I have just returned from the Middle East and witnessed how Israel's assault on Gaza is radicalizing mainstream Muslim opinion. Shown endlessly on Arab and Muslim television stations, the massive killing of civilians is fueling rage against Israel and its superpower patron, the United States, among mainstream and moderate voices who previously believed in co-existence with the Jewish state. Now, they are questioning their basic assumptions and raising doubts about Israel's future integration into the region.
Many professionals, both Christian and Muslim Arabs, previously critical of Hamas, are bitter about what they call Israel's "barbaric conduct" against Palestinian noncombatants, particularly women and children. No one I have encountered believes Israel's narrative that this is a war against Hamas, not the Palestinian people. A near consensus exists among Arabs and Muslims that Israel is battering the Palestinian population in an effort to force it to revolt against Hamas, just as it tried to force the Lebanese people to revolt against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. But Hezbollah weathered that Israeli storm, acquired a sturdier immune system and became the most powerful institution in Lebanon. In so doing it shattered Israeli deterrence, delivered a blow to US Mideast policy and expanded the influence of Iran, Hezbollah's main supporter in the region.
In my recent travels I was struck by the widespread popular support for Hamas--from college students and street vendors to workers and intellectuals. Very few ventured criticism of Hamas, and many said they felt awed by the fierce resistance put forward by its fighters. Israel's onslaught on Gaza has effectively silenced critics of Hamas and politically legitimized the militant resistance movement in the eyes of many previously skeptical Palestinians and Muslims. Regardless of how this war ends, Hamas will likely emerge as a more powerful political force than before and will likely top Fatah, the ruling apparatus of President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority.
"No one dares any longer to question Hamas's right to represent the Palestinian people," said a 30-year-old leftist Palestinian, a graduate of the American University in Beirut. Why so, I asked. "The Islamist resistance has earned a place at the table with blood," he told me.
What Israeli officials and their American allies do not appreciate is that Hamas is not merely an armed militia but a social movement with a large popular base that is deeply entrenched in society. It cannot be wiped out without massacring half a million Palestinians. If Israel succeeds in killing Hamas's senior leaders, a new generation, more radical than the present, will swiftly replace them. Hamas is a fact of life. It is not going away, and it will not raise the white flag regardless of how many casualties it suffers.
More than the war against Hezbollah, Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza has already undermined the legitimacy and authority of pro-Western regimes like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the eyes of many of their citizens. They stand accused of collusion with the enemy against fellow believers. Egypt, which shares a border crossing with Gaza, has suffered the brunt of Muslim anger worldwide. Protesters have targeted Egyptian embassies in several countries and called on President Hosni Mubarak to open up his frontier with Gaza and relieve the suffering of besieged and bombed Palestinians.
Many Egyptians I talked to are outraged by Mubarak's stance. They say that the country, the biggest in the Arab world, is in turmoil, and that people are boiling within: the Gaza conflict has exposed a widening gap between Egypt's rulers and citizens and--combined with the country's deepening socioeconomic conditions--could have serious repercussions on stability. Although Egypt faces no imminent danger of a social revolution, the military remains an enigma, and we do not know how junior and senior officers feel about the government's unpopular role toward the bloodshed in Palestine.
Suffice it to say that the so-called moderate Arab states are on the defensive, and that the resistance front led by Iran and Syria is the main beneficiary. Once again, Israel and the Bush administration have handed the Iranian leadership a sweet victory.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has sought to harness anger in the region by urging Muslims to launch a jihad against Israel and condemning pro-Western Arab leaders as collaborators with the Jewish state. In a new audiotape designed to capitalize on the Gaza offensive, bin Laden vowed that his organization would open "new fronts" against the United States and its partners beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
He knows that the Palestine predicament resonates more widely and powerfully with Arabs and Muslims than the conflicts in the other two countries.
Israeli leaders still adhere to the discredited idea that there is a military solution to the country's security dilemma. Although the Jewish state possesses military superiority over all its Arab neighbors, it has neither broken the political will of its adversaries nor achieved long-term peace and stability. In fact, Israel's brutal and disproportionate use of force in Lebanon in 2006 and now in Gaza shows clearly the failure of its deterrence and the damage to its moral standing in the world. Killing large numbers of Palestinians and Arabs will not bring Israel security and will only deepen hatred of Israel among Arabs, even Christian Arabs, and Muslims throughout the world. If not stopped, the assault on Gaza may foil the best political intentions for a two-state solution.
President-elect Barack Obama appreciates that time is of essence. After initially being quiet about Israel's assault, he vowed to press immediately for peace in the Middle East and pursue a policy of engagement with Iran. He said he was building a diplomatic team so that "on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole." The team would "be engaging with all of the actors there" so that "both Israelis and Palestinians can meet their aspirations," Obama said. That would mean not only an end to Hamas rocket fire and security for Israel, but political engagement with Hamas and an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a viable, fully independent state for the Palestinians with its capital in East Jerusalem.