Hamas the Cripple, Gaza the Doomed

Hamas may well find a way to survive the current crisis. So may Gaza. But both are crippled now, and at least one may stay that way.

The people of the Gaza Strip are now paying the price for the entire spectrum of Middle East policies, the refusal on principle of Israel and Hamas to recognize one another, the efforts by both Washington and Fatah to freeze out Hamas in order to shore up Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, the encouragement by Tehran and other Islamist parties of Qassam fire on Sderot.

A short while ago, who would have guessed that if electricity were cut off to the 1.5 million residents of the Strip, it would be the European Union that was responsible?

Who in their right mind would have imagined that the EU, seeking to head off the possibility that Hamas might tax and thus benefit from part of the aid funds earmarked for electricity, might abruptly plunge Gazans into a new prolonged stretch of darkness, unrelieved heat, and food shortages due to lack of refrigeration?

But if Gaza has been cut off from the world, rendered blind, mute, immobile, Hamas is fast becoming paralyzed as well. A year and a half after its election victory, Hamas has virtually run out of room to maneuver.

On Monday, Israeli forces fired a rocket into a car in Gaza, killing local Hamas military commander Mohammed Abu Arab and five of his troops, as they returned from what media reports said was a mortar attack against Israel.

The response from Izz el-Deen al-Qassam, the Hamas military wing, was swift in coming, and caustic, but confined to the verbal. Terming the rocket strike an "ugly Zionist massacre," an Izz el-Deen al-Qassam spokesman said, "If the Zionist enemy fears the possibility of a response with rockets then they should know that we have even more dangerous weapons."

In the past, the Hamas military wing has often demonstrated the truth of that statement. As early as 1996, Izz al-Deen, working in concert with the Islamic Jihad, killed 60 people in four suicide bombings in the space of nine days.

But Hamas' rise to power, and its growing need to be taken seriously as a legitimate political force rather than an agency of terrorism, have relegated the military arm to a disgruntled, and, for the moment at least, muzzled branch within the larger movement.

Even hardline Hamas leaders in Damascus appear to be barring the military wing from a major escalation in Gaza.

In this sense, it may be said that, from the military standpoint with respect to the Gaza front, Hamas has become Israel, its hands effectively tied by a wide range of political and diplomatic considerations.

The first difference, of course, is that Israel's economy continues to boom, undeterred by war last summer in Lebanon, unaffected by threats of war this summer.

The second difference is that Israel has found the perfect foil in Hamas, which, if it fails to act against Israeli attacks, is viewed at home as weak, and if it decides to attack - whether by rocket, mortar, sub-machinegun ambush or suicide bombing - is viewed abroad as terrorist.

Hamas' war against Fatah will not soon be forgotten in the Muslim world, and, in many quarters, will remain unforgiven.

Meanwhile, the Olmert administration, the Bush White House, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, urged on by Abbas, continue to prove themselves willing to sacrifice Gaza for the sake of disabling Hamas.

The reason that they have been able to do so goes to the heart of the plight of the people of Gaza, and the ever-increasing ease with which the world ignores it.

At one time, the suffering of the people of Gaza was of critical importance on the international agenda. Every Israeli incursion, even every power outage, was duly reported, often reaching the UN Security Council.

Now, however, the world - much of the world media included - has turned its back on Gaza, even as Gaza sinks into new depths of distress.

Call it, if you like, the "Bangladesh Effect." It is the inborn inability of human beings to comprehend and respond to catastrophe affecting large numbers of far-away people for a prolonged period of time - and therefore to cease to care.

The turning of a blind eye is, of course, made that much easier when the media finds it difficult or lethally dangerous to actually observe the situation on the ground.

In the case of Bangladesh, the deaths of tens of thousands over years of flood and famine and cyclone have inured the world to its suffering. It may be said that some in the Western world dismiss what appears to be serial tragedy as somehow deterministic, that the people of many a Third World nation are doomed to disaster, that they, in a sense, are born to die.

In the case of Gaza, there is an additional element, the sense that the Palestinians are able but unwilling to help themselves out of a terrible situation. It is a sense that is as simplistic and dismissive and, therefore, as wrongheaded, as citing the Israeli occupation for all of Gaza's ills, past and future.

Still, this is the issue with which Hamas must come to terms, and soon. The parameters of the conflict are changing. Hamas can no longer depend on grass-roots anger against Israel to deflect ire against Hamas. Even here in the Holy Land, anger and vengeance and the culture of blaming the other guy, have their limits.

When Hamas was formed in 1987, it pledged to eradicate the occupation and, in due course, the State of Israel. Hamas is in charge now, and the lights are off. Hamas is in charge now, and it is time to work on eradicating poverty, restoring health care, and attending to education.

Israel has responsibilities to participate in the effort, but as long as Hamas cannot bring itself to rescind its pledge to erase the Jewish state by force, the Jewish state can convince the world that it need do nothing.

There has perhaps never been a coalition the likes of which opposes Hamas at this point.

Perhaps even more than it is a prison, Gaza is a hostage situation. Gaza is the hostage of three enemies, Israel, Fatah, and Hamas. But for hostages to be freed, someone has to care about them.

The goal of Hamas was to end the occupation and eradicate Israel. But sell that, at this point to the people you used to feed, clothe, educate. Sell that to the people who may be losing - may have already lost - an entire generation.

Hamas is in charge now. It must start acting like it is. Now.


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