Rafael Frankel
The Christian Science Monitor
July 7, 2009 - 12:00am

By one calculus of Middle Eastern politics, Israel could say that its month-long offensive against Hamas and heightened economic blockade of Gaza have succeeded.

Rockets no longer fly into Israel from the Gaza Strip. And Gaza's Islamist rulers saw their support base drop below 20 percent as a direct result of a war that exacted a high price: 1,400 dead, 50,000 homes destroyed or damaged, and 1.5 million of Israel's neighbors more embittered than ever.

The question now: Will Gaza's battering lay the groundwork for reincorporating the territory and its leaders into a revived peace process? Or will it prolong Gaza's isolation?

Hamas remains the unchallenged ruler here, two years after ousting Fatah after a violent conflict. But there is evidence that grumbling among its constituents and external pressures are bending what was once an uncompromising stance toward Israel by the Islamic Resistance Movement, as Hamas is formally known.

Not only is Hamas refraining from attacking Israel, it is also preventing smaller militant factions from engaging in militant acts.

Hamas spokesman: 'We have disappointed our people'

A June 29 poll indicated that support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank fell precipitously to 18.8 percent following the war. Though it has eliminated its internal opponents and does not permit antigovernment demonstrations, Hamas is not immune to those sentiments.

"Both Fatah and Hamas have disappointed our people," says Hamas spokesman Ahmed Yousef. "Until now we couldn't reconcile our rift and end the divide between the West Bank and Gaza. [We are] giving the Israelis all kinds of justification to continue confiscating land in the West Bank."

Gaza's short-term fate may well depend on the ongoing reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo. Egypt has extended the deadline for a deal to July 28, inviting the two parties to reconvene for a seventh round of talks on July 25.

Under the accord being formulated, a committee made up of all the Palestinian factions would set policy for the Gaza Strip until elections were held for the Palestinian presidency and legislative council next year.

Unresolved for now is the role of Hamas's security forces and whom they would report to under such a scenario.

But according to Mr. Yousef, under no circumstances will Hamas disband its Qassam brigades, the 16,000-man force which acts as Hamas's army.

"Al-Qassam will be a resistance force that has nothing to do with people's daily lives," Yousef says. "It will be like Hezbollah in Lebanon. They will not be visible, but they will be there."

Impact of US, Iranian dynamics

Hamas may be feeling the effects of the political gyrations in Iran, its strongest backer. And the group's extremist rhetoric is now a severe diplomatic liability with the ascension of an American president whose background and worldview do not provide the militant group with an easy enemy.

President Obama's speech in Cairo to the Muslim world gave Hamas "food for thought," says John Ging, Gaza director of the United Nations relief agency that cares for Palestinian refugees. Hamas is "thinking of the opportunity, [and] they are thinking of the consequences of failing to take the opportunity."

Whether the Fatah-Hamas compromise being formulated is enough to compel Israel to lift its siege of Gaza may depend on the degree of pressure Washington is willing to apply to Jerusalem. According to multiple stories in the Israeli press, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants a package deal that includes the return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for any easing of the siege.

"Israel was surprised that following Operation Cast Lead, there was no real international pressure to ease the blockade on Gaza," says Eran Shayshon, the director of the national security program at the Tel Aviv-based research institute, Re'ut. Mr. Shayshon does not foresee a change in that stance unless Hamas makes dramatic concessions.

'Total failure' of Palestinian leadership

Even if a Fatah-Hamas deal is reached, Gazans are pessimistic about any lasting reconciliation..

Between the two factions, "there is a tacit agreement, without talking, that we are happy with the situation the way it is today," says Eyad Sarraj, an independent Gaza politician and human rights activist.

If that is the case, then the past two years could be only the beginning of isolation for Gazans.

A "total failure" of Palestinian leadership has led Gazans to the point where they "are now the last ones to decide on [their] destiny," Dr. Sarraj says. "Other people are more powerful and control the decisions in Washington, in Tel Aviv, in Damascus, in Tehran, in Cairo."

But Hamas will not allow a separate peace between Israel and Fatah in the West Bank, warns Yousef, the Hamas spokesman. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "cannnot do anything without getting the consent from Gaza," he says.


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