Sharon's Gaza Strategy: Good for Hamas, or Israel?

Posted in Broader Middle East , Israel / Palestine | 26-Mar-04 | Author: James Bennet| Source: The New York Times

JERUSALEM, March 25 — Each side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wants to prove to the other that a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is evidence of its own strength. But each is likely to convince only itself.

That is a reason for the present spike in violence, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tries to build support for a unilateral withdrawal and as the militant group Hamas works to secure a role in governing Gaza once the Israelis leave.

Hamas sees a unilateral Israeli withdrawal as a political opportunity. In the weeks before he was killed in an Israeli missile strike on Monday, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was in talks with other Palestinian factions over how to govern Gaza if the Israelis depart, according to officials of Hamas and Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction.

That is a landmark change for Hamas. A fundamentalist group that officially seeks Israel's destruction and rejects any negotiated end to the conflict, Hamas always refused a role within the governing Palestinian Authority, regarding it as a creature of the Oslo peace framework. Since Mr. Sharon is planning to leave Gaza without an agreement, Hamas now feels free to step in, its leaders said.

How much of a role the group wants to play in running Gaza in the near term is unclear. Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, one of its leaders in Gaza, said, "We are going to contest municipal elections."

For now, the killing of Sheik Yassin has given Hamas a lift among Gaza's Palestinians. "Sheik Yassin's death will give more momentum and more power to Hamas," said one Palestinian Authority official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Palestinian Authority in Gaza is already struggling. It is straining to meet payrolls and keep the lights turned on in ministry buildings. Its popularity has faded as Palestinians have come to view it as incompetent and corrupt. By contrast, Hamas has built a network of schools and low-cost health clinics. Its leaders live modestly and have reputations as incorruptible.

On Tuesday, Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, rushed from the West Bank to Gaza to pay his condolences to Hamas, seating himself in a plastic chair beside Dr. Zahar under an awning set up for mourners in a dirt soccer field.

"Sheik Yassin united us in his life, and will unite us in his death," Mr. Qurei said. "We promise our people will be loyal to him."

A senior Israeli military official said that in the short term, the killing would weaken the Palestinian Authority. "There's no doubt about that," he said.

But over time, he said, it is Hamas whose strength may wane as new leaders struggle to fill Sheik Yassin's overarching role and Israel keeps up its campaign against them. "Right now, they are at the peak of this thing," he said, "but how long can they stay there I don't know."

After more than three years of conflict, Palestinian political support in Gaza and the West Bank flows partly from which group can do the most damage to Israel.

For Mr. Sharon the proposed withdrawal has political advantages but also poses a problem. He is under attack from Israeli hawks who say he is repeating what they believe to be Israel's mistake in withdrawing unilaterally from Lebanon in 2000.

Many Israelis believe that that withdrawal undercut Israel's deterrence policy, its prized bulwark against Arab attack, and emboldened Palestinians to begin their uprising four months later. Now Mr. Sharon is alarmed by what he sees as a surge in terrorism, his aides say.

Ever since Mr. Sharon said in February that he was "working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza," violence in and around the strip has intensified. Militants in Gaza stepped up their attacks on Israelis, and the Israeli Army stepped up its incursions.

On March 7, Israeli forces killed 14 people, most of them Hamas gunmen, on a raid into central Gaza. A week later two Palestinian suicide bombers killed 10 Israelis in the Israeli port of Ashdod. That attack was jointly claimed by Hamas and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group linked to Fatah.

Israel called the bombing an assault on a strategic target and a major escalation. Mr. Sharon's security cabinet voted to approve the strike on Sheik Yassin.

After Sheik Yassin's killing on Monday, Mr. Sharon told legislators from his Likud Party that because Israel was planning the bold step of a withdrawal, its action against terrorism would have to become tougher, said Yuval Steinitz, a Likud legislator who was present.

"It should be clear we are withdrawing, if we withdraw, out of strength and not out of weakness," Mr. Steinitz said.

But in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the messages either side tries to send are usually much more convincing to itself than its adversary.

Palestinians cling to their own message, that Israel is running from Palestinian resistance. That the fight has exacted an appalling cost from Palestinian society — a ruined economy, a culture of death among the young — only reinforces the importance to Palestinians of rejecting Mr. Sharon's version.

For Mr. Sharon the killing of Sheik Yassin signaled Israeli resolve. Palestinians are giving it their own interpretation.

A child who called in to a Hamas radio station the day after the missile strike declared, "The assassination of Sheik Yassin is the assassination of the state of Israel." Another child called in to say, "Victory is soon." To support that interpretation, Hamas militants now feel the need to unleash devastating attacks.

Under Olso, Israel was supposed to yield civil or security control of some Gaza and West Bank land to the Palestinian Authority, which in turn was supposed to safeguard Israelis from attack by Hamas and other militant groups.

Mr. Sharon says the Palestinian Authority did not live up to its end of the deal. Now he wants to act without any agreement, withdrawing from Gaza and part of the West Bank because, he says, Israel needs to draw more defensible boundaries.

He also says he fears that if Israel does not act on its own, an internationally imposed plan may eventually deprive it of far more of the territory it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

As they discuss how to govern Gaza, Palestinians from different groups are holding their talks through the Higher Fellowship Committee, an umbrella for the 10 factions belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organization and for the handful outside it, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Hamas officials say they want to follow Sheik Yassin's plan for the group to play a role in running Gaza if Israel leaves. "His absence will not affect his plan to administer all the Gaza Strip," said Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader who was particularly close to the sheik. The details of what this administration might look like are under discussion.

Dr. Zahar said Hamas would not contest the Palestinian presidency, which is held by Mr. Arafat, until Israel withdrew from the West Bank as well.

Dr. Zahar, who referred to Fatah as "the left wing," bridled when it was suggested that Hamas was a radical group. "Radical?" he said. "We are not radical. Your concept of radical means extremist."

He added: "The radical system describes people who lived in the Middle Ages, who prevented science and propped up the church at the expense of the poor people. This does not apply in our life."