Thursday, January 22, 2009

Analysis: US, Israel could coax Hamas to moderate

Wishful thinking, or strategic vision?

Postwar Gaza could become a test of President Barack Obama's inauguration speech offer to hard-liners to "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." The extended hand would be open borders and international reconstruction money for Hamas-ruled Gaza. The unclenched fist would be the Islamic militants holding their fire against Israel and giving their moderate Fatah rivals a foothold in the coastal strip.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps not: Hamas needs help. Nonetheless, to expect that 1,300 deaths will have no effect other than changing the political thinking of Hamas seems absurd.

After an Israeli offensive that killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians and left much of Gaza in ruins, the new U.S. administration and a soon-to-be new Israeli government have a chance to forge a fresh strategy toward Hamas. The war appears to have shaken up Mideast politics and the international community could leverage Gaza's postwar reality to boost moderates in the region, taking advantage of the fact that Hamas desperately needs help following the Israeli onslaught.

On the other hand, moderates could be marginalized, and radicals, defiant, could focus their energies on causing trouble.

Hamas, which has been holding victory rallies in Gaza despite suffering enormous losses from Israel's assault, is not about to suddenly recognize the Jewish state or join the peace talks between Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. But the war proved Hamas is not a monolith. Divisions emerged between the group's Syria-based leadership, which opposed a cease-fire, and those inside Gaza who felt the bloodletting had to stop.

Focusing on a common enemy, Israel, could help Hamas factions to even a tenuous truce.

Hamas was deeply disappointed the original truce did not bring a deal to reopen the borders of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt have blockaded since Hamas seized power. The closure destroyed almost all private enterprise in the territory of 1.4 million people, exacerbating misery in a place where 80 percent of the people need U.N. food handouts to survive.

It is a ward of the UN. And worse: Gazans found themselves without cement to build new apartments or make gravestones for the dead. Ninety percent of the territory's 3,600 factories shut down because of a lack of spare parts and raw materials. And Israel's military offensive inflicted an estimated $2 billion in damage.

No work, no gravestones, and then more damage and devastation. Out of this some expect reform to emerge?

Current international proposals for a durable Gaza truce envision allowing Fatah back into Gaza to help monitor a reopened crossing into Egypt, an outcome that could be a first step toward moderates regaining a foothold in Gaza.

Why would Hamas accept Fatah? They are enemies.

Hamas leaders have been defiant since a tentative cease-fire took hold Sunday, But Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum made a point of not rejecting Obama's inaugural overture. Israel remains Hamas' enemy, he said. "That does not mean we cannot open a new page with the whole world, including the new elected American administration if they support the Palestinian people's just rights."

Israel remains the enemy.

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