplied Fatah in Gaza with tens of thousands of rifles, and millions of rounds of ammunition, now all lost to Hamas forces. At the same time, Israel's feckless Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is floating the prospect of returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for the Assad regime's disassociating itself from Iran, which has been presumably pushing it to do all those bad things it has been doing in Iraq and Lebanon .
There are so many things wrong with both approaches, it is hard to know where to begin. The Bush administration is set to renew funding to the Abbas regime, now that he has established a new government for the West Bank, free of any Hamas elements. How exactly this unilateral purge of Hamas Cabinet members squares with the results of the Palestinian elections in 2006 or the formation of the coalition government which followed, is unclear.
In any case, it suggests a willingness to ignore election results, or an admission that holding them with Hamas as a participant was a mistake. The Olmert government is also set to release back tax collections totaling as much as $600 million to the Abbas "government." There is a seeming desperation to make it look like something positive can come quickly from the disaster in Gaza, which followed Israel's disengagement from the area in the summer of 2005 embarrassingly quickly.
The magic solution is to give Abbas lots of money and pretend that Hamas is out of the picture.
Arming Hamas in Gaza
While Gaza is surrounded by the Mediterranean and Israeli-built fences for the most part, the Southern section borders Egypt. For years, tunnels were dug beneath the Philadelphi Road from Sinai to Rafah in Gaza to bring weapons and other items into the area while the IDF was still in Gaza. With Israel no longer patrolling the Rafah Sinai crossing, it has been open season for weapons smuggling for the past two years. Dozens of tons of weapons have poured into Gaza.
The New York Times says the smuggling was due to poverty, which attracts smugglers anxious for a few bucks. But smuggling exists to fill a demand for the products being smuggled.
Egypt is well aware that terrorists almost destroyed the Sinai tourist business with attacks in the past few years, and that human traffic (terrorists) and weapons can move in both directions. And Egypt has been in a position to move its forces to the border and cut off the traffic to and from Gaza. But it has shown no interest in doing so to this point. Now with Hamas completely in control of the strip, they may get more active. But the damage has already been done.
A Hamas strategy at work
With Gaza now the new terror Grand Central Station, all the radical groups housed there - Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas - are players with agendas. And with Gaza now totally in their hands, the mischief making will be exported. While new Western money from the US, Israel and the EU pours into Abbas and Fatah, destabilization efforts are sure to be directed from Gaza towards the West Bank, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq.
Some commentators have suggested that we (the US, Israel, the Europeans) should let Hamas now "stew in its own juices" in Gaza. But this is naive. Hamas, as pointed out by Caroline Glick, is quite purposeful, as are its sponsors, Iran and Syria. It will not self-destruct nor concede power, much as the individual lives of the Palestinians may continue to be miserable or even worsen.
The sudden war initiated by Hamas on Fatah in Gaza was not an accident set off by some tripwire. Hamas saw that Jordan and Egypt were starting a major re-supply of weapons to Fatah in Gaza funded in part by the US. An eventual struggle between the two sides was anticipated. So Hamas, a more determined and much better organized fighting force, though smaller in number than Fatah in Gaza, was able to preemptively strike and quickly destroy its rival in the strip.
Of course, the international community will not allow Palestinians in Gaza to starve, just because Hamas prefers to import weapons rather than food. Food and medicine will be supplied for humanitarian reasons (since Israel left the strip, the Palestinians have done such a good job destroying their economy that in Gaza about 80% of the population depends on food aid from abroad).
Were Israel to attempt to strangle Hamas and Gaza economically by encirclement, as called for by Likud leader Bibi Netanyahu, or even to take Gaza back by force, as some are suggesting will be new Defense Minister Ehud Barak's strategy ( I doubt it), the casualty count would likely be far higher than it was for the 5 week Lebanon war last summer, when 160 Israelis died, 115 of them from the IDF. The population density in the Gaza strip - over a million in a land area half the size of Chicago - would also guarantee a heavy casualty count, especially with Hamas trained to use civilians as shields, much as Hezbollah did in South Lebanon. The threat to Israeli forces and the potential for significant collateral civilian damage are two cautions for an already very cautious Israeli government, whose primary motivation seems to be its survival rather than the nation's.
A certain stability
During a short stay in Israel last week, one question I had for those I met was how the current Israeli government, with approval ratings hovering below the 5% level and a track record in governance that would make the hapless Jimmy Carter's 4 years as President seem successful and accomplished by comparison, manages to stay in power.
The answer is with a broad coalition totaling 78 of 120 Knesset members, patched together with five parties contributing their members. There is a certain stability inherent in a first mover disadvantage in this particular coalition. No party wants to be the first to leave, since it would not bring down the government, but would instead result the end of the financial goodies that come to the party for being part of the governing coalition. For the current government to fall, parties with at least 19 seats in the Knesset among them would have to leave the government for a vote of no confidence to pass, assuming the members of the three Arab parties with ten Knesset members among them would support the no confidence vote. If the Arabs elected to support the government though not a part of it (fearing a right wing coalition would replace it), then parties with 29 seats combined would have to leave for the no confidence motion to pass and new elections be called.
That seems very unlikely. At this point, to each minor party in the Kadima-led coalition, the status quo for participation in the coalition, even with a ruddlerless leader in charge of the country, seems better then the uncertainty of new elections with a new governing coalition formed that may not need that party's votes to patch together a majority of Knesset seats.
Such is the weakness of Israel's parliamentary system, filled with many self-interested weak parties.
Olmert to Washington
Trying to seize on the disaster of Gaza, Prime Minister Olmert is off to Washington to discuss how to prop up the Abbas government. But Fatah, the new "good guy", and object of sudden international affection, is hardly the white knight that will restore order to the Palestinians' chaotic ship of state. To say that Abbas has been weak and ineffectual in his three years as President since Arafat's death would be to shower him with undeserved praise.
Israel's perpetual critics are already blaming Abbas' failures and the capitulation in Gaza on Israel, since to criticize the Palestinians is, in their eyes, to blame the victim rather than its oppressor. But an honest accounting of the Palestinians' 60 year death spiral is long overdue. Fouad Ajami, in the New York Times of all places, provides such an account. A perpetual grievance mindset and an unwillingness to compromise do not build a state. Fatah is hardly in control of the West Bank, as the new romanticizers of Abbas and Fatah would posit. In the Palestinian election in 2006, Hamas won many more seats in the West Bank than Fatah, despite a small plurality of voters favoring Fatah, since it offered only one candidate for each seat, while Fatah often had several competing for each seat. With the Fatah votes split among several candidates, Hamas won many seats it would not have won had Fatah united behind a single candidate. In many areas of the West Bank, Hamas did better, winning outright majorities of the vote. So Hamas is hardly a Gaza-only phenomenon.
The West Bank
There is much more risk of the West Bank eventually succumbing to Hamas, than of Gaza being restored to Fatah. Hamas' iron discipline imposed on a small tightly controlled territory, means it will survive politically regardless of its performance. Fatah is now nursing the humiliating wounds of its Gaza defeat, with little to show for its 15 years in power.
The story of the Palestinian elections has parallels to the story of the Gaza fighting. The many Fatah fighters were locally-based gunmen, not part of a unified fighting force. Hamas was able to focus and pick them off, town by town. There was no unified Fatah fighting command or strategy. And Fatah was hardly a collection of moderates, ready for peace with Israel. The Al Aksa martyrs brigade, the Tanzim, and Force 17 competed with Hamas and Islamic jihad during the second intifada in the lethality of their terror attacks.
So why exactly should the West or Israel expect Fatah to turn on a dime ( a shekel?) and become a responsible, corruption-free party ready to seriously negotiate, make peace, and observe agreements with Israel? And why should Israel surrender territory to Fatah and accept the risk that Fatah might then fail in the West Bank as it did in Gaza? Hamas would then secure control of all the Palestinian territories.
A Hamas-led regime in the West Bank with borders near major Israeli population centers and Ben Gurion Airport would do far more damage to Israel with rocket fire than Hamas has so far achieved from Gaza with its rocket attacks.
Over the last few years, the various terror groups aligned against Israel have discovered that the use of rockets is a far better technique for terrorizing a population than infiltrating suicide bombers into a country. Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israel during the five week war last summer. A fifth of Israel's population was confined to bunkers or fled from the north to escape the rocket attacks. Israel's fence around Gaza and nearly compete security barrier in the West Bank, have greatly reduced the threat of suicide bomber infiltration into Israel. But now Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as Syria, all have Israel's population centers in their line of fire with large stocks of rockets and missiles, and in the case of Syria, biological and chemical weapons.
Rather than concentrating on appearances- propping up Mahmoud Abbas, Israel may need to consider stronger measures to protect against the new threat from Gaza, and from rocket attacks, whatever the source. For Gaza will be a base for operations and attacks against Israel from other places as well. With Abbas' government in some measure of control over Gaza, more than 2,000 rockets were fired at Israel in 22 months after the disengagement.
Should Israel retake the southern Gaza corridor to prevent the smuggling of weapons and terrorists into and out of Gaza? Should it retake an area in the north from where rockets have been fired at Sderot and Ashkelon?
The lessons of the withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 is that Israel did not become more secure, nor more internationally popular and legitimized. Rather, power vacuums were created, soon filled by the most vicious implacable enemies of the state. Now President Bush and Ehud Olmert are saying that Abbas is President of all the Palestinians, and hence is the address for negotiations with Israel. In fact, Abbas is a head of only a part of the Palestinian populace, and even that rump entity is not swearing allegiance to him.
Oslo, Lebanon, and now Gaza are instructive lessons that Israel's security is not enhanced by turning over territory to terrorists or those who have not given up their designs on destroying Israel. As the money tap flows again to Fatah and Abbas, the IDF and the settlers should stay for now where they are. And it would be a good thing if some of that money flow were performance-based - with rewards and penalties for good or bad behavior. The suicide bombing attacks during the second intifada all originated from the West Bank, with the exception of one by two British visitors from Gaza. The IDF has been interdicting potential terrorist attacks from the Palestinians in the West Bank every day.
While Gaza has been in a state of nature for two years, the West Bank has been the source of most of the trouble in both intifadas. There are many Palestinians there who would like nothing more than to kill some Israelis. In the rush to anoint Saint Abbas as the new Prince of Peace, this history needs to be remembered.
Creative solutions are needed for addressing the sorry plight of the Palestinians (the subject of my next article), but land for peace has proven to be a costly myth, and Israel certainly does not need to give up land for more war.
Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.