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How Israel's bloody assault lent credibility to Hamas, united militants

Sunday, 25 November 2012 - 10:12am IST | Place: GazaJERUSALEM | Agency: The Sunday Telegraph

Israel's bloody crackdown has given Hamas fresh focus and new credibility in the eyes of the world.
  • Reuters

He was one of the last Palestinians to be killed during Gaza's eight-day war with Israel - a conflict that Hamas, despite the loss of a military chief and scores of men, celebrated as its victory.

Yet Zaki Saeed Qadada was no Hamas man, but a long-standing supporter and former fighter for Fatah, the rival, less militant organisation that governs the rest of the Palestinian territories. Fatah in the West Bank was not involved in the rocket attacks on Israel, and may turn out to be the biggest loser from the fighting that came to a shaky halt on Wednesday night.

But in Gaza Qadada was on his way to a funeral when the convoy in which he was travelling was targeted by an air strike that killed six men - said by Israel to be involved in rocket attacks. He was one of 166 Palestinians and six Israelis killed in the confrontation.

For his older brother, Ghaleb, who in his youth also fought for Fatah, it was a bitter moment. "He was a solid guy, religious but not fanatical. A good, straightforward man," Qadada said. "He has seven children - the youngest is only seven months old."

What made the loss particularly galling for him, however, was how Hamas members have behaved since the ceasefire was agreed. Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, sent flowers to the family, a gesture meant to recognise his brother's contribution to the Palestinian resistance, Qadada said.

But in the mosque on Friday he was forced to listen to a Hamas preacher boasting. "He talked about how much Hamas had sacrificed during the war, how Hamas had done this and Hamas had done that. "I stood up and said that all of the factions had sacrificed, that I'd lost my brother. But I was told to shut up.

'Be quiet and fear God,' one man said to me. I hope Hamas will change. Some are good, like Haniya, but some are different."

On the surface, it is a particular irony that Hamas, the Islamist political and military organisation long backed by Iran and Syria, has emerged from Israel's bombardment as once again the dominant Palestinian faction. It has been portrayed, not only by its own newspapers but the world's, as being able to stand up to the enemy. And for the first time it has won wide diplomatic support.

The past few weeks have brought the unprecedented sight of the leader of a group on America's terror blacklist being feted by key American allies. The Emir of Qatar visited Mr Haniya last month; after the attacks started, Hisham Qandil, prime minister of Egypt, Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey and other Arab League ministers all came and stood in solidarity.

Just as importantly, perhaps, the conflict has served to unite the often bitterly fractious Palestinian factions, with the militants at the helm. Inside the 1,300-year-old Sahaba mosque, rebuilt by Saladin after he drove the crusaders from Gaza, leaders of Fatah, Hamas and the even more radical Islamic Jihad prayed together. Outside, children touted copies of the Hamas-run newspaper, its front page filled with pictures of Palestinians waving green flags in triumph and of Israeli soldiers lying face-down on the ground, as if in fear of a Hamas rocket.

This caused particular controversy in Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority. Once again, the price paid by its president, Mahmoud Abbas, for being the "acceptable" face of Palestinian nationalism - for recognising Israel - has been humiliation.

Officials there say Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton pushed Mr Abbas into Hamas's arms. Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian spokesman, told The Sunday Telegraph that as Israeli bombs were falling on Gaza, both Mr Blair and Mrs Clinton visited him in his West Bank headquarters.

He expected them to be bringing condolences for the loss of Palestinian life. In fact, they tried to persuade Abbas to drop his attempt to win observer status at the United Nations General Assembly this week, which Israel vehemently opposes. They failed.

Instead, Mr Abbas embraced the "resistance". In a worrying sign, masked fighters of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a military faction tied to Fatah and implicated in a string of suicide bombings in the Second Intifada a decade ago, claimed responsibility for the bus bombing in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning that almost scuppered the truce.

"We are in the field, and the Tel Aviv attack proved it," one proclaimed.

That incident remains murky. The one man arrested by the Israelis, an Israeli Arab, is said to be from Hamas rather than Fatah.

But the details may no longer matter. With the yellow flags of Fatah parading in Gaza alongside the green of Hamas on Thursday, Israeli bombs may have finally managed to achieve a Palestinian unity that years of Egyptian-sponsored talks failed to do.

Yet perhaps, behind the public face, and certainly as Hamas leaders sheltered from Israeli smart missiles in their bunkers, the reality of Hamas's victory was less clear cut. Once again, Israeli F16 fighter aircraft, naval vessels, tanks and Apache helicopters have rained destruction on Gaza, much of it carefully targeted, creating hundreds of craters and reducing homes and government buildings to rubble.

In more than 1,500 strikes, the Israeli military says it successfully targeted 30 factional leaders, 19 Hamas command centres and countless ministries. The network of smuggling tunnels to Egypt, which not only delivered arms to the Hamas government but also provided substantial revenue through a cash levy on everything transported, has been badly damaged.

That certainly is the view in Jerusalem. Dan Meridor, Israel's urbane intelligence minister, was particularly scathing about the claims of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to have brought fear to the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with missiles that struck the suburbs.

"What happened in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?" he said. "Nothing. They said the Gates of Hell would open. Well if that is Hell, it isn't such a bad place."

More significant, perhaps, is the secondary strategic result Israel has achieved. For with Hamas's new-found respectability also comes a responsibility - if not for Hamas, then at least for Egypt.

Since last year's revolution, and the loss of its ally Hosni Mubarak, Israel has feared for its vital diplomatic partnership with its huge neighbour. The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood and its new president, Mohammed Mursi, a man who refuses to mention Israel by name, is what really sends shudders through the minds of Israeli politicians, not Hamas's inaccurate, Iranian-made missiles.

For now, Mursi faces troubles of his own - his attempts to cut through the morass that is Egypt's new constitutional settlement ended in riots across the country on Friday.

Perhaps that is why Israel has faced him with his new test now. The praise heaped on Mursi for his brokering of the peace deal obscures the fact he has now taken on a task that Mubarak never attempted and that Egypt has long sought to avoid - becoming a guarantor of Israel's security by preventing remilitarisation of Gaza.

Israel's demand, in return for an easing of its long blockade on Gaza, is that Egypt stop further rocket-smuggling into Gaza through the Sinai.

Much now depends on the lifting of the blockade, particularly among a Gazan civilian population already growing restive at Hamas's authoritarian rule. "I expect we'll see this current peak in support for Hamas bleed out in the coming days and weeks," said Ayman Shaheen, a political analyst who teaches at the Al Azhar University in Gaza. Shaheen has served stints in Hamas jails because of his calls for human rights and freedom of thought.

"The Gazan people's experience of Hamas has not been good, and they will soon remember this. The leadership works for the good of the party, not the people."

The big test will come over the coming days and weeks. If Israel really does lift the blockade, and more goods and services start to flow in, some of the suffering of the past two weeks may come to seem worthwhile. But many are sceptical. "I don't believe Israel will lift the siege," said Qadada. "Why should it? They just wanted the rockets to stop.

"Hamas? They only care about the people who support them. I lost my brother, and his children are orphans but what has really changed? We pray this peace will hold but only God knows how this will end."

(Additional reporting by Richard Spencer in Cairo)

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