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