Endgame in Megiddo?
Sam Kiley - The Observer
Faced with a doomsday scenario, Israel must sit down with Hamas
Quick to celebrate, and quick to erect the green flags of its movement outside the home of the Palestinian who murdered eight Jews in Jerusalem last week, Hamas is setting the agenda for politics in the region and a trap for Israel.
It is a doomsday scenario and goes like this: Hamas claims responsibility for the Jerusalem murders (which it apparently did on Friday), continues to rain rockets into the Israeli towns of Ashkelon and Sderot, Israel's government orders a massive invasion of Hamas-controlled Gaza to 'topple' Hamas. So far, so local.
But while Israel is flattening Gaza and carrying out Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilna'i's threat of a shoah or (near) holocaust, Hizbollah launches a massive attack on Israel in the north with modern rockets supplied through Syria by Iran. The US navy, which recently moved three battleships close to Lebanon's shores, is ordered to help defend Israel and fires cruise missiles into Hizbollah and Syrian army positions. Iran retaliates. The rest is ashes.
A bit far-fetched? A narrative for one of Tim LaHaye's 'end time' Armageddon prophecy novels, which sell in their millions to America's Christian fundamentalist audience? Maybe.
Since Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 2006 in response to rocket attacks and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by its fighters, Hizbollah has been itching for a rematch. When Imad Fayez Mugniyeh, Hizbollah's military chief and author of dozens of terrorist attacks, was assassinated last month, the Islamic movement promised bloody revenge.
Hizbollah has no doubt been flooded with military hardware from Iran, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his desire to destroy Israel. He also shares some of the fantasies of extremist Christians that the end is nigh, that this is desirable, and that a messiah (or mahdi) will rise out of the ashes of a final battle between good and evil at Armageddon (a real place, now called Megiddo, in northern Israel).
Even if Hamas and Hizbollah's ambitions remain more mundane, trapping Israel into a massive attack on Gaza remains a significant threat to the Jewish state, not least because in a US election year another Middle Eastern conflagration will strengthen growing American fears that Israel is not a strategic asset in the region but a liability.
Hamas remains popular on the West Bank, and dominant in Gaza, as much for what it stands for as for what it is not. It is not the Palestinian Authority or Fatah, the movement founded by Yasser Arafat, which has been in on-off talks with Israel since 1993. The negotiations, from a Palestinian perspective, have yielded nothing, but have produced a class of sharp-suited professional talkers, President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat among them.
Hamas, meanwhile, has been 'martyred'. Aid from the EU and the US intended to keep the administration of the Palestinian territories alive was cut the moment Hamas was elected in 2006, and is now only channelled to the West Bank, which is under PA/Fatah control.
Since Hamas took over from the PA/ Fatah in a civil war in Gaza last year, the enclave of 1.5 million people has been under a strangulating siege imposed by Israel in response to the Islamic movement's almost daily rocket attacks. Gazans feel collectively punished for the actions of Hamas and are often more likely to support the organisation.
Ahmed Yusef, senior adviser to the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, (who is in hiding from Israeli attack) said Hamas wanted negotiations with Israel. Although it is committed to the destruction of the 'Zionist entity', he said 'we could put that to one side for five or 10 years and see how peace worked out'.
This is hardly an olive branch. Hamas has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the US, the UK, and most of Israel's backers. Yusef said: 'So what? Negotiations are between enemies, not friends.'
But Hamas's desire for negotiations does offer Israel a way out of Hamas's doomsday trap, and, according to a recent poll in Israel's leading daily newspaper Ha'aretz, 64 per cent of Israelis agree. They said what was until recently unthinkable - that Israel should talk to Hamas.
If Israel defied Washington and talked to Hamas, Palestinian support for its rocket attacks, which in any case cause much more suffering to Gazans than Israelis, would naturally wane and that could lead to the ceasefire the whole region so desperately needs.