Israelis are not the only ones who monitored developments in the south Lebanon town of Bint Jbail yesterday. Top Fatah officials in the territories watched Arab television reports on the fighting and the body count among Israel Defense Forces soldiers, aware that military achievements by Hezbollah bolster support for Hamas among Palestinians.
Fatah fears that Israel could end its campaign in Lebanon before making significant gains against Hezbollah. 'Stopping the fighting now would be interpreted as an Israeli defeat, which would immediately affect events here, especially in the Gaza Strip,' said a Tanzim militia leader, who is among the leaders of the current intifada. "The extremist organizations, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, will feel as if the victory were theirs, as will the Palestinian public - which equates Hezbollah with Hamas. The moderate Palestinian camp will face collapse if Hezbollah has the upper hand when this war is over. What will Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] be able to tell his people in the face of the achievements of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah or Hamas?" the Tanzim official asked rhetorically.
Over the past two weeks, the Hamas leadership in the territories and abroad has been concerned about the implications of the war in Lebanon for the organization's future. Some Gazans have been calling for a comprehensive cease-fire agreement with Israel that would include the return of the captured soldier Gilad Shalit, in exchange for guarantees that Palestinian prisoners would be released in the future. The images from the Shiite quarter in Beirut and from other places in Lebanon have sent the Palestinians and Hamas a message about what could happen in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip should Israel take action against the Palestinian organization.
Senior Hamas officials believed that Israel planned to turn its sights on that organization once the fight against Hezbollah was over. But yesterday's battle in Bint Jbail changed their attitude toward Israel and the IDF. "The Bint Jbail war," as it is being called in all Arab media outlets, demonstrated that the IDF is vulnerable and that Hezbollah, with only a few thousand fighters, is holding its own against Israeli forces.
Palestinians felt enormous pride yesterday in their new leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who is promising them redemption of the sort promised by Saddam Hussein. Within two weeks, Nasrallah turned into the most admired person in Gaza and the West Bank. His photographs have been waved at rallies for Hezbollah in Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah - and by supporters of secular movements, not only by Islamic activists.
But should Israel end its operation in a way that allows Nasrallah to be portrayed as the victor, the big beneficiaries would be Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are identified with Hezbollah. It is precisely those who seek a peace process with the Palestinians who ought to understand that suspending the IDF campaign now could damage the peace process in the long run. Abbas, the only partner for dialogue among the Palestinians, would probably be forced to cede his position to a Hamas candidate in the next election.
Israelis who are calling for a swift end to the operation, in order to prevent more IDF casualties, must consider the possible implications of such a decision for the future of the Middle East. In addition to the likely boost that it would give to the radical Palestinian camp, it would also likely strengthen the Islamic camp within Arab states - and the leaders of these states are aware of this. Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia all know that Hezbollah, at least the way it was depicted yesterday, is much stronger among the Arab masses than it was two weeks ago.
A victory or a big gain for the Shiite organization is also liable to increase the popularity of Sunni movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt. Nasrallah has already been crowned leader of the Islamic nation in demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood. A suspension of the IDF campaign in Lebanon would create a very different "new Middle East" than the one envisioned by Condoleezza Rice, and its path would be dictated by Iran and Syria.
The withdrawal from Lebanon under fire in May 2000 was one of the main reasons for the Al-Aqsa Intifada. A second withdrawal, under the cloud of the battle at Bint Jbail, is likely to increase the number of abductions, the price that Israel will be forced to pay for the return of its kidnapped soldiers, and attacks by Islamic organizations on Israeli targets.
Israel will, unfortunately, also be forced to pay a price for the continuation of the operation in Lebanon. But withdrawing now would exact a higher price in the future.
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