Escaltion of Conflict threatens Hamas - Financial Times

  • Beverley Milton-Edwards

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As they shelter from the escalating Israeli bombardment on Gaza, the leaders of the Palestinian Hamas movement have cause to look back at the past months with a sense of wonder and regret.

Only a few weeks ago, the Islamist group scored one of the biggest political successes in its history when it hosted an official visit to Gaza by the emir of Qatar. His arrival was hailed as the end of the movement’s long political isolation. It offered a boost to the legitimacy of Hamas rule in Gaza, but also tangible support: Qatar promised to invest US$400m in the strip, a vast sum by the poor standards of the coastal enclave.



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Since Wednesday, of course, dreams of a Qatari-funded building boom are firmly on hold. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza has already inflicted heavy damage on the group’s military infrastructure, and killed the leader of the Hamas military wing. The fear among Gazans now is that the conflict will ultimately trigger an Israeli ground invasion, possibly causing similar bloodshed and destruction as the war four years ago.

Even without a ground operation, Hamas looks certain to emerge from the conflict with a vastly diminished arsenal of rockets and missiles, and a significant dent in its broader military capabilities. Israel’s apparent ability to locate and target not just hundreds of missile sites deep inside Gaza but also one of the group’s most powerful leaders raises tough questions.

For the time being, Hamas has little to fear from its own population. Most Gaza residents appear to blame Israel for the escalation.

Residents say there is also widespread satisfaction that Hamas and other Gaza-based groups managed to fire their first missiles at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. On Friday, a Hamas news report revealing the group had fired a missile towards the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem was greeted with whoops of joy by a group of men huddled around a radio in Gaza’s Shifa hospital.

Yet, for all the fighting talk from Gaza, Hamas officials insist the group was keen to avoid conflict with Israel, and was taken by surprise when the offensive started. Indeed, the group says it accepted an Egyptian-drafted ceasefire proposal with Israel shortly before the first bombs fell on Gaza. “Hamas did not want escalation, but the events deteriorated very quickly,” says Waleed Almodallal, a professor of political sciences at the Islamic University of Gaza.

Israeli officials argue, however, that Hamas should have known that it was playing with fire. They point out that the group adopted a notably more aggressive posture in recent months – allowing smaller militant groups to fire more rockets on Israel, and stepping up its own involvement in such attacks.

Indeed, the day after the emir visited in late October, Hamas and other groups launched one of the biggest rocket barrages against Israel this year. It was one of several flare-ups that caused Israeli officials to bemoan their weakening power of deterrence vis a vis Hamas, and that helped persuade the government to order an offensive.

Whatever the state of Israel’s deterrence, Hamas has without doubt gained in confidence over the past two years. The Arab revolutions have swept like-minded Islamist governments to power in Egypt and Tunisia. Hamas also managed to extricate itself from a long-running alliance with Syria, shunning the widely loathed regime of Bashar al-Assad in favour of rising regional powers such as Qatar and Turkey.

“Hamas is a big beneficiary of the new geopolitical reality in the Arab world,” says Beverley Milton-Edwards, a Hamas expert and professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “Hamas leaders have grown more confident over the last two years, and have come to believe again in the inevitable justness of their cause – even if in reality they continue to preside over a war-shattered, besieged and benighted population in the Gaza Strip.”

What is unclear, however, is what concrete help Cairo, Tunis and Ankara can offer to Hamas – aside from solidarity visits and rhetorical condemnation. Military assistance seems out of the question, and Arab diplomatic pressure is likely to be outweighed, at least for the moment, by the strong support for Israel coming from the US and Europe. Indeed, Prof Milton-Edwards believes that the escalation could even end up hurting relations between Hamas and Egypt, as Cairo tries to juggle competing pressures from Hamas, Israel, the US and its own people. “If things go wrong for Egypt, Hamas could become the whipping boy for Cairo,” she says.

Period16 Nov 2012

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  • TitleEscaltion of Conflict threatens Hamas - Financial Times
    PersonsBeverley Milton-Edwards


  • Hamas
  • Milton-Edwards