Attraction of normal life is biggest threat to radicalism

By Bronwen Maddox (THE TIMES, 19/06/07):

It makes sense to try to rescue the West Bank from Hamas, after the shock of the militant Islamic group’s seizure of Gaza. But the promise by the US and European Union yesterday to pour in aid to the West Bank, while ignoring Gaza, sidesteps the problems.

It is at least better than the reflex, which seems predominant in the Israeli Government, to seal off Gaza completely. That idea amounts to a wager that Gazans will blame Hamas rather than Israel for the disintegration of daily life — and it looks like a terrible one.

The best that can be said about the rush by the US and EU to pour in aid to the new Government of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, is that it is an overdue move to strengthen moderate Palestinians, such as they are. It brings a sense of urgency to the task of trying to prevent Hamas, dominant in Gaza, from radicalising the West Bank and ousting the secular Fatah from there as well.

That urgency has been missing from Israeli and US efforts. In March, I spent two days on an Israeli government tour of senior officials and politicians, regularly organised for journalists, although this one was so heavy-handed in propaganda that it was an object of professional interest in itself.

Iran was the main theme of the presentations; that, a series of Foreign Ministry officials said, was where Israel urgently needed the world’s help. But the Palestinian problem? That was “manageable” and “containable”, three senior Foreign Ministry officials told us.

It doesn’t look that way in Britain and the rest of Europe. On Iran’s nuclear ambitions Israel has the world on its side (even Russia, on a good day), but on Palestinian questions it is losing its last grip on public support.

Nor did it sound that way a couple of days earlier in March, which I spent talking to Hamas officials and those close to them in Tulkarm and nearby villages on the West Bank. With the clarity and self-possession of a McKinsey consultant, they laid out plans for radicalising the West Bank and prising it away from its traditional support for Fatah.

One tool was to set up new schools and offer scholarships to poor families, they said, reckoning that communities would appreciate and come to rely on Hamas’s ability to deliver services, more than the chaotic and corruption-prone Fatah. A stalemate in which nothing resembling a “peace process” survived would be helpful to them, in allowing them to consolidate their appeal. The present crackdown by Israeli forces, which allows almost no movement in and out of the main West Bank towns, was helpful too. So was the Western embargo on aid since Hamas won parliamentary elections last year.

If Hamas is playing the tactical game that its officials describe — using a deadlock to move forward its grip on communities, just as Israel allows settlements to edge forward in that diplomatic vacuum — then the festering of the West Bank is more costly to Israel and the area less stable than its statements imply.

On the face of it, the proposal by Europe and the US to lift the embargo on aid is entirely sensible. Hamas officials certainly recognise the threat to their radical vision presented by the deep desire of many Palestinians for a normal life.

Sheikh Salah al-Arouri, recently let out of an Israeli jail after 15 years for helping to set up Hamas’s armed wing, said that the radical Islamist group now faced a tricky tactical problem because most Palestinians would settle for peace.

For the West to lift the embargo on aid, applied since Hamas came to power, “is the most dangerous thing for us”, he said, speaking from Aroura, his hilltop village north of Ramallah (in front of a bouquet of plastic flowers bearing a signed tribute from President Abbas). “People start eating, the Government will start up services . . . and the political situation is put aside”. That would “shift the Palestinian cause from one of nationalistic freedom to one of the circumstances of living”, he said, with disgust.

But the Western plan puts Abbas in a position that may well prove intolerable: asking him to withhold aid from Gaza, even though he was elected to be President of all Palestinians. It also abandons those in Gaza who still would prefer moderate, secular leaders — and they still exist. Israel’s reflex to seal off Gaza, after last week’s shock, is understandable, but threatens to extinguish any hope of eventually prising Gaza away from Hamas.

You could not put it better than do al-Arouri and other Hamas officials: the attractions of normal life are the real threat to radicalism, and Israel’s crackdown is its best hope. Israel may argue that Palestinians should blame Hamas, not its clampdown, for their deteriorating lives. But it must admit that this hasn’t happened yet.