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Story Archives: Hamas, Israel and the Middle East
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|Hamas, Israel and the Middle East|
Before you ask why you should care, please allow me to explain it.
The present situation in the Gaza Strip where Israeli forces and Hamas terrorists are fighting has the potential to further destabilize an important region and further exacerbate U.S. efforts in Iraq.
First, a quick overview.
Hamas, which means Islamic Resistance Movement, or "zeal," was created in 1987 during the first Intifada, or uprising, in the Palestinian-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They are closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is banned in many Arab states, and Iran and Hezbollah.
Almost all Western Democracies list Hamas as a terrorist organization although in recent years, the organization has gained some measure of legitimacy by being elected to and, in fact, holding a majority in the legislative council of the Palestinian National Authority. Hamas is in direct competition with Fatah, the oldest and most familiar of the confederation of parties operating under the Palestinian Liberation Organization banner.
Yasser Arafat was the de facto leader of Fatah until his death in November 2004. Fatah acts as a nationalist party with some socialist leanings.
Hamas became emboldened after their electoral victories over Fatah (coupled with Israel's voluntarily pulling out from the Gaza Strip) and thus dramatically increased their firing of Qassam rockets indiscriminately into southern towns and villages mainly targeting civilians.
To put a fine point on it: after Israel withdrew from Gaza there were less than 200 rocket attacks; after the Hamas political victory, there were almost 1,000. The supply line for the Gaza Strip, which was part of Egypt until the 1967 June War, is often a channel for weapons and support from the Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood.
Due to international pressure, Egypt finally stepped in last year and negotiated a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, as neither side would directly talk with the other. That cease-fire officially ended on Dec. 19, 2008. However, prior to this date, Hamas had already begun attacking Israelis and kidnapping soldiers again.
Now, let's add more twists to this … hang on, this gets complex.
U.S. allies Turkey and Jordan, both with large Sunni Muslim populations, are being pressed by Saudi Arabia (also Sunni and another ally) to find solutions before this spreads or, worse, increases Iran's role in that part of the Middle East.
Syria, Lebanon (as represented through Hezbollah) and Iran are pushing for diplomatic status for Hamas so that they (mainly Iran) will have a voice at the negotiating table. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) is being pressed by Hezbollah (Shia) to force Egypt to open the Rafah crossing to alleviate some of the border disputes.
Iran has pledged that Hezbollah (looking more and more like a de facto governance body than a terrorist organization) will not respond in northern Israel to the Gaza crisis.
Because of the U.S. not having an active Arab-Israeli peace process for the last few years, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has instigated his own shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Tel Aviv. It is hard to imagine this process yielding anything significant. Middle East envoy Tony Blair has traveled to the region to demand that Gaza residents be provided food and water.
Not confused yet? Let me jumble this up some more.
Between now and Jan. 20, when Obama officially takes office, there will be limited U.S. involvement. That means increased ground forces from Israel and, because Hamas operates from civilian bases, additional civilian casualties.
The Israeli Defense Forces are in the process of snuffing out Hamas leaders and blowing up the vast network of underground tunnels that serve as a conduit for transporting terrorists and weapons. Also, Israel is in the middle of elections and will go to the polls on Feb. 10.
This conflict is being offered in Israel as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's (Labor Party) War, but political rivals Tzipora Malka "Tzipi" Livni (Kadima Party) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud Party) are positioning themselves to take advantage of whatever the outcome of this conflict is.
So, how does a former community organizer enter this equation without pre-conditions?
You tell me.
John W. Sutherlin, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. He also is co-director at the ULM Social Science Research Lab. He can be reached by e-mailing Sutherlin@ulm.edu.