Jan 22nd 2009

A war against Hamas – not against the Palestinian people

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Now that Israel has unilaterally declared an end to the hostilities it appears
that Hamas, which has been badly crippled, will eventually sign on to the
ceasefire. Having achieved its war objectives, Israel must demonstrate that the
war was waged against Hamas and not the Palestinian people. The tragic losses of
many innocent civilians and the destruction resulting from war must be a
catalyst for an irreversible movement toward peace.

Since Hamas is a popular movement and it cannot be eradicated, the best outcome
from the Gaza war for Israel and the Palestinians is to induce Hamas to
eventually become a political party rather than militant resistance movement.
This can come about through continuing pressure from the Arab moderate states,
denying Hamas the re-supply of weapons through international efforts, distancing
Hamas from Iran by meeting Gaza's financial needs mainly from Arab resources and
by contrasting the benefit of moderation to the violent resistance where Israel
can play a significant role.

Weakening Hamas will not in and of itself contribute to a lasting
Israeli-Palestinian peace because Hamas can overtime recover and continue to
undermine the peace process. The only way Israel can marginalize Hamas' long
term militancy and alienate ordinary Palestinians from its ideology is by taking
immediate and clear measures on the ground to benefit every Palestinian. Having
been able to weaken Hamas and render an indirect blow to Iran, Israel must
convert its military gains to a political advantage for the moderate Palestinian
Authority. Throughout the war in Gaza, the West Bank remained relatively quiet.
Although this was certainly due in part to the PA commitment to keep the calm,
it is also in large measure due to the West Bank Palestinians' determination not
to entangle with the Israelis and lose the economic and security gains they have
garnered during the past two years. Nevertheless, no security forces or economic
benefits could have kept them quiet had they felt greater sympathy for Hamas.
Thousands would have poured into the streets violently protesting the war.

Israel must now fully reward the Palestinians by taking immediate and meaningful
measures on the ground to benefit the moderates. Other than several coveted
mesures such as a freeze on settlement expansion, release of prisoners, and
removal of road blocks, Israel should allow thousands more Palestinians to work
in Israel. In addition, the Palestinians need sustainable development projects
that involve Israeli civilians to engage them directly and cement neighborly
relations. Israel must also work with the international community to alleviate
the humanitarian situation for Palestinians in Gaza by providing massive
supplies of food and medicine and work out a satisfactory security arrangement
to keep the border crossings open. In addition, to signal its humanitarian
concerns Israel should facilitate the transfer of hundreds of critically wounded
Palestinians for treatment in Israeli medical facilities.

Finally, since the current war on Hamas has politically weakened the Palestinian
Authority, Israel and the United States must take extraordinary measures to
empower the PA. The United States can offer economic assistance, military
hardware, and training to fortify Palestinian governance to ensure its stability
and deterrence capability against Hamas. By engaging full force in efforts to
prove its long-term intentions to the Arab governments, the Arab street, and the
international community that has been critical of its military incursion, Israel
needs to deem itself a more reliable and credible partner in the peace process.

Past experiences have demonstrated however, that even with good intentions very
little progress can be made on the ground as long as violence persists in
undermining any sense of security. Consequently, Israel is now seeking a more
permanent ceasefire while creating conditions that will inhibit Hamas from
rearming itself from Iran and continuing a violent agenda to destabilize the
region. The key to a sustainable ceasefire will be preventing the flow of new
weapons, especially rockets into Gaza through tunnels across the
Egyptian-border. To that end, Israel has successfully negotiated a Memorandum of
Understanding with the United States to provide technical assistance to help in
tracking new tunnels. This agreement is significant in that it has now engaged
Washington directly into the maintenance of the ceasefire. The agreement will
also entail the stationing of NATO monitors along the Philadelphi Route to
prevent future smuggling of weapons and the construction of new tunnels. In
addition, France, Britain and Germany have signaled their readiness to provide
naval forces along with the Israelis to intercept delivery of weapons by sea
from Iran.

The other important component that will substantially strengthen the peace
process is a concerted Arab effort led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to put pressure
on Hamas to accept a unity government with Fatah. As long as the Palestinian
house remains divided, it fosters violent rivalry hardly conducive to future
stability, let alone an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Both countries seem more
determined than ever not to tolerate any longer an Arab Sunni renegade group in
the service of Shiite Iran-a country which is aggressively pursuing regional
hegemony and threatening not only Israel but also the Arab Sunni states'
collective security interests. This explains why the Saudis and Egyptians hardly
hid their support of Israel's onslaught on Hamas and why they want to ensure
that Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, will not constitute
a threat to their regimes in the future. Egypt warned its fellow Arab states at
the recent Arab Summit in Kuwait of "using the conflict in Gaza to allow for
external forces to intrude on our Arab world." In order to highlight the
importance of keeping Iran's influence in the region to a minimum, Saudi Arabia
pledged one billion in development aid to Gaza which is likely to be funneled
through the PA, which will overpower any contributions by Iran to reduce Hamas'
dependence on Tehran. This aid money is also a sign to Israel that it must step
up and show its commitment to creating a Palestinian state, or else risk losing
future Arab cooperation.

Once the humanitarian crisis is substantially alleviated in Gaza and relative
calm prevails, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt must use whatever means at their
disposal to persuade Hamas to then accept the Arab Peace Initiative. Hamas, who
refused to explicitly recognize Israel before, may now be more disposed to
embrace the Initiative which will provide its leaders with a face saving way
out. The United States and its Arab allies must also put direct pressure on
Israel to accept the Arab Peace Initiative in which the two-state solution is
central.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have made their positions loud and clear throughout the
war and reaffirmed it from the Arab summit in Kuwait about Iran and future peace
negotiations with Israel. If Israel does not respond positively and directly to
their substantial gestures it cannot expect any future support in dealing with
Arab militants and allow Iran to collect the spoils of the Gaza war.

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