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.

Arming The Lebanese Army

The status and condition of the Lebanese Armed Forces seem to be a hot topic not only in Lebanon, but also in Paris and Washington these days.  Here’s something that doesn’t happen too frequently: an article in an otherwise generally decent Lebanese_newspaper , supplanted in terms of context, accuracy (if only on use of quotation marks), and informative detail, by a US governmental (Department of Defense to be precise)  press_release .

The news item relates to the provision of weaponry by the US to the Lebanese army.   While both the article and the press release discuss nothing groundbreaking or novel, they are interesting to read in that they provide specific numbers on different kinds of equipment shipped and to be shipped by the US, and also background on training programs offered.  For example, we learn that:

  • Lebanese officers are attending several US military colleges, and the International Military Education and Training fund for Lebanon has grown from $1.4 million in fiscal 2008 to $2.1 million this year;
  • Since 2006, the US has funneled more than $400 million in foreign military sales money to Lebanon;
  • The US has sent 285 Humvees to Lebanon, and another 312 will arrive by March;
  • The US has also sent 200 trucks and 41 M-198 155 mm artillery pieces;
  • The Lebanese army will get night-vision equipment and some tactical unmanned aerial vehicles;
  • 12 million rounds of ammo, spare helicopter parts, shoulder-fired rockets will be supplied; and
  • The US is committed to getting Lebanon more modern tanks, and the U.S. military is working on delivering M-60A3 tanks.

These numbers are based on quotes from DoD senior official Chris Straub, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asian affairs.  While up to this point everything seems nice and rosy, there are, as expected, very important caveats with regard to the quantity and the nature of equipment supplied to the Lebanese army. Indeed, Straub adds: “We don’t have a conversation on these matters without considering the concerns of Israel and Israel’s qualitative military edge. That’s a U.S. commitment that we take very seriously.” (my emphasis)   The DoD press release then adds that “for example, the Lebanese army M-60 tanks are no match for Israel’s Mekava 4 main battle tanks.” What is the reason for this mismatch you ask? Straub explains: “We’re not trying to build up some juggernaut that could be threatening to anyone in the region, but to make the Lebanese armed forces capable in their own country.” 

Here is what is fundamentally wrong with this policy:  if the US thinks that propping up the Lebanese army just enough for it to provide a viable counterweight to Hezbollah will cause the latter to disintegrate or disappear, it will be sending weapons for a very, very long time with nothing changing in the situation on the ground. The reason for this is that Hezbollah is not competing with the Lebanese army ; Hezbollah is competing with Israel.  So long as the Lebanese army’s weaponry is weaker than that of Israel (which the US is on record as saying will be the case), Hezbollah will still be able to argue that the army is not strong enough to defend the country against Israeli aggression, and that its effort are needed.  And, indeed, it will be a very potent and correct argument to make.  The US policy in Lebanon basically seems to center on ways of fighting Hezbollah by proxy, that is, through the Lebanese army. But if Israel’s F-16’s were not able to annihilate Hezbollah in 2006, will the Lebanese army’s 597 Humvees be able to in 2009?