Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip has not marked the end of the struggle over the strip, only its beginning, and participants in today's summit at Sharm el-Sheikh will exchange ideas and assessments on how to manage it. The lines drawn are clear here: On one side stand the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the leadership of his movement, Fatah, which enjoy the backing of nearly the entire world. On the other side stands Hamas which, besides Iran, has the shaky support of two or three Arab regimes; its main power lies in its broad popular support, mostly among Palestinians, but also among significant parts of the Arab world.
Possible evidence for this popular support is disparaging comments about the "new South Lebanon Army-like Fatah figures that Israel must now rescue at the Erez crossing," which were overheard during the weekend at a restaurant in the Al-Ras neighborhood between East Jerusalem and Ramallah. While in Israel and elsewhere, the unfortunate people trying to escape the wrath of the new rulers of Gaza are watched with anxiety - in the Palestinian street, there are many who think they are not unlike the South Lebanon Army soldiers, who served Israel in South Lebanon and, similarly, were forced to flee their country out of fear of Hezbollah.
On the basis of the existing balance of power, one thing is clear: There is no military option. Israel does not want to send its army into the Gaza Strip. Egypt certainly does not want to restore its military rule there, which came to an end 40 years ago. If Abbas and his men try to enter the Gaza Strip on top of American and Israeli tanks, this will be the end of them. They will lose the battle quicker than they lost it two weeks ago.
There is also no political option here. Hamas leadership is now interested in holding talks and reaching a compromise, but under the circumstances it is clear to the participants at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference that there is no room for compromise with them. It is in no way possible to allow Hamas to continue ruling in Gaza. As long as Hamas is doing so, there is a clear and present danger to the existence of the PA in the West Bank.
Also from the point of view of the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, ongoing Hamas rule in the strip constitutes a threat to their regimes. In light of this, they have escalated their rhetoric against Hamas in recent days.
Regarding the threat posed by a growing Iranian presence in the Gaza Strip, as far as the United States, Israel and other countries are concerned - there is no need to elaborate further.
In this context it appears that the debate over the Gaza Strip will mostly concentrate on tightening the siege and the area's isolation. There will be a great deal of talk about the humanitarian concerns, but life in Gaza will continue to be unbearable. All the discussion will be aimed at bringing about broad public pressure against the Hamas leadership in Gaza, so that it will relinquish its hold and accept the terms that Abbas will dictate. It is hard to tell if such a campaign will work. It has one chance of success, and that is not particularly great - and depends on whether an offer of a genuine alternative is made to the Palestinian people.
What is now on the agenda is transfer of financial assistance to Abbas in the West Bank. Most of the tax monies that the government of Israel has confiscated from the PA will be returned, and this will be done on condition that Abbas fights against terrorism. The United States and other countries will also contribute funds to the emergency government of Salam Fayyad. The Israel Defense Forces will lift a few roadblocks, perhaps even evacuate the Havat Maon outpost again, and maybe even evacuate another illegal outpost that is uninhabited.
This, of course, is not an alternative. All the efforts to crush Hamas without undertaking a dramatic step such as pushing for an accord along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative will be meaningless. The political reality and the living conditions in the Palestinian territories since September 2000 have prepared the ground for a Hamas victory, and without offering a genuine alternative, Hamas will not be defeated - and may even to continue succeed.
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