Hamas explodes a giant hole in Egypt's political cover
Joel Brinkley Saturday, February 2, 2008
You'd almost think the leaders of Hamas had hired a brilliant political consultant before they blew down the Egyptian-border fence 10 days ago.
Hamas didn't just bulldoze the border wall. The extremist group's leaders also laid bare the hollow nature of Israel's collective-punishment policy, openly supported by the United States - and the hypocrisy of Egypt's historic support of the Palestinian cause. At the same time, they shored up their own support among Gaza's 1.5 million restive residents.
If Hamas' leaders are not grinning right now, they certainly should be.
Like every Arab state, Egypt professes great concern for the Palestinian cause. Every day, the state-controlled press fills its pages with woeful tales of Palestinian suffering. As an example, just before the fence fell, the Cairo paper Al-Ahram lamented that "Gaza is now effectively cut off from the world, plunged into darkness and hostage to the whims of Israel's air commanders and their weapons."
But the moment Hamas presented Egypt with a chance to relieve all of that suffering, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, instead sent 20,000 truncheon-wielding police to seal the border. When that didn't work, the government blocked the resupply of food and other goods to the Egyptian border towns Rafah and El Arish, where hundreds of thousands of Gazans had streamed in previous days to buy supplies.
Still, Cairo sang its flowery song of support.
"The Egyptian decision has been to allow the sons of Gaza to relieve their suffering," Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, intoned last weekend.
If anyone holds any doubts about Egypt's true view of the Palestinians, consider again what happened when Israel and Egypt made peace following Israel's capture of the Sinai and Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1979, Egypt negotiated the return of the Sinai. As for Gaza, Egypt refused to take it back.
The events in January also repudiated a verity of American foreign policy.
For months now, Hamas has been firing rocket volleys over the Gaza border fence into Israel. Most fall harmlessly in the desert, but the attacks terrify and occasionally injure citizens of Sderot, a small town just east of Gaza. In response, Israel has cut fuel and other supplies to Gaza.
The United States largely endorses this strategy. And within the administration many hold the expectation that Israel's collective punishment will drive Gazans to realize that their lives are growing ever more miserable the longer Hamas holds power.
"Unfortunately for the people of Gaza," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said a few weeks ago, Hamas has "demonstrated almost on a daily basis what they are really like. And I don't think, frankly, that has endeared them to the Palestinian population."
Following that logic, administration officials say, angry Gazans may soon drive Hamas from power.
It is hardly surprising that Washington should hold this view. Many Bush administration officials expect that ever-harsher sanctions on Iran will convince Iranians to turn on their government. Bush has applied the same logic in North Korea. Of course none of that has worked - anywhere.
In the Middle East, after 41 years of occupation and confrontation, it is now patently clear that Palestinians react to collective punishment by standing ever closer to their leaders and growing ever more angry with Israel, leading to more terror attacks. Unlike Washington, Israel realizes this - though at times Israelis seem to reach wistfully for the easy answer.
"We do hope that the situation in Gaza will change in the future, and also the Palestinians understand that supporting these kind of terrorists is not going to help them," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said last fall.
In any case, Israeli leaders face a political imperative to respond when attacked - just as, on a larger scale, President Bush had no choice but to attack Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Politically, there was no other option.
No matter. When Hamas tore down the wall, that scrambled everyone's political calculations. Mubarak invited Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to Cairo for meetings. Hamas sent Mahmoud Zahar, who once told me, "From our ideological point of view, it is not allowed to recognize that Israel controls 1 square meter of historic Palestine."
The invitation gave Hamas instant, undeniable political recognition - just what the United States and Israel have been trying to avoid. Their policy is strict isolation.
Zahar is a medical doctor, a surgeon. But perhaps now he might want to consider a new career - as a political consultant. I can think of at least two potential clients - his buddy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, and Kim Jong Il in North Korea. Both certainly recognize Hamas' triumphs. Both could use some advice right now.
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times.