International Affairs Forum:
One of the main criticisms of the Israeli offensive has been that the large number of civilian casualties it has caused among the Palestinians will deepen animosity toward Israel in the Arab world. What do you make of this?
Israel is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is definitely true that the harrowing images we see on our television screens these days are playing into the hands of radicals everywhere – anti-Israeli radicals, anti-Western radicals. But animosity towards Israel cannot be reduced substantially, no matter what it does. Sixty-one years after the United Nations voted to divide the old Ottoman province of Palestine into two, a big Arab state and a smaller Jewish one, the Islamic world still resents the very existence of the Jewish state. But more generally, the root causes of extremism and radicalization in the Islamic world are largely local, in particular the population explosion which has produced a large pool of unemployed young, and poor governance by corrupt and dictatorial leaders.
Look at Iran, for example. According to a BBC poll a couple of years ago, Iranians are the most pro-American nation in the world, ahead of the Indians. The reason is that they are alienated from their own, very radical, very anti-American government. Today, no pro-government student organization in Iran is able to win any of the campus elections, despite all the manipulations and inducements. In order to show their opposition towards their government, with its repression, corruption and economic failures, the booming, overwhelmingly young population of Iran tells pollsters that it supports America, precisely because it wants to show that it does not support the government. It says it supports America because the government says America is its enemy. This is seen daily on the streets of Tehran where the young imitate the worst excesses of western fashion and Western youth music, at the risk of imprisonment.
By contrast, in pro-Western Egypt, where there is high unemployment and poverty despite billions of dollars in American aid every year, an increasing number of the young seeks to show its opposition towards the government of President Hosni Mubarak by donning Islamic dress and demonstrating its rage against Israel because Egypt has established diplomatic relations with Israel.
Under such circumstances, the Israelis think, rightly, that they cannot neglect their security until such times as public attitude in the Arabs and Muslims towards them has changed. They need to take care of their security now. Their biggest fear recently has been that Hamas might become as strong as the Hizbollah in south Lebanon, and since Iran is the main sponsor of both Hamas and the Hizbollah, Israelis fear Iran would sooner or later press those proxies to open two fronts against Israel in a future war, simultaneously, in the north and the south, with more and more powerful rockets able to hit all of Israel’s cities.
From the Israelis’ point of view, a recent military and political failure of their government with regard to Hamas has been the failure to persuade Egypt to be serious about stopping the flow of Iranian weapons to Hamas in Gaza. Egypt has not sealed its border with Gaza and, as a result, medium-range Grad and Fajr missiles have been reaching Hamas through Egypt. We hear that this is largely the fault of the Egyptian army. Some border troops are bribed by Hamas. But it seems likely also that senior army officers have turned a blind eye to the smuggling because they see Hamas as Muslim comrades.
There has been a lot of talk of proportionality and whether Israel’s response to the rockets fired by militants from Gaza has been excessive and self-defeating. Do you agree?
No, I do not. Whenever a nation finds itself involved in a war, it throws every conventional force it has into the field to defeat its enemy. There is a strong yearning for peace among the bulk of Israel’s population. It wants to be accepted as a neighbor by the Palestinians and the other Arab nations.
What do you think the Israeli offensive will do for Hamas’ support among Palestinians?
We may not be able to find out. Such is the extent of government intimidation in most Islamic states that people fear airing their real views in public. You cannot always be sure whether the majority leans this way or that – you have to go by anecdotes on the ground. I believe that these images of war are playing into the hands of the radicals in the wider Arab and Islamic worlds, and that is important to the future of Hamas. If it survives, it will be able to gather more money and supporters abroad.
Some Palestinians blame Hamas for the suffering, but they do not always admit it to outsiders. They say Hamas could have renewed the ceasefire it had with Israel last year, but it did not. And it could have made certain of a greater flow of humanitarian aid from the United Nations through Israel into Gaza by not firing rockets towards Israeli towns and villages. But it did not. Instead, it used the ceasefire to smuggle in Iranian rockets.
Some other Palestinians see Hamas as their champion. They say that while Hamas’ rival, the government of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, is getting nowhere in its peace negotiations with Israel, Hamas is at least fighting for a Palestinian state. But these Palestinians do not see that the very presence of Hamas, with its extreme demands, is making it more difficult for Abbas to succeed in those negotiations. As long as Hamas is breathing down Abbas’ neck, saying that he must insist on the Jews leaving the place, Abbas has to make demands that are unacceptable to Israel, such as the return of the old city in Jerusalem. It was interesting to see, the other day, that Egypt’s main state newspaper, el-Gomhuria, used some unprecedented language to denounce Hamas. It bunched Hamas together with Syria and Iran as the new ‘axis of evil’. So, there is anger, as well as support, for Hamas in the Arab world.
Tony Blair as the Middle East envoy of the International Quartet (U.N., US, EU and Russia) seems to have spent a lot of time on the sidelines since the conflict began. What do you make of his performance overall?
From what I hear, he has been quite active behind the scenes. He has been working with the Egyptians in particular in drawing up proposals for a longer-term solution. And those proposals are strongly anti-Hamas. They demand that Abbas in the West Bank should be able to send his forces back into Gaza to patrol the Rafah border with Egypt, to stop the smuggling of weapons there. The Egyptians also want that, even though Abbas’ presidential mandate ended on the 9th of this month, he should remain in office, with no new election held, until he has negotiated a peace deal with Israel. After that, there would be elections, but under Abbas's own control. So, the Egyptians and Tony Blair are trying to persuade everyone that Hamas is the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East and that it must either be overthrown or else forced to give up terrorism and recognize Israel.
Do you think this will work?
Hamas as a political and terrorist movement cannot be destroyed. It can be driven underground. Even if the Israelis had gone into all those narrow, winding alleyways of Gaza, everywhere exposing their troops to large numbers of casualties and causing even greater loss of life among the civilians, which they did not want, Hamas would have survived as a force – at least as a terrorist force. But that would have clearly been better than the present, highly unstable situation. The ideal solution would be to enable Abbas's troops to return to the whole of Gaza to suppress Hamas. But I’m not sure whether they would have the discipline or the will to do that.
How optimistic are you that the Obama administration will be able to make more progress in bringing the two sides together and secure some kind of peace?
I am quite pessimistic. Barack Obama has said that, from day one, he will appoint a new team to mediate in the Middle East. He has also said that he will respect everyone in the world and even hold unconditional talks with the Iranians over their nuclear weapons program. I fear he will be wasting his time. I fear he will learn the hard way. Iran’s leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, is determined to arm himself with atomic bombs and long-range missiles. If America gives in to him, it will alienate its allies in the region, such as the Saudis, the Egyptians, even the Turks, who will probably feel forced to arm themselves similarly. The basic fact at the moment is that Iran and its proxies, the Hizbollah and Hamas, have no interest in peace, and as long as they go on insisting that Israel must disappear, Israel will find no partner among the Palestinians strong enough to adopt a realistic position in negotiations. Any new American mediation is therefore likely to prove as futile as all such mediations have been in the past 60 years.
Do you think Israeli’s cease fire will hold?
It’s difficult to be sure what the precise outcome will be now. If Israeli troops remain in position, as they are expected to do for some time until the Rafah border is secured, then almost certainly there will be clashes. Hamas gunmen will snipe at them and send rockets into Israel. Then Israel will retaliate with small-scale bombing or shelling. But when Israel withdraws eventually, Hamas will come under pressure from its own supporters to accept or allow a ceasefire so that food and medicines and reconstruction material can be brought in through Israel in large enough quantities to make life tolerable again for the million people or so who badly need them.
But even then, some groups within Hamas, particularly those aligned with Khalid Mash’al, the Polit-Bureau chief who seems constantly to be travelling between Damascus and Tehran, are likely to let loose the occasional barrage of rockets to show that Hamas was not defeated. Otherwise, Iran and Syria might reduce the flow of their money and weapons. They would feel humiliated that their client was not able to repeat the example of the Hizbollah in the Lebanon war of 2006, to survive in such shape that it would be regarded as a continuing threat to Israel.
Hazhir Teimourian is a former Middle East specialist of The Times in London. He is of Kurdish upbringing.
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