Between Sword and Pen

While Hezbollah and Hamas can still rest on the laurels of their military past, recent events have forced them to be increasingly committed to political action.

Wafik Safa, head of Hezbollah's coordination and liaison unit for contact with foreign organizations, was forced to carry out an unusual task this week, after six United Nations peacekeepers were killed when a car bomb blew up next to their armored personnel carrier in southern Lebanon. On the orders of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Safa informed the UN representative in Lebanon and the spokesman for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon that Hezbollah supports UNIFIL and that it views an attack on it is like an attack on Hezbollah; more precisely, Hezbollah was the target of the attack no less than UNIFIL.

No organization has taken responsibility for the bombing, but the United Nations, Hezbollah and the Lebanese government are certain that it was one of the extremist groups that is fighting the Lebanese army in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp - not Hezbollah.

The paradox is that Hezbollah finds itself in a situation in which it has to express solidarity with UNIFIL, even though the Islamic movement opposed the entry of a multinational force into Lebanon, as the force is authorized to open fire and seize weapons deliveries intended for it. Moreover, according to reports from Lebanon, Hezbollah went on high alert along with UNIFIL after the extremist groups, who claim that Al-Qaida is behind their activities, said they planned to attack the UN force. It became clear to Hezbollah two weeks ago, when Katyusha rockets were fired on Kiryat Shmona, that it does not have full control of the area; someone was capable of firing Katyushas and blowing up a car bomb without Hezbollah knowing about it in advance.

The greater paradox is that Hezbollah even supports the Lebanese army, at least while it is operating in Nahr el-Bared and killing Palestinian militants. Hezbollah does not like competitors, especially those that are liable to do away with its monopoly over war and other forms of violence, and its singular power to wield political pressure on the Lebanese government. Hezbollah - which is in the midst of a tough political battle against the Lebanese government and is not letting it function - does not want to be in a situation in which it is suddenly forced to support government activities because some Palestinian organization is challenging the Lebanese army. Nasrallah will certainly not be pleased to see that the Lebanese army is capable of proving its strength against these organizations, which would raise the issue of Hezbollah's role in defending Lebanon.

This wasn't the only paradox that this week brought. While Hezbollah is dealing with its Palestinian challengers, Islamic Jihad secretary general Ramadan Abdullah Shallah expressed authentic criticism of Hamas.

"Both sides made mistakes," Shallah, a close friend of Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, told the Al-Hayat newspaper. "They didn't have mercy on each other and they didn't have mercy on the Palestinian people. I don't justify what the Hamas movement did and I don't defend it. Its image was damaged and it lost a lot of the justification that led to its victory in the elections. Hamas is now in a difficult situation. In light of the serious blockade that will be imposed on Gaza, I ask myself how long it will hold on."

Shallah made the comments after a meeting with his Egyptian hosts in Cairo, which he visited at the invitation of Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. It turns out that Egypt is not so quick to wash its hands of dialogue with the Palestinian factions, and that despite its declared anger at Hamas, it still aspires to bring about a reconciliation between that organization and Fatah. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak even announced this week, a short time after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas met at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, that he foresees such a reconciliation within "two weeks to a month," and that Egypt is prepared to serve as mediator.

Shallah's comments, meanwhile, should not be understood to mean that Islamic Jihad has become Abbas' good friend. After all, Islamic Jihad opposed Hamas' participation in the Palestinian elections, and generally did not cooperate with Hamas when the organization announced a cease-fire with Israel. But Shallah's group now has a new role: It is suddenly passing messages between Egypt and Hamas, and is considered the voice of logic.

Another paradox

But even this paradox pales in comparison to yet another one, within the PA. Abbas appointed a new government, but in the meantime, it appears that the PA - not only Israel or the Arab states - is imposing a boycott on part of the Palestinian people. It is Abbas the appeaser who is now under attack for being unwilling to conduct a dialogue with his political rivals, though he sits at the same table with his enemy, Ehud Olmert.

True, there is no connection between Hezbollah's delicate current position in Lebanon, which came about due to the violent activity of organizations it doesn't control, and Hamas' impossible position in Gaza. But despite the different circumstances in Lebanon and the territories, one common denominator sticks out: Both Hezbollah and Hamas are two dominant organizations that essentially control what is going on in their respective areas.

Hezbollah has succeeded in putting the Lebanese government on ice and pressuring it to grant the organization legitimacy in its opposition against Israel, while Hamas took control after democratic elections and even headed the Palestinian government. In both cases, the organizations agreed to make ideological concessions when they entered the political arena, and presented themselves as national groups rather than religious ones. Both also targeted powerful internal rivals in addition to the external enemy, Israel.

Hezbollah and Hamas simultaneously encountered similar difficulties when the limits of power became clear. Both groups turned toward politics after achieving military victories. Hezbollah was viewed as being responsible for getting Israel out of Lebanon; Hamas was seen as the group that got the Israel Defense Forces out of Gaza. The impression was thus created in both cases that political achievements were the big prize for determination in combat. But this was a new arena. Although Hezbollah is more experienced in politics than Hamas, Hamas apparently learned quickly that the political game requires the continued support of the public, but it was also tired of militant displays of power.

Hamas almost lost everything due to the military occupation of Gaza, and Hezbollah was very cautious when it came to threats of taking Lebanon toward another civil war. Both groups can rely on their military records to serve as an implied threat, but both are now all the more committed to political action. Therefore, it's better not to rush to judge Hamas on the basis of the boycott imposed on it by Abbas and Israel, but rather on the nature of the negotiations Hamas will begin conducting with Abbas when the initial anger cools down. Just as Fouad Siniora's government in Lebanon recognizes the extent of the political threat posed by Nasrallah, Abbas similarly knows that his toughness in the face of Hamas will not take the place of his aspiration to reunite Gaza and the West Bank under one rule.