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.