Alert analysts have been pointing out this week that Hamas’s situation is different in the current “Israel-Gaza war”: different from the situations in 2009 (Cast Lead) and 2012 (Pillar of Defense), and more unfavorable for Hamas.
While I think these are good analyses (see here and here, for example), there’s a larger context in which Hamas has lost momentum and support. It’s not just Hamas that is seeing its foreign patronage evaporate. It’s the Fatah-Hamas unity government. It’s the whole enterprise of Palestinian statehood on the post-Oslo, post-Intifada model.
The Fatah-Hamas strategy
Fatah and Hamas came together early in June in a strategic gamble: Fatah gambled that turning its back on the Oslo-based peace process would generate momentum for a new assault on Israel through the unilateral establishment of a Palestinian state, backed by – presumably – the Arab League and the OIC.
Hamas has been pulling out all the stops to provoke Israel in the last several weeks: the kidnapping and murder of the Israeli teens; ramping up rocket attacks; launching heavier, longer-range rockets against Israel’s population centers; trying multiple times to infiltrate Israeli territory with terrorist operatives; lobbing rockets at the nuclear reactor at Dimona. This is a significant broadening of the scope and kind of attacks over the wars of 2009 and 2012. (For frequent, often in-depth updates, see especially Elder of Ziyon and Israel Matzav.)
But it isn’t a desperation move. It’s a tactic to draw Israel into a ground invasion of Gaza – and by that means to rally the Arab world to the Palestinian cause. Fatah’s eye may be on Arab and other Muslim governments; I think Hamas’s eye is at least partly on the jihadis who may respond to a call to arms against Israel.
Hamas has accompanied the actions with propaganda videos aired on its TV station: slickly produced videos issuing bloodthirsty warnings to Israelis. The whole campaign is considerably more overt and orchestrated than what we have seen in the previous conflicts over Hamas’s attacks from Gaza since 2006.
Fatah, meanwhile, has not repudiated Hamas’s actions in any way. In fact, Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) reported yesterday that Fatah has issued a threatening video of its own, promising Israelis that “death will reach you from the south to the north…the KN-103 rocket is on its way toward you.” PMW has documented threats from Fatah on social media as well, along with statements of solidarity with Hamas.
Fatah may hope to draw Israel into deploying combat forces into Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) as well. A Fatah planner would hope to begin lobbing those rockets into Israel once the IDF has rolled ground troops into Gaza, forcing Israel to open a second front and perhaps widening the political import of the conflict. (Fatah-linked operatives are already participating in the attacks from Gaza.)
According to reports on Wednesday, moreover, Fatah, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority leadership, will also sign documents for establishing membership in international organizations this week – including the International Criminal Court. Mahmoud Abbas hopes to leverage the ICC to weigh Israel down with war-crimes accusations and sanctions.
The Tower points out that Fatah and Hamas can be charged with war crimes if they manage to join the ICC as a Palestinian state – and that the unity government between the two of them puts the Palestinian Authority in violation of UN standards anyway.
Why the strategy is outdated
But we are past the time when that meant very much to actual geopolitical decisions. The sense of strategic unity between Fatah and Hamas as they prosecute an all-out push against Israel indicates that both of those entities recognize the world has changed. They are cutting the tether to the expectations of the Oslo era. That’s what they’re doing right this minute: burning that bridge.
Their intention is to create momentum for a pan-Arab campaign to intimidate Israel and present her with a fait accompli. They propose to start with the unifying spectacle of Israel having to attack the Palestinian Arabs in force.
But the joke, if we want to call it that, is on them. The world is past Oslo. It’s also past “Palestine.” This is not so obvious to most observers yet, I think, but it is nevertheless true. The concept of a Palestinian state was only viable and geopolitically desirable (to some) within the construct of the Pax Americana, in which borders were settled, and there were limits set by American power on the aspirations of hegemonic wannabes and self-proclaimed caliphs.
Those limits are gone now. The utility of a state of Palestine to the aspirations of more powerful actors is now a big question mark. No one in the capitals of the Muslim world actually cares if Fatah presides over a state, or if the people in the Palestinian territories have a fully official seat in the United Nations. Why would anyone care, when the meaning of the UN itself is now gravely compromised?
The UN concept has no force without a supremely powerful United States behind it. It is only a matter of time before the man on the street begins to realize that. But leaders from Vladimir Putin to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi see it clearly already. All bets are off. A “state of Palestine,” in the borders by which Gaza and the West Bank are currently delineated, is an unimportant prize – even for radical Islamists – in a world in which it will be possible to redraw borders all the way from the Zagros Mountains of Iran to the shifting sands of the Western Sahara.
The territory is important. But gaining access to it by proclaiming a Palestinian state is not. There are other, potentially better ways of gaining position on Israel’s flanks. No one’s borders are now sacrosanct – especially not Mahmoud Abbas’s.
Pace Joel Pollak (Breitbart link above), Iran isn’t “tied down” with ISIS in Iraq so much as confronted with an entire region – and long-term Iranian strategy – in flux. Iran has actually been reconsidering the geostrategic significance of both Gaza and Hamas since the Syrian civil war became a desperate, open-ended death struggle in 2013. The Iranians can’t help seeing that whatever form of organization eventually subdues Syria, the profile of what “Syria” is will quite probably be altered. The same is true of Iraq, and almost certainly of Lebanon.
Other nations – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan – see a threat in these dynamics. But there are also a number of visionaries, including leaders in those nations’ governments, who see opportunity.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi isn’t the only one. He’s just the guy with some current momentum and notoriety. Mohammed Morsi in Egypt was another such visionary – one we may not have heard the last of – with a different strategic approach. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one as well: with yet a third vision and type of approach. We are seeing different models for promoting the emergence of state-Islamism, from the guerrilla thuggery of al-Baghdadi – reminiscent of the Taliban (or of Dokku Umarov in the Caucasus) – to Erdogan’s ponderous, conventionally statist neo-Ottoman approach and Morsi’s Bolshevist assault on the ballot box.*
The legacy monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and the al-Sisi government in Egypt, are coming together to attempt to preserve some kind of status quo against the forces of instability and revolution. But – and this is important – they understand clearly the moment they are in. They, like the status-quo-busting radicals, have the opportunity to rewrite what the status quo is. There’s no America fencing them or anyone else off from such a project. We mustn’t make outdated assumptions now about what they will put their weight behind.
It can’t be stressed enough that our Pax Americana-era assumptions are now outdated. The rate at which we see them cast aside will only accelerate. Someone may decide in 2014 that Hamas, Gaza, Fatah, and/or some combination of them could be useful to him for a while. But it’s quite possible that no one will. Each actor in this open-ended drama has bigger designs now than being the patron of the little “Palestinian” state looking down from the local mountains on Jerusalem, and torturing Israel slowly, from a position that’s not as good as what he could get by waiting.
But no actor wants to cede patronage of that state to anyone else. The bother of dealing with such a problem would be an annoyance, for regional nations that are already knocked off their stasis points. It’s not necessarily to anyone’s advantage for the “Palestinian” state to be created today.
Israel’s momentary utility
If Israel can find a stabilizing way of suppressing Hamas, and daunting Fatah just enough to keep everyone tidily inside the lines he currently occupies, I suspect that outcome will be considered preferable to any other – for now – by the onlookers in the region. They will probably continue for the time being to give perfunctory lip service to Palestinian statehood. But I don’t see them making a big push in the UN to bring the Palestinian state to full realization. It no longer means what it meant five years ago, because the Pax Americana, with all its assumptions about order and meaning, is gone.
* For predictions and analysis that presaged these developments (back in 2009), see the links from this 2011 article, written when the Arab Spring started.