Talking to Hezbollah

The Obama administration seems to have ushered in a welcome wind of change (well, for now).  The British government this week has announced that it is opening up talks with low-level officials from Hezbollah’s political wing. The UK had cut off all ties with both the military and political wings of the party in 2005, and had added the military wing to its list of “banned organizations” in July 2008.

While the US has officially distanced itself from this policy change (see this article from Hezbollah’s Al Manar), it seems to have very subtly opened the door for it to take place. President Obama after all has very recently started calling for reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the US. An anonymous State Department source quoted in the Al Manar article also states that the US might find the UK-Hezbollah talks beneficial.

There’s a great Op-ed today in the New York Times by Roger Cohen which discusses these policy reversals:

“Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.””

The Cohen piece is highly recommended reading.

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.

Abdel Bari Atwan’s Gaza Scorecard

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of London’s Al-Quds Al-Arabi  newspaper gauges the winners_and_losers of Israel’s war on Gaza.   To some extent, his analysis is predictable:   Al-Quds  is strongly anti-US foreign policy and I can’t picture Atwan arguing that Israel “won” even if it was clear they had won.   Still, he is a highly respected journalist so I outline his scorecard:

1)  Israel.  Had the biggest losses, if not militarily, then at least politically.  After three weeks the IDF could not force Hamas to surrender;   And Israel, the region’s strongest military power had to go to Washington to get a security agreement to stop smuggling in Gaza.;   Losses drastically in the battle for public opinion, and their actions will significantly fuel recruitment for extremist groups. 

2)  Egypt.  Biggest Arab loser.  Lost its role as a mediator amongst Arabs but now  even the US and Israel ignore it.  Livni and Rice agreed on a security memorandum to stop smuggling in Gaza without even consulting Egypt. 

3)  Ramallah Based Palestinian Forces.   totally marginalized;  Supposedly “lost the support of at least half the Arabs as wlel as Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia.”

4)  The “Moderate Axis” governments.  Lost credibility when it failed to undergo any decisive actions, even facilitated the Israeli aggression

5) Amr Mousa.  (Egyptian  head of Arab League)  Most prominent individual victim; lost serious credibility

6)  Pro- Moderate Axis media.  lost credibility

Interestingly, Atwan mainly outlines the losers but he doesn’t go into depth on the winners which is probably the more important question and also harder to gauge.   But like many of the Arab voices who are highly interested in the Palestinian cause, he is confident that this Gaza operation will add momentum to the cause.   He closes out with this paragraph:

هذا العناد في التمسك بالثوابت، وفي رفض الاستسلام هو الذي تخشاه اسرائيل وقيادتها وشعبها، فإذا كان هؤلاء صمدوا ثلاثة اسابيع، ولم يخرج واحد منهم على شاشات التلفزة يندد بالمقاومة، رغم انهيار سلطة ‘حماس’ واختفاء قواتها التنفيذية، وضخامة اعداد الشهداء والجرحى، فإن اداءهم في اي مواجهة قادمة، اذا ما امتلكوا الحد الادنى من الاسلحة الدفاعية، سيكون مفاجئا. فالجيل القادم من ابناء القطاع، الذي سيتكون من اطفال شاهدوا مجازر آبائهم وامهاتهم واشقائهم وشقيقاتهم، سيكون الاشرس، ولن ينسى، ولا نعتقد انه سيغفر

This section goes something like this:  “That these people held out for three weeks, despite the collapse of the Hamas executive ability,  scares the Israelis.  “The coming generation of Gazans which will consist of children who have seen massacres of their mothers and fathers, is going to be alot more vicious/ fiercer.  We will not forget and we won’t forgive.”

My Commentary
Atwan brings up a point I’m seeing alot in the Arabic media but not in the US media when it comes to Military analysis.  In the 1967 war, the IDF beat the combined resources of all the Arabs combined in 6 days.  In the 3 war, Sharon was about 50 km from Cairo and could have gone sightseeing to the Pyramids if he has wanted to.  In ’82’ Israel walked all over the PLO forces in South Lebanon and made it to Beirut with little ease.  So now they are facing Hamas, a rag-tag militia with  massive material and technological disadvantages, but can’t force them to surrender after three weeks?  Isn’t this significant from a military perspective?

Heikal on Gaza

On Sunday, I posted that I think that Hamas would come out stronger from the Israeli attack on Gaza.   On January 7th,  Muhammed Hassanein Heikal,  in a  long_interview  on Al Jazeera,  apparently agrees on that.   For American readers  Heikal (read an English bio here) is by far the most important, famous and respected journalist in the Arab world.   He was the Editor- in- Chief of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram  from 1957- 1974 which during his tenure was often refered to as the New York Times of the Arab world.  As a sign of his popularity, Heikal has his own show on Al-Jazeera ( With_Heikal) where he gives lectures on recent Arab history, discussing the information he acquired during his working days, the things that brought  him a new and unprecedented following in the Arab world.

For some context:  Heikal was very close to Gamal Abdel Nasser.  He was and still is a Nasserist and a believer in pan-Arabism as well as a strong critic of the change in direction towards the US that happened with Anwar Al-Sadat  (see Autumn_of_Fury for more on that point).   Many people in Egypt still believe in the pan-Arabism of Nasser so Heikal is expressing a point of view in this interview that has widespread support. 

Heikal tackled 3 main points in this interview: the situation in Gaza, the Egyptian position, and the regional status.

Inside Gaza.  Heikal believes that what’s happening in Gaza right now is not because of Hamas, rather it is a scheme to impose the US-Israeli settlement for the situation in the region, adding that the timing was not randomly chosen. Since Hamas won in the 2006 parliamentary  elections, the US and Israel were facing a stalemate in the region and that’s why Israel started to besiege Hamas and finally interfering militarily.  According to Heikal, the timing was perfectly chosen, the US is living a transitional period, the Israeli parliamentary elections is immanent, thus its an opportunity to regain the Israeli deterrence capabilities.  Heikal added that Obama knew about the attack, clarifying that if the attack succeeded Iran would be next.  Hiekal, however, said that the biggest mistake Hamas has done was its religious discourse, Palestine is Arab national cause and not a religious one.

The Egyptian side. Heikal expressed his bewilderment from the Egyptian position from whats happening in Gaza, he believed that the Egyptian interference in Gaza should’ve been 2 sided; the first, is protecting the Egyptian national security, the second, is aiding the Palestinians. What happened was Egypt helped Israel to gain more security and political ground at the expense of the Egyptian national security. The situation in Gaza represents a test for the Egyptian leadership and its ability to influence any part of the Middle East, and currently it seems that it is losing its soft powers. The point is the military superiority of Israel could mainly be balanced through the Egyptian extension regionally, which is a privilege that Israel do not possess. In his opinion, Egypt would gain absolutely nothing from clashing with Syria, or Hezbollah or Iran, he added that Egypt should maintain a very good relationship with Hamas and all those who represent the line of resistance, basically this line would never threaten Egypt it actually protects the Egyptian national security.

Regionally. Heikal described the Arab role as being very lame, he thinks that depending on the UNSC would bring them nothing because the US is in a transitional period and would never take a position that would harm Israel. However, he thought that Nasrallah’s speech shouldn’t be interpreted the way it happened, and he said that his speech is derived from his belief in the Egyptian role and history in the region, and his belief in the deep sentiments the Egyptian people hold for the Palestinians. Heikal warned from deploying international forces on the borders with Gaza which threatens the Palestinian cause, this issue is one of Egypt’s cards that it should not give up, adding to that the giving up the control of the Rafah-crossing is a threat to the Egyptian national security.

The Calm Before the Storm?

What to make of the fighting so far  from a military standpoint? 

According to the latest reports, it doesn’t seem that Israeli forces are taking heavy casualties.  Just 7  according to CNN.  So does this mean that Hamas is taking a beating, even “losing?” After all,  the Islamic Resistance Movement faces several geographic and other challenges that Hezbollah didn’t.  From an excellent article at  The National:

there are five important differences between the two conflicts that the Hamas leadership does not seem to have grasped or appreciated.

1. Gaza, only 360 square kilometres in size, lacks the strategic depththat Hizbollah had in Lebanon. So Hamas guerrillas have much smaller and narrower areas of operations than Hizbollah guerrillas had in Lebanon, which gives Israel an advantage.

2. Hizbollah fighters are not members of government, civilian and military institutions such as the police and ministries, so Israeli jets had a limited list of targets. In Gaza they have a large number of easy targetsthat were hit in the first minutes of the attack, killing at least 200 Hamas members in public buildings.

3. Israel besieged Lebanon from air and sea but could never seal off land routes in and out of the country, so Hizbollah had a good supply of arms and supplies. Gaza was completely sealed off fromall sides with the exception of a few tunnels that were mostly destroyed in the first two days of the attack. Now Israeli tanks have cut off Gaza City and the northern part of the Strip from its southern part and completely sealed off all entry points, so Hamas has no access to military supplies.

4. Hamas is much less able than Hizbollah to threaten the Israeli rear. While Hizbollah missile strikes hit dozens of Israeli settlements, towns and cities all over northern and central Israel and can now reach southern Israel, Hamas’s missiles can reach only up to 45km and are mostly ineffective. Missiles fired from Gaza in 2008 killed ten Israelis, while Hizbollah missile attacks on Israel in the 33-day war killed more than 100 and inflicted serious damage to property. So Hamas missile strikes will not be enough to force Israel into new ceasefire talks. Moreover, Hamas’s anti-armour capabilities seem to be ineffective against Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

5. Hizbollah had much better information, intelligence and counter-intelligence than Hamas. This has been made clear by Israel’s ability to hit many sensitive targets and to dominate the battlespace from the air. Hamas has failed to spring any surprises on the battlefield in the way that Hizbollah did in 2006, confusing the Israeli military command.

Or is HAMAS merely waiting  to set up a strategic ambush or  “spring the street warfare trap?”   If I was the Hamas military leader, recognizing that the IDF has  insurmountable advantages in face-to-face normal fighting,  I would tell the foot-soldiers to sit back, put up minimum resistance, and wait until IDF extends itself all over Gaza. And then go all out in a Stalingrad-type  last stand with a blaze of martyrdom.  

If Hamas is going to go down, then their strategy might be to try and bring down as many Israeli soldiers as possible.   There isn’t any question that Hamas would have the full weight of Arab public opinion behind it in such a battle.  And if Israeli public opinion, suddenly faced with lots of their boys dying combined with a newly inaugurated  Barrack Obama under enormous pressure to get involved…. momentum might start swinging Hamas’ way.

Anyway,  if Hamas supposedly has 15-20 K fighters and the IDF claims to have killed just 150 than these guys are somewhere.  Probably waiting.

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.

Hezbollah all talk?

Without a doubt Hamas and their fans throughout the region are  a little disappointed with Hezbollah, a fellow member of the Resistance.  Remember back in 2006 – the Party of God picks a fight with Israel, and what does Hamas do?  They open up a Southern front, kidnapping the IDF oldier Galad Shalit, theoretically relieving pressure on Hezbollah up North.   I don’t have any specific quotes but I am sure Hamas is wondering where’s the payback?  “There is none” taunts Tariq Al-Homayed, editor of fiercely anti-Hamas and HB Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in this  article: 

Hamas rushed to Hezbollah’s rescue in 2006 [Israel-Hezbollah summer war] following the abduction of two Israeli soldiers at the hands of Hezbollah, and even opened up another battlefront by abducting Gilad Shalit themselves, so why has Nasrallah not come to Hamas’s rescue today, especially considering that Khalid Meshal said that Hamas was awaiting action, not words, from Hezbollah?

Hezbollah is not likely to provide anything more than words or supports- it’s not in their interest to do more than that.  Still, Hassan Nasrallah’s 28 December speech did give some pretty strong moral support to their comrades in Gaza and came   close to calling for the people of Egypt to rise up against their regime, highly inflammatory rhetoric.  Read Egyptian Chronicles comments on the speech.

Hamas-Jordan Rapprochement

Clearly, Jordan is moving closer to the Hamas camp, at least when it comes to Peace Process negotiations.  A few weeks back, I posted  on Abu Rumman’s article about rumors that Jordan was going to replace Egypt, seen as biased against Hamas, as the intermediary between the Arabs and Israel.  Such a step would be pretty dramatic, and is not likely to happen, though Hamas (and many on “the Arab street)  would not mind.

What does seem to be  happening is a Hamas-Jordan rapprochement, reported recently by Al-Hayat.   The government of Jordan, wary of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abass’s commitment to the refugee issue, is moving closer to Hamas.  The story notes how when Abass goes to Lebanon he makes statements about the refugee problem being a priority in the negotiations, but he doesn’t say the same things about Jordan, causing the Jordanian government to question his commitment.  Hamas makes no doubt about their commitment to the refugee problem.  

Such a new approach is not without risks:  The story notes how Fatah has only one goal- create a Palestinian state. Hamas, on the other hand, has deep ideological affinities with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, a rival to the government, so such a rapprochement will be tricky.