Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
January 9, 2009 - 1:00am

The immediate consequences of the Israeli assault on Gaza are being felt primarily by the Palestinians in Gaza, but its political shockwaves will be felt throughout the Arab world, in forms that cannot be easily predicted today. The Israeli attempt to inflict patrie-cide - the murder of a people and state - on Gaza emphasizes a series of transformational trends that have been clear throughout the Arab region for the past quarter-century.

The most important trend is the reconfiguration of power, legitimacy and activism in the modern Arab state. As governments in Arab states effectively ignore what is happening in Gaza - to judge by their political immobility - we will continue to witness the thinning impact, control and even legitimacy of many of those regimes. We will also continue to see the rise of non-state actors who become so strong and credible that they should be called parallel states.

Street demonstrations by angry Arabs no longer have political significance because the fear, rage, and desire for action by ordinary men and women throughout the Middle East have been mobilized by a combination of Islamist and tribal movements that now form the center of gravity of Arab political identity - in those expanding spaces that are not dominated by the modern Arab police state.

Hizbullah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Muqtada Sadr's movement in Iraq and others are some leading examples of this. Hamas in Gaza is probably the most significant, because it is part of the core Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has expanded into a wider Arab-Israeli conflict. The conflict forms a sacred landscape that incorporates Jerusalem, which is holy to all Muslims and Arabs, Christians included; and, in the past two years, Gaza is the only place in the history of the conflict where Palestinians have had a brief opportunity to establish a sovereign statelet of sorts - with their own institutions and security operations, largely free from direct Israeli attacks or controls, or hindrances from fellow Arabs.

The coming weeks will reveal what is happening in the battles in Gaza, and the political ramifications to follow. What is already obvious, though, is that Gaza represents the first time that Palestinians who controlled their own society have decided to make a stand against Israel's repeated attempts to kill, occupy, starve, and destroy them as a coherent society.

The picture is not pretty in any of its dimensions - the internal Fatah-Hamas fighting among Palestinians in 2007-2008, the mutual attacks between Hamas and other Palestinians and Israel, the insolvency of the Israeli negotiations with the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the stunning immobility of the Arab governments and leaders, or the world's complicit inattention to the Israeli attempt to starve and strangulate Gaza's population in the past two years, since Hamas won the parliamentary elections in January 2006.

Most of this is not new. The one and only truly new phenomenon today is that several thousand armed and trained Palestinians under the command of Hamas and smaller resistance groups have taken a stand in their homeland. They have shown that they are prepared to fight to the death to defend themselves against Israel's might and America's explicit support for Israel.

The 60-year-old intensifying Israeli assault on the people and land of Palestine has crossed so many thresholds that it has finally started to elicit reactions from many quarters of the Arab world who refuse to acquiesce in their own continued humiliation, colonization, marginalization, or - in the worst cases such as Gaza today - their own extermination.

A majority of Arabs and others around the world sympathize with Hamas and the Palestinian people - but they are helpless to do anything other than march in solidarity. Most Arab and foreign governments fear movements like Hamas that mobilize masses of citizens, take charge of their own destiny, and openly resist and confront the American-backed power structures around them.

How this war ends will have an enormous impact on trends in the region. If Hamas emerges standing on its feet, with an internationally monitored cease-fire that stops attacks by both sides and also reopens Gaza's borders to normal economic activity, this will be seen as a victory for Hamas. It will also bolster the popularity of the Hizbullah-Hamas model of armed resistance predicated on the will and capacity to fight a stronger foe.

Israel historically has never been able to come to terms with Palestinian nationalism. It has never seen the Palestinians as people who should enjoy the same quality of life and national rights as Jews, Zionists, and Israelis. In Gaza, we see the first example of assertive Palestinians operating on sovereign Palestinian soil. They have elicited an Israeli attempt at patrie-cide, and widespread popular support throughout the Arab region. Both of those trends will strengthen Islamist-nationalist movements and further degrade some existing Arab state structures.


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