The Coming Backlash? Don’t Dismiss Fatah Just Yet

Many people, especially in the popular Arab press, want to  declare Fatah as irrelevant.  If there’s no doubt that they are on the PR defensive, as passions die down and a sense of normalcy returns, they are going to make a comeback.   Today,  Al-Masri Al-Youm has a great   interview  with Fatah leader Mohamed Dahlan.   One big accusation thats been floating around the Arab world is that Egypt and Fatah “knew about” the Israeli attack on Gaza beforehand.  I think Dahlan has a pretty convincing answer to this: 

– أنا لا أشارك فى أى لقاءات ما دمت خارج الحكومة، وأتساءل من الغبى الذى لم يعرف بالضربة، كل الخطط كانت منشورة باستثناء توقيتها، ومن لا يعرف فهو غبى، وأتساءل لماذا أبقت حماس ضباطها يذبحون بهذه الطريقة المهينة التى تفطر القلوب فى المقار الأمنية، أنا عندما كنت فى السلطة وأسمع عن تهديدات كنت أعيد المساجين إلى منازلهم وأخلى كل المقار الأمنية، وأبقى حارساً أو اثنين عليها، وكان الزهار ينتقدنا ويقول عنا قوات الإخلاء، نعم قوات إخلاء، لأن حياة المواطن مهمة ومقدسة، لا يشرفنا أن نعد شهداء، بل أن نحمى الأرواح، لم تكن الضربة العسكرية سرا، ولا يوجدشىء سرى فى إسرائيل سوى القنبلة النووية.

“And I wonder who was the idiot that didn’t know an attack was coming.  Everything was clear except the exact time.  Why did Hamas officers stay in their security buildings?   When I was in charge, whenever there were threats, I evacuated the buildings…..Zahar [Hamas leader] criticizes saying we employed “evacuation forces” but yeah thats exactly it.  Evacuation forces because we care about the lives of our citizens.  The attack wasn’t a secret.

I suspect that Dahlan might be (intentionally) hitting on a sensitive point: If the Gazans perceive Hamas as having recklessly provoked the battle, then Fatah  stands to benefit.    Reading through the comments of a  post  at Abu Muqawama yesterday, one comment stuck out to me as plausible:

No one wants to say it, but I’d suggest a major problem HAMAS has is too much deadweight. If they’re telling the truth, HAMAS has up to 18,000 men under arms, or more than double the active cadres for Hizbollah.  Hizbollah has that number because that’s the optimum they can arm, supply, train, command and control on a daily basis, and then absorb volunteer militiamen (such as those from Amal) during emergencies.  Because of the economic crisis, HAMAS has put a lot of MAMs, especially teens, on its payroll, but that doesn’t mean that they’re effectively trained, armed or led.

On another point, my buddy in Fatah told me that they shared Israel’s estimate of about 800 or so HAMAS operatives killed in the fighting, especially the greenest and youngest troops that they pushed toward the Armistice Line (or border) in prepared fighting positions.  They were slaughtered. Apparently, there’s been some recriminations about the deaths on the partof formerly pro-HAMAS families. Indeed, the word is that the war was much more popular in the West Bank, where bombs weren’t falling, than in Gaza.

This comment gets to whether there might be an anti-Hamas backlash in Gaza.   Ultimately,  will Gazans be more pissed at Israel?  Or at Hamas for talking about how much they wanted the ceasefire to expire and then getting exposed as a bunch of amateurs militarily?  I suspect there’s a lot of angry mothers right now in Gaza who are wondering why their sons were slaughtered.   Because for all of their boasting, Hamas didn’t actually put up much Resistance.   Look back at 2006:  Hezbollah killed 120 Israeli soldiers in 2006.  Even in 2002, Palestinians were able to kill 17 IDF soldiers in   Jenin in only a day or two.  Yet  in 2009, half of Gaza is destroyed and Hamas was only able to take out 10? Arab analysts are saying that Israel’s failure_to_force Hamas to surrender after three weeks is a sign of the Resistance’s strength.  But with all due respect for Abdel Bari Atwan, how can we talk about Resistance when it doesn’t seem Hamas was able to inflict any significant casualties on the IDF?   Furthermore, as Dahlan said,  Hamas failed to take basic security precautions in the initial period that led to lots of their fighters being slaughtered.  Like holding conspicuous open-air ceremonies while your leaders are going on V taking about how much they want to resume the Resistance, which provide easy targets for Israeli jets.   See this picture here  which illustrates the point that Dahlan is making and there was a much more graphic version of its shown in the Arabic press.

I don’t know if the backlash will come.   But if I was the mother of  one of those young recruits who was slaughtered I’d certainly be demanding explanations from the Hamas leadership for their poor performance and preparation.   Of course, if you talk to Abdel Bari Atwan in London, or mregypt in Cairo, or Ahmed Monsour in Doha, they will all probably say that Fatah is doomed and Hamas is going to gain the upper hand because of the Gaza war.  But I don’t think their views are the ones that really matter here.  What do the mothers of  slaughtered Hamas fighters think about Hamas vs Fatah?  They are the ones with a “vote” on this issue and that’s where the media should be focusing.

Would Hamas come out stronger?

No doubt about the unity of the Arab public opinion behind Hamas.  However, with the current bombardment of the Gaza strip this attitude might be questionable.  Rob’s thoughts about the military dimension  of Hamas vs. Israel were good but lets put them in a bigger picture.

First,  while Hamas leaders knew that Israel was looking for a chance to hit, noone expected this scale for sure. Its important to notice that for several years now Gaza represented a headache for Israel, weapons smuggled easily there, adjacent to Egypt, suicide bombers…and so forth.   So my point here is that Israel wanted to destroy the infrastructure of Gaza.   In my opinion the operation is not crushing Hamas, its more about crushing Gaza which every now and then begets a problem that disturbed Israel. The only problem Israel faced was the timing, it was necessarily that the attack be justified internationally, and what’s bettter than the expiration  of the ceasefire?

Second, its very important to define what victory means in this war? Again, this is not a traditional warfare, Israel here is setting  an intangible target: to eliminate Hamas from the political and the diplomatic landscape.   However, its very difficult to believe that for 2 reasons:

1-The nature of the campaign is too immense to believe that it just wants to eliminate Hamas.    For instance; how would one explain  the use of the Air Force to destroy a group of street fighters basically, or a militia? I think a logical decision would be using a group of the Special forces to kill the top leaders (of this group that seems to be the chief impediment to the peace talks) .  Wouldn’t this be enough to make Hamas disappear from the landscape for a couple of years minimum? Israel already has enough intelligence to perform such an operation.

2- I think Hamas could claim victory (after all the fighting stops ) if it had one member holding the organization together, even if the Israeli attack lasted for 2 months which I highly doubt.   If one member of Hamas afterwards said that Hamas government still stands and it is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, what do we call that?

Third, although the ground operation seems highly expected, the IDF has to take into account many considerations about how it should proceed, becauseThe Gazan mud will make it harder for tanks and armored personnel carriers to maneuver, and Hamas has clearly been preparing its defense for months. Thus any ground operation will entail many casualties” something that worries the Israeli government. The main point why Israel would risk failure there is that it adopts the same strategy it adopted against Hezbollah; an all-out-war and final-battle.  The  bottom line here is that many Palestinians find such a war acceptable, so even if Israel eradicated Hamas, reestablishing the movement or the emergence of an even more extreme replacement would not take much time. 

On the regional level, the scene shows a huge resentment against the Arab regimes:  my friend at the National was right when he differentiated between the line of negotiators and rejectionists in  Arab world. The main point would never be Hamas’ victory or loss, but the tendency for more use of force. I think crushing Hamas is more critical to the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia than Israel. Regardless of  who is in power,  Israel depends mainly on military superiority against the Arab regimes whether Fatah is in power or Hamas is.  So creating a security situation and bolstering its deterrence is a decisive elements in its relationship with any regional party.   As for the Arab regimes it is critical to point out that Hamas did not only pose a new preferable alternative  in dealing with Israel, but also  poses a pattern for defying authority and this was reflected on the kind of rage that existed in Egypt in specific. What’s happening now brought the conflict between Hamas and Egypt into the open which could influence the developments in Egypt. Strikingly,  what’s happening now is that Hamas is enjoying” across-the-border support from Palestinian factions and gains electoral popularity at Fatah’s expense” which means that the moderate voices in Fatah are leaning towards joining their counterparts.   When that happens Hamas would so popular that Abbas would not be able to refuse a unity government.

Inside the Arab states it seems that the ability to channel and quench the crowd’s rage is declining, the demonstrations that took place in Egypt were not seen for long ago, and the populist discourse contains speech of mockery and disdain, the government used to confront it violently.

Rob jumping in here: 

Mr Egypt mentioned above that “if Israel eradicated Hamas, reestablishing the movement or the emergence of an even more extreme replacement would not take much time.”   This is an important  point- this might sound shocking to some in the US, but Hamas, in the big picture of Islamist movements,  is actually  moderate.   Put it this way, it would take you hours, if not days, to find ten normal people in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, or for that matter maybe anywhere in the Islamic world who don’t agree, in principle, with Hamas’  right to use violence against Israel, including the use of suicide bombers.   In fact,  every single major Islamic religous scholar would agree that their use of suicide bombers is Islamically acceptabe given the military power inbalance between Israel and the Palestinians.   And on pure theology , Hamas is  moderate, basically adhering to Qaradawi-style Islamic Centralism.     So what’s my point here?  I want to highlight a good  post by  Matt at the Wonk Room:

A number of writers have noted the possibility of Hamas being politically strengthened by Israel’s bombing of Gaza, just as Hezbollah were strengthened by Israel’s 2006 bombing of Lebanon. This would obviously be a bad outcome, but it’s important to understand that it would not be the worst. A much worse outcome would be that the bombings weaken Hamas while strengthening Salafist elements in Gaza, who consider Hamas a bunch of timid, half-stepping sellouts.

I highly recomend reading the rest of the post.  Matt is correct: there are worse outcomes than a strengthened Hamas.