Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hamas leveraging Gazan lives for political gain

Ma'an reports that Hamas has stated that it refuses to let injured Gazans go to Egypt for treatment unless Egypt opens up the Rafah crossings completely.

Hamas has also explicitly stated that, as a result of the current Israeli airstrikes, the Arab world must cut all ties with Israel - and open up the Rafah crossing.

In other words, Hamas is explicitly playing politics with the lives of the people it pretends to protect.

This is nothing new, for either Hamas, Palestinian Arabs or for the Arab world at large. Using people as political pawns, as cannon fodder, and as human explosives has been a long-standing tradition in the Arab world.

What is slightly newer is the desire to use the concept of the sanctity of all human life as a weapon itself. In other words, in Hamas' calculus, the public relations value of the media reporting that Gazans are dying due to lack of medical supplies is far more important than keeping the people alive. (It is notable that the English-language Hamas website now speaks of a "humanitarian crisis" but the Arabic-language version does not.)

Hamas has wanted Egypt to open its borders since the coup last year. The reason is that Hamas wants to be recognized as the legal government of Gaza, and Egypt refuses to recognize them as such - and it tries to adhere to existing agreements with the PA and Israel regarding Rafah.

Hamas is now looking at this operation as a means to gain political points. It will hold its own people hostage, knowing full well that the West and even Egypt values the lives of Gazans more than Hamas does, and using the hostages to gain legitimacy from Egypt, and then the rest of the world.

Even under attack, Hamas is trying to ensure that it will be more powerful, politically, after this operation than it was before. In this way Hamas is copying Hezbollah's playbook from 2006: Hezbollah lost many fighters and Southern Lebanon lost many civilians who lived under de facto Hezbollah rule, but in the end Hezbollah gained admiration, adoration from the Arab world, a full replenishment of the rockets it lost, a de facto control of much of Lebanon's army and a much higher profile in Lebanese politics.

Israel's campaign must therefore not stop at Hamas' infrastructure and military capability. Israel must use PR in ways much better than it has in the past. It must hammer away at the fact that Hamas has been a disaster for Gaza residents by any rational measure, that Hamas happily plays games with Gazan lives, that Hamas has all but driven out the Christian community in Gaza, that Hamas has cynically manipulated shortages while giving its own people plenty, that Hamas is nothing more than a terror group that holds innocent Gazans hostage. Israel must stress that a return to the status quo is not an option, and that Hamas is outside the pale of acceptability by moderate Arabs and those who claim they want peace.

Winning a war is less than half the battle nowadays.