U.S., Is­rael fret over Ha­mas-run Gaza Strip

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - By Karin Laub

RA­MAL­LAH, West Bank — A Ha­mas mil­i­tary vic­tory in Gaza would cre­ate a two -headed Pales­tine — with the Is­lamic ex­trem­ists in con­trol in the coastal strip and Western­backed Fatah rul­ing the West Bank.

It could also set the stage for a bloody con­fronta­tion with Is­rael, and strengthen rad­i­cal states in the Mid­dle East.

“It’s a lose -lose sit­u­a­tion for the Pales­tini­ans and Is­rael,” said Uzi Dayan, for­mer head of Is­rael’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

The bat­tle for Gaza wasn’t over Wed­nes­day. But Ha­mas mili­ti­a­men have gained the up­per hand, sys­tem­at­i­cally seiz­ing po­si­tions of Fatah-al­lied forces, tak­ing con­trol of the streets and brag­ging they’ll keep go­ing.

Fatah’s fight­ers out­num­ber

the Ha­mas mili­tia, but have less fire­power and lack mo­ti­va­tion and lead­er­ship. Gaza’s Fatah strong­man Mo­hammed Dahlan is get­ting med­i­cal treat­ment abroad, and the head of Fatah, Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas, is in­creas­ingly per­ceived as timid and in­de­ci­sive.

Per­haps that’s be­cause Ab­bas has no en­tic­ing choices.

Even if he were to or­der a Fatah of­fen­sive in Gaza — and there is no sign he’s plan­ning to do so — his de­mor­al­ized forces may no longer be able to turn the tide. Fatah’s threat to pull out of its coali­tion gov­ern­ment with Ha­mas, formed three months ago, is largely mean­ing­less be­cause Ab­bas ap­pears too weak to call early elec­tions.

The most likely sce­nario is a di­vided Pales­tine, with Ha­mas run­ning Gaza and Fatah the West Bank, where Ha­mas is rel­a­tively weak be­cause of con­tin­ued Is­raeli con­trol.

The two ter­ri­to­ries, which lie on ei­ther side of Is­rael, are cut off from each other by strict Is­raeli travel bans. Ri­val gov­ern­ments in the West Bank and Gaza would fi­nal­ize that split, and push prospects of a Pales­tinian state even fur­ther away.

Ef­forts to re­vive Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace talks, in­clud­ing a re­cent push by mod­er­ate Arab states, would suf­fer be­cause Ab­bas could no longer claim to rep­re­sent all Pales­tini­ans and would lose his cred­i­bil­ity as ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner. Is­rael’s op­tions also are grim. A Ha­mas vic­tory in Gaza would put an Ira­nian-backed mili­tia not just on Is­rael’s north- ern border, but also its south­ern one. In last sum­mer’s in­de­ci­sive war against Ira­nian-armed Hezbol­lah guer­ril­las in Le­banon, Is­rael was pounded by thou­sands of rock­ets that forced hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians to f lee.

Iran also has been arm­ing Ha­mas, via smug­gling tun­nels un­der the Egypt-Gaza border, and a Ha­mas- con­trolled Gaza would likely give rocket squads freer rein. Al­ready, Ha­mas mil­i­tants have fired hun­dreds of rock­ets at Is­raeli border towns.

Is­rael would be forced to re­tal­i­ate to pro­tect its civil­ians, de­spite the fact that pre­vi­ous mil­i­tary in­cur­sions into the densely pop­u­lated ter­ri­tory have failed to halt the rocket fire.

More dra­matic steps, such as cut­ting off wa­ter and elec­tric­ity to Gaza, would likely cre­ate an up­roar in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

“They (Ha­mas mil­i­tants) can cre­ate se­ri­ous in­sta­bil­ity for us, and we are lim­ited in our abil­ity to re­tal­i­ate,” said Hirsh Good­man, an an­a­lyst at the Is­raeli In­sti­tute for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies. “The sit­u­a­tion puts us be­tween a rock and a hard place.”

A Fatah vic­tory in Gaza was also be a set­back for the United States. For two years, Wash­ing­ton has tried to choke off Ha­mas while throw­ing lim­ited aid and sup­port to Fatah.

“We have lim­ited op­tions, and most of them are bad,” said Martin Indyk, the for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael.

The great­est fear in Wash­ing­ton is that Gaza will be­come a ter­ror­ist breed­ing ground un­der Ha­mas.

“What would hap­pen is that Ha­mas would take over and Gaza will be a full ter­ror­ist state, right on the fault line of the West­ern world,” Am­bas­sador Indyk said. “We should all un­der­stand what the stakes are here. It will be a haven for all the bad guys — Hezbol­lah, Is­lamic Ji­had.”

Equally alarm­ing to Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials is the prospect that if Ha­mas does not take over Gaza, and the fight­ing there con­tin­ues, more of Gaza’s young and in­creas­ingly frus­trated pop­u­la­tion might be driven into the em­brace of al-Qaida, a ri­val of Ha­mas that, un­til now, had largely been shunned in Gaza.

Khalil Hamra/As­so­ci­ated Press

Pales­tinian gun­men help an el­derly wo­man flee an area of fight­ing be­tween Fatah and Ha­mas in Gaza City. The blood­shed is in­ten­si­fy­ing the Pales­tinian hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

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