Hamas's Big Victory Was Over the Arab States

On the Arab side, the true winners and losers from the seven-week Gaza war will only become clear in the coming weeks, as the conditions of the cease-fire play out. The current sense of jubilation among Palestinians reflects sheer relief. The fighting is over. Palestinians stood their ground, did not surrender to Israel’s intense attacks, and forced its leaders to accept a cease-fire. Hamas and other resistance groups maintained their arms and some of their facilities. Israel's blockade of the territory is being lifted gradually. Fishermen now have deeper access to the sea, and large-scale reconstruction looks likely to start quickly. Negotiations to cement a permanent cease-fire may bring more gains, even pave the way to a wider regional peace negotiation.

Beneath the celebrations, though, several intense political debates are reverberating throughout Gaza and the West Bank and across the entire Arab world. These touch on profound questions of ideology, governance and nationhood. And they are exposing a yawning gap between governments and citizens across the entire Arab region.

Plentiful social media and radio-television broadcasts confirm that populaces across most of the Arab world feel Hamas has won a historic victory, one that proves only sustained “armed resistance and steadfastness,” as the group's leaders put it, will ever force Israel to respect Arabs and negotiate meaningfully. Hamas's achievement is one of the few positive gains that ordinary Palestinians and Arabs can celebrate after generations of national mediocrity, incompetence and failure.

This is precisely why most Arab governments dislike Hamas: It represents everything they fear, or have failed at. Hamas has fought Israel to a draw three times now. It enjoys large-scale public support at home and across the entire region. It has combined Islamic faith with nationalist passions to mobilize its people for action, including armed resistance. It has successfully resisted all attempts to control and weaken it -- whether by the U.S., Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or others. And it insists on nationalist positions that defy the Israeli-American line, which no Arab governments have been able to manage.

The simplistic view is that opinions about Hamas reflect a geographic or political split between supporters of countries such as Qatar and Turkey -- who back Islamists such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood -- and those who fear such groups and secretly share the desire of Israel and America to crush them. These include Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the leaders of most other Arab governments.

The reality is that an intense, complex debate is going on among ordinary Palestinians and Arabs across the region. Even as they celebrate, they are asking themselves a host of strategic, ideological and moral questions. Most notably: Do we fight to destroy Israel, or negotiate to coexist with it? Should Palestinians seek full national unity by reviving the Palestine Liberation Organization, or operate through the current erratic Hamas-Fatah relationship? Should we rely on the diplomacy and promises of U.S. and Arab leaders, or trust in those who favor armed resistance and draw their support from the loose Qatar-Turkey axis?

Many of those impressed by Hamas’s performance and Israel’s newly exposed vulnerabilities also quietly doubt whether this is a sustainable strategy, if it means Gaza (as Lebanon before it) is to be pummeled by Israel every few years. However "successful" or "victorious," such resistance has transformed Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza into dependent wards of international charity, as their economic underpinnings have collapsed. Pursuing this strategy would be very costly in both blood and treasure -- and holds no guarantees of winning the core demands of Palestinian self-determination and statehood.

As Palestinians and Arabs debate these questions in private and public, hapless Arab governments are uneasily watching the spectacle of their citizens weighing in on issues that matter to them, and taking up arms when they feel diplomacy has failed them. Whatever the outcome of this vibrant internal debate, the enduring political aftershocks will challenge the established Arab order long after memories of the most recent war have faded.

Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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