Considering Israel v. Hamas Phase II – With Egypt, Enable Fatah in Gaza
By Steve Schippert | January 12, 2009
As noted in our prior PrincipalAnalysis, A View To A Kill, one of the key Israeli objectives of Operation Cast Lead is to hit Hamas hard enough and through sustained air and ground operations in order to significantly degrade the Gaza terrorist group. The immediate objective is not the total IDF defeat of Hamas, but rather a step toward that long-term objective.
It is highly improbable that any Israeli war or operations can achieve the complete defeat of Hamas on their own. It is, after all, more than simply a terrorist group comprised of angry armed men. It is a movement, and one backed by a very influential and powerful Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, from which Hamas is the Palestinian offspring. Hamas is a terrorist group which, like Hizballah in southern and eastern Lebanon, claims its political legitimacy on the foundation of popular support which, in turn, is both the benefit and reason behind the existence of its provision of civil services and charity. Defeating Hamas as a popular movement requires more than dead terrorists and Israeli tanks. It quite necessarily requires an indigenous Palestinian alternative.
The Victory Must Be Palestinian
Just as the demise of al-Qaeda in Iraq required popular rejection and revolt by Iraqis, the ultimate demise of Hamas as a viable threat to Israel likewise requires a Palestinian Muslim victor, not a Jewish Israeli victor. With this - some Palestinian alternative - Hamas can not be defeated as a movement, and therefore Israeli war with it would be a continuous cycle of a growing terrorist movement; Israeli debilitating strikes; terrorist re-supply, resurgence and attacks; and more Israeli strikes. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Ideally, a new and moderate Palestinian alternative faction would emerge and take root. Many Palestinians see Hamas as instigators, bringing the heavy hand of Israeli retaliation and its associated misery. Likewise, many Palestinians also see Fatah as a hopelessly corrupt Arafat legacy of cronyism and graft. There is little realistic alternative for Palestinians. In the current absence of any political alternative, Israel likewise has few choices in securing its citizenry against terror attacks launched from the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip.
Israel can withdraw and do nothing, accepting the threat and launch of Hamas' rockets into in-range Israeli towns and cities. This is an option, but an unacceptable one for any nation serious about protecting and defending its vulnerable citizenry.
Conversely, Israel can press on with ground operations in a largely sealed and cordoned Gaza Strip until Hamas has been bled dry. Three aspects of this approach make it untenable. The amount of Israeli blood, sacrifice and committed resources required to see this option through is too high for the relatively small Israeli population. Likewise, the required commitment of forces would raise Israel's exposure to and increase the risk of counter-attack from the ever-present threats on other borders, namely Iran's Hizballah foreign legion in Lebanon and Iran's neighboring ally, Bashar Assad's Syria. Thirdly, as noted above, even the complete defeat of Hamas militarily does not kill the radical group as a movement.
Without a Palestinian option in place for the Palestinian public in Gaza to consider and ideally choose, Hamas will remain alive even after the most decisive of operations, only to regroup, regenerate, and restore its dominance in Gaza and terror upon Israel.
Fatah: The Only Palestinian Option Today
Today, Fatah is the only option for both Palestinians and Israelis alike. While Gazans may loathe Fatah's long tradition of corruption and graft, and Israelis may be under no illusions that Fatah is an ideal partner, there simply is no other alternative. There may be down the road -
especially if Hamas can be dethroned in Gaza - but in order to get to that point, Fatah becomes the sole option of necessity.
The Palestinian president, Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), still maintains a map of the region on the wall without the state of Israel included and a greater 'Palestine' covering the entire area. However, Israel has given Fatah, the least bad of two Palestinian political options, room to breathe and, potentially, moderate. Perhaps the motivation for Abbas' relative embrace of Israel stems from the many economic carrots afforded it after the 2006 elections that catapulted a more radical Hamas into power.
The Palestinian Authority, run by Fatah in the West Bank, is itself an international welfare-dependent government, and Abbas' popularity hinged early on the PA's ability or inability to make payroll for its thousands of employees. But whatever the motivation, the effects are undeniable. Israel has a Palestinian Authority that it can at least engage in discussion and negotiation. This is not the case with Hamas, nor will it likely ever be considering its founding charter remains centered on the destruction of the State of Israel and the subjugation, death or expulsion of Jews.
Egypt Also Favors Fatah In Gaza - For Now
Not only is Fatah currently Israel's preferred Palestinian partner, but it is also the faction favored by the Egyptian government. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is both powerful and influential, with branches and offshoots all over the world. But it is not the governing power in Egypt. That falls to the regime under an elderly Hosni Mubarak who, now at 83 years of age, has a long history of keeping the Muslim Brotherhood in check, often violently.
His age and increasing frailty should be sounding alarm bells in the West as it is certainly doing so in Israel. What comes after Hosni Mubarak's eventual death is predictable in only one aspect: almost certain instability and volatility in Egypt as the vying for absolute power among groups and powerful individuals would immediately commence. And with Mubarak's inevitable passing may come the end of a relatively internally stable, reliable Israeli neighbor, with whom the Israelis have been at peace for decades. This may be a factor contributing to Israel's sense of urgency in dealing a crippling blow to Hamas now, all rocket fire on her citizens notwithstanding.
While what follows the Hosni Mubarak regime - likely in the next few years - is unpredictable regarding who will rise to power, it is almost certain that the next power in Egypt will be far friendlier to Hamas in Gaza, with whom it shares a critical border. This border is used for smuggling of all manner of items, but most importantly it is the chief entry point for advanced Iranian weapons, explosives and ammunition.
Egypt has ostensibly cooperated with Israel in patrolling the narrow Gaza border, though lucrative payoffs offered security forces and under-manning at times have created gaping holes in what is, on paper, an Egyptian sealing force. And the Egyptian government also refuses to support the Hamas offspring of its greatest internal challenger, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Potential Egyptian-Israeli Cooperation Standing Up Fatah In Gaza
Because a Fatah challenge to Hamas' iron-fisted rule in Gaza is in both Egypt's interest and Israel's, the two will likely cooperate in standing up a Fatah force in Gaza. It must be rebuilt from figurative and literal rubble following Hamas' bloody purge of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. But if this can be accomplished, a Palestinian challenge to Hamas - and not an Israeli challenge - can be mounted. Again, the victory must be Palestinian and not purely Israeli for any view stretching past the next day, week or year.
With a sufficiently degraded and battered Hamas, Egypt could support a Fatah resurgence by permitting its supply and support through the Gaza-Egypt border, including the Rafah over-land crossing as well as through select tunnels currently peppered across the Philadelphi Route, a narrow strip of land. Just as Hamas needed its weapons and ammunition stores destroyed as much as possible, likewise the same must be built up and established for Fatah.
Reports indicate that Israel is considering re-taking the Philadelphi Route and holding it. This indicates Israel's commitment to clamp the tunnel smuggling routes beneath the east-to-west border corridor. It can destroy the tunnels as it detects them. But it may also be selective, as the key here is that Israel would essentially control them. It would maintain a presence above the smuggling tunnels with the ability to destroy them - or not - and also have the benefit of a co-interested Egyptian force at the Egyptian entrances.
Israel could permit the same through the border crossings with shipments entering Gaza from Israel. There was the counter-argument against supplying arms to Fatah, with the sober example of those same weapons now in the hands of Hamas terrorists being fired at IDF troops in Gaza. However, this reality is not present simply because Israel and the West assisted Fatah, but rather because Fatah - simply put - lost, and their weapons confiscated. The approach shouldn't be to not arm or support Fatah in Gaza. Rather, the approach should be to do so to the extent necessary that Fatah does not lose. The alternative is assured and continued Hamas domination and continued terrorist attacks with increasing range and lethality.
Both governments would likely substantially increase financial aid and support for Fatah if Israel can relatively assure the increase in financial support is meeting its intended Gaza project. The West would be approached to assist financially as well, with the effort presented as both relief and a Palestinian cause intended to establish an alternative to a terrorist-run quasi-government in torn Gaza.
Conclusion: Embracing The Long View
Israel has subtly utilized Fatah members in Gaza for ground intelligence throughout Operation Cast Lead, and to great affect. Fatah is willing to enlist Israeli aid in achieving its aims, which at current likewise include debilitating and dethroning Hamas. In the long view, this may be the type of allied support which builds both confidence and understanding going forward.
The face-to-face cooperation and coordination between Fatah members and IDF forces and Israeli intelligence required to net the effects it has thus far in Operation Cast Lead should not be dismissed out of hand or go unrecognized. This is very personal interaction and mutually beneficial cooperation among two sets of personnel that have been bitter, deadly enemies. And if Fatah and the Palestinian Authority can be resurrected in Gaza, it will have been through this cooperation. Working relationships and mutual respect is likely being established with each passing day. And perhaps, in quiet moments alone, a better understanding and appreciation one for the other.
This is not to say that flowers and chocolates at dinner together are in the immediate offing. However, it is from interpersonal seeds such as this that productive communications and relations down the road are built on as lieutenants become generals and ministers, and street activists and fighters become leaders.
In the short term, two profound tasks concerning the re-establishment of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority remain, presuming operations against Hamas continue to the point of significant degradation.
The first challenge is the physical supply, aid and restored manpower on the ground and in the streets and neighborhoods. Israel has at least some control over this challenge in keeping their end of the bargain.
The second challenge is one which neither Israel nor Fatah can control: Can Fatah be empowered significantly before Hosni Mubarak dies and the Egyptian regime encounters uncertainty and instability? (An assassination attempt on Mubarak's life in the coming weeks would not be a surprise.)
There are many risks for Israel going forward. But any action chosen contains risks. None of the options, however, contain the level of risk of continued inaction in the face of a building and strengthening Hamas in Gaza.
The clock may have been ticking in the heads of Israeli strategists and experts. Can Israel beat the clock? An untimely Mubarak death could unravel everything in short order if Egypt enters upheaval or if Mubarak's Muslim Brotherhood opposition gain rapid access to the levers of power. For Israel, within the additional crucial context of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, the time to act was now. And it appears Israel had its eyes well down the road.
The approach Israel seems to be taking in Gaza today, unlike the 2006 Summer War with Hizballah in southern Lebanon, is one with a much longer view. It is a longer view than simply "punishing" Hamas or, as is popularly proffered in commentary, "punishing" the Palestinians writ large. It is a longer view that gives the appearance of guiding a potential Palestinian victory over a defeated Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
END NOTE: While the author does not pretend to be in the minds of Israeli strategic thinkers, the conclusion that Israel is taking the long-view approach to Gaza as suggested is based upon the observation of events in context with recent history and foreseeable future events, such as the inevitable eventual death of Hosni Mubarak and the challenges this will create. The conclusions offered in this space do not preclude, however, that such conditions can exist and yet see the often under-performing Olmert government fail to properly capitalize on them. Furthermore, if the aim of first degrading Hamas and then, with Egypt, standing Fatah to challenge Hamas on the ground and in the minds of the Palestinian people is not part of the Israeli strategic thinking behind Operation Cast Lead, the author suggests it should be.