Jan 6, 2009
Hamas looks to Hezbollah's inspiration
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The similarities between what is taking place in Gaza today, and
what took place in Lebanon in 2006, are striking. Both wars were waged by the
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) against a small military group, seen as "heroes
and resistance leaders" by the Arab world, labeled as "terrorists" by Israel
and the United States.
In both wars, Israel resorted to unconditional force, devastating Lebanon in
2006 and Gaza in 2008, and it seems like this war - just like 2006 - will last
longer than most people expect. It won't be that easy to eliminate Hamas from
Gaza, however, because of its grassroots popularity, just like Israel was
unable to destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In back-to-back speeches by Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah during
the first week of the current war on Gaza, he drew parallels between Hezbollah
and Hamas. Both were under savage attacks by Israel, he noted, carried out with
In 2006, Israel claimed that it was attacking Lebanon to free two abducted
Israeli soldiers, while in 2008 it is bombing Gaza to ostensibly stop al-Kassam
rockets from landing in northern Israel, fired by Hamas militias.
The real targets, Nasrallah said, were the Islamic groups because it was part
of their doctrine to fight and destroy Israel. By uttering these words,
Nasrallah was drawing red lines for Arab activists, journalists and
politicians, making it very difficult - in some places close to impossible - to
criticize Hamas, while the bloodbath in Gaza was taking place.
It was political suicide for most Arabs to be critical of Nasrallah while he
was sending missiles to strike "at Haifa and beyond Haifa" in Israel in 2006.
In times of war, many reasoned, one cannot be neutral in the Arab world. One
has to take sides, either with Hezbollah and Hamas, or with Israel. Refusing to
support them, or standing on neutral ground, was seen as politically incorrect
by the Arab masses. If Hamas has committed a mistake, accountability can be
made, later - once the war on Gaza comes to an end. For now, it is the duty of
Arabs - Nasrallah was saying - to stand by Hamas.
Let us try to see the similarities between both groups, and what are the
Ideology: Both groups are governed by an Islamic ideology that dictates war
against Israel as a national, moral and religious duty for believers. The
warriors from both groups are not afraid to die. On the contrary, they seek it
as a religious obligation in jihad (holy war). The IDF goes into battle with
the objective of getting done with its duty, and returning home. They do not
want to die.
Iran: Both are strongly allied to Iran, although Iranian support is stronger
for Hamas than it is for Hezbollah. That explains why both are at odds with
both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are engaged in a cold war with Tehran.
In 2006, Saudi Arabia was not pleased because of the war, because it further
strengthened Iran's influence and clout in the Arab and Muslim world. This
time, Egypt is frowning at Hamas' performance, especially that Nasrallah came
out praising the leadership of Hamas, and came short of calling for a national
uprising against the pro-American regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Hezbollah's victory in 2006 scored a point for Iran over Saudi Arabia. The same
would apply with regard to Egypt if Hamas were to win the war in 2009.
Popularity: Both were voted in with an overwhelming majority in their
respective countries and are more popular than their pro-Western counterparts
within the Lebanese and Palestinian systems, Fouad al-Siniora and Mahmud Abbas.
Decision-makers in Beirut and the West Bank are at a complete loss over what to
do with Hamas and Hezbollah. Neither the Lebanese nor the Palestinian system
has been able to disarm or weaken them. Nor has the United Nations or the
United States. Both operate a wide network of charity and welfare
organizations, including schools and hospitals, which makes them well rooted in
Gaza and South Lebanon. Bombing them - or refusing to deal with them - will not
make them go away.
Action: Hezbollah performed with flying military colors in 2006, surprising
everyone with its strength, even the IDF. Arabs around the globe were enchanted
when Hezbollah downed an Israeli warship - live during one of Nasrallah's
speeches, or when he lived up to his promise and struck at Haifa, in the heart
of Israel, for the first time since 1948.
Hezbollah projects itself as a resistance group that can deliver,
psychologically through the media, and militarily in ground combat. It has a
well-trained and professional army, with sophisticated missiles, radars and
weapons. When its al-Manar TV was hit by Israel, the station stopped
broadcasting for no more than a few minutes and was immediately back on air,
beaming images of dead Israeli soldiers and victorious warriors from Hezbollah,
along with talk-shows of Hezbollah's might, with subtitles in Hebrew.
Hamas also has none of Hezbollah's media machine to promote itself. During its
heyday in the Palestinian uprising that started in 2000 (known in Arabic as
intifada), it excelled at surprise explosions in crowded places within Israel,
and target assassinations, not in professional warfare like Hezbollah. Hamas
cannot duplicate Hezbollah's performance, it is that simple, and its targets
are easy to strike at, within Gaza.
In South Lebanon, there are no military bases for Hezbollah, no visible
training camps, or arms warehouses. No Hezbollah flags flying at official
Hezbollah buildings, forcing Israel instead to strike at everyone and
everything in Lebanon, hoping that in the mayhem they would succeed at hitting
Hezbollah targets. As one journalist put it back then, "One walks through South
Lebanon and feels Hezbollah, but one does not see Hezbollah."
The situation in Gaza is different. Hamas is everywhere. Caught by the
trappings of state after it took control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas placed its name
and hallmarks on all buildings it controls, making them easy targets for
Geography: The terrain in South Lebanon is suitable for guerilla warfare,
giving Hezbollah a grand advantage over the IDF in 2006. The Lebanese warriors
knew the caves, the mountains and slopes by heart and used them to make life
miserable for Israel.
Gaza is not like that, with its 360 square kilometers of flatland and a
population of 1.2 million Palestinians. Israel controls Gaza's airspace and
waters, which is not the case with South Lebanon. Gaza is dislocated from the
West Bank, and has no neighboring support - unlike the case with Hezbollah,
which relied on Syria for help in 2006.
Hamas' borders are with Egypt, which not only is unsupportive but is a burden
for Hamas because of its refusal to open the Rafah Crossing and its close ties
to both Israel and the US. If a country like Syria were bordering Gaza - rather
than Egypt - the results of Hamas' performance would be very different.
Leadership: In the age of satellite TV, Nasrallah is a walking, talking
phenomenon, due to the tremendous amount of charisma that he projects, which
endears him to millions around the Muslim world. He managed to lift the spirits
of ordinary Lebanese - especially from within his constituency - throughout the
33-day war on Lebanon, when he spoke to them from his secret hiding place,
almost on a daily basis. He did not flee to Iran or Syria, as the Israeli press
had said, but rather remained in the heart of combat, bunkered in the southern
suburb of Beirut, which was destroyed by Israeli warplanes.
Hamas does not have a single leader as charismatic - or even half as
charismatic - as Nasrallah, and therefore nobody to keep the spirits high for
ordinary Palestinians under fire.
The day after: The day after the war ended, Hezbollah immediately began to
rebuild south Beirut and South Lebanon. It had plenty of money for
reconstruction, which started on the 34th day, and distributed stipends to the
families of those injured or killed in the war.
When the war on Gaza ends, Hamas can provide none of the above, because it
lacks the financial resources of Hezbollah.
Analysts disagree on what the objectives of this war really are. Most Arabs
believe the ultimate goal is to break Hamas, either by annihilating it or by
forcing it to sign an agreement to disarm and distance itself from the border
Some, however, claim that Hamas wanted this war, to force international
recognition into a de facto recognition of Hamas' control of Gaza. Hamas
believes that it can survive the Israeli onslaught, just like Hezbollah did in
2006, and emerge politically victorious. In the case of Hezbollah, the victory
was more military than it was political.
Today's victory, Hamas believes, would be the opposite. One example of de facto
recognition would be to open the Rafah Crossing, which, according to a 2005
agreement, should be controlled by the Fatah-controlled central command in the
West Bank (President Mahmud Abbas), Egypt, Israel and the Europeans, through
the European Union Border Assistance Mission Rafah (EUBAM).
It was built by the Israeli and Egyptian governments after the Camp David
Agreement between Israel and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1979. Rafah, the
lifeline of Gaza, was strictly managed by Israel and was used to collectively
punish the Gazans when Palestinian groups waged war against Israel, until Gaza
was evacuated by Israel in September 2005, at which time it became a
The crossing was completely sealed off by Egypt and Israel after the Hamas
takeover of Gaza in 2007. The European Union ambassador to Israel said that
EUBAM monitors could not return to man the crossing because the legal basis for
EUBAM specified that the terminal was to be manned by Fatah's Force 17, which
was no longer there as of the summer of 2007. If an agreement is reached, the
Europeans would have to talk to Hamas, and so would the Egyptians, thereby
offering the Islamic party de facto recognition.
Regardless of the objectives of the war, the indisputable truth is that
Israel's massive war machine is waging an all-out war on Gaza, and neither the
Arab world nor the outgoing George W Bush administration is able or willing to
put a halt to it.
The Americans are in dire need of a success story to wrap up the Bush era. Iraq
has been a failure by all accounts. So have Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Bush
team timidly tried to create peace at Annapolis in the US in 2007, but that,
too, ended in vain. Bush faces leaving the White House with many loose ends:
Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran.
Hezbollah cannot be crushed militarily. Syria and Iran are too difficult to
tackle, leaving Hamas as the "weak link" that Bush wants to see destroyed, by
January 20, when Barack Obama takes over.
By the first evening of war, the IDF had deployed approximately 100 tons of
explosives in Gaza, under the watchful eye of the US, hitting 100 targets that
it claimed were run by Hamas, in the first four minutes of war. Images on the
Doha-based al-Jazeera TV showed otherwise, however, with piles and piles of
blooded bodies, many children lying dead in the streets of Gaza City, Beit
Hanoun, and Khan Younes.
None of them was carrying arms or even looked like warriors. Hamas struck back
with rockets, hitting as far as 40 kilometers into Israeli at towns like
Beersheba and Ashdod. The operation was submitted for ratification by Defense
Minister Ehud Barak as early as November 19, meaning that Israel had planned
for six months, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.
Nearly 500 people have been killed in Gaza (including 75 children), and the
number is expected to increase dramatically now that the ground invasion has
began, when the IDF entered Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza on
Israel has to date refused to allow any journalists into the Gaza Strip. The UN
claims that over 300 Palestinians are confirmed dead, including 60 women and
children, in addition to over 2,000 wounded, describing the situation as
Numbers actually don't really count any more in Gaza. Three hundred or 500 is
not really a difference - both are horrendous and kill whatever hopes optimists
had that 2009 was going to be a year of peace in the Middle East.
The Arab world remains glued to its TV sets watching the Gaza saga, with daily
riots erupting in favor of the Palestinians in major Arab capitals. Arabs are
keeping their fingers crossed that Hamas will survive, just like Hezbollah
survived in 2006.
Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), after all, survived
during the siege of Beirut, from June to September 1982. That was when the PLO
was nowhere as powerful or armed as Hamas is today. Also, they were fighting in
Beirut - hostile territory that is not even there own. If the PLO survived
Beirut in 1982 - and remained alive and kicking - then Hamas will be able to do
so in Gaza, its own territory, which it knows by heart.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.
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