From Mark N. Katz
With the fighting over in Gaza (at least for now), many see Hamas emerging as the victor in the same way that Hezbollah did in the war it fought with Israel in the summer of 2006. But did Hamas really win? Is it better off now than before the fighting began?
Just like Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas has survived its January 2009 conflict with Israel. Also like Hezbollah, Hamas has retained—and perhaps even increased—its control over its core constituency. In another similarity with Hezbollah in 2006, the 2009 conflict with Israel has increased Hamas’s status throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Also like before, criticism in the West and elsewhere has focused on the damage caused by Israel, and not the damage done to it.
Further, Hamas can probably still launch missile attacks on Israel just like Hezbollah can. Finally, Hamas has reportedly begun to rebuild the Israeli-damaged tunnels it uses to smuggle weapons from Egypt into Gaza.
But just how impressive are these achievements? Like Hezbollah, Hamas survived an Israeli onslaught. But also like Hezbollah, Hamas was unable to prevent or stop Israel from causing enormous damage to its supporters as well as the population it claims to protect. It is true that the conflict has increased the stature of Hamas in the West Bank. But this was something that was already occurring anyway through the incompetence and corruption of Fatah, which has made Hamas look better to many Palestinians.
Like Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas has won enormous sympathy and support in Arab and other Muslim countries. But if anything, Hamas has received even less support from their governments than Hezbollah did. America’s Muslim allies have not broken relations with Washington (as many did in 1967) or sent men and materiel to help their Palestinian brothers fight Israel. Even anti-American forces have kept their distance from Hamas. While expressing solidarity, Hezbollah has not launched a missile onslaught from Lebanon that might have forced Israel to divert its attention away from Gaza. Indeed, Hezbollah was quick to disclaim responsibility for the few missiles that were fired into Israel from Lebanon. As for Syria: while encouraging Hamas to resist, Damascus has done little to help it do so.
Tehran has actually become frightened over the genuine anger toward Israel that has welled up among Iranians. As Azadeh Moaveni’s Washington Post Outlook piece of January 25 noted, “Early this month, Khamenei appeared on national television to temper his previous declaration encouraging martyrdom on behalf of the Palestinians. He thanked the young people who had offered to go die in Gaza but said that ‘our hands are tied in this arena.’ Khamenei didn’t really want anyone’s hands to be untied, however; the whole Gaza incident was meant to distract Iranians, not to jeopardize Iran’s role in the region.”
However impressive the volume of outrage expressed in the Arab and Muslim world over Gaza, the Palestinians living there—and Hamas itself—may well have been more impressed by the fact that they received no meaningful support from these quarters in their struggle.
Also like Hezbollah, Hamas could not take much comfort from European criticism of Israel, as this did not result in effective action to halt Israeli military activity—much less any material support for the Arab side. Most importantly, whatever strains the 2006 and 2009 conflicts may have put on the Israeli-American relationship, U.S. support for Israel clearly remains strong. While criticism of Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians may be growing in the United States, this has not led to sympathy or support for Hamas. Nor is it likely to.
Finally, it should be pointed out that a large part of the reason why Hezbollah was perceived as victorious in 2006 is that it was the Israelis themselves who, in their disappointment at not having destroyed it, declared Hezbollah to have been the winner. Yet while Hezbollah’s political strength within Lebanon certainly increased as a result of the 2006 conflict, it is noteworthy that Hezbollah has been extremely careful not to provoke another Israeli attack since then.
It remains to be seen whether Hamas will follow Hezbollah’s example in refraining from firing missiles into Israel after such an intense conflict with the Jewish state. If it does, then Hamas’s behavior might more reasonably be described as prudent rather than victorious. If, instead, it resumes missile attacks, Hamas risks not only triggering another Israeli intervention in Gaza, but also being blamed by Gazans for having needlessly brought them more pain without any gain. And this would open the door for another Palestinian movement to displace Hamas through taking advantage of Hamas’s mistakes (just as Hamas did with Fatah). Hamas cannot afford a “victory” such as this.
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