Palestinian split rattles region
President Mahmoud Abbas named a new Palestinian cabinet Sunday and banned Hamas militias.
If there is one issue that tends to unite the diverse and often divisive actors across the Arab world, it's the Palestinian plight.Skip to next paragraph
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But now, with the dramatic turn of events in the past week that has left the Islamic militant group Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, Arab support for that cause has become more complicated than ever.
Hamas's victory – first by the vote and then by force – has Arab governments face to face with the possibility that they, too, may find themselves unable to control Muslim militant movements that stand opposed to secular nationalism or pro-Western policies. In Lebanon Sunday, militants there fired two Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, raising concerns that attacks on Israel in support for Hamas could trigger a regional flare-up.
Indeed, the creation of a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist ministate in Gaza will have reverberations throughout the region that are just now being felt.
In the past, most Arab and Muslim countries could express full support for the drive for an independent Palestinian state and an end to Israeli occupation. Now, they may find themselves forced to make the difficult choice: support Hamas or Fatah's President Mahmoud Abbas.
At an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo over the weekend, the league issued a statement trying to stay on good terms with both: expressing support for Mr. Abbas, and also for the Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament In a sense, says Tariq Masarweh, a Jordanian analyst, many Arab governments want to appear to stand in support of both sides of the Palestinian divide.
But, he argues, they should think twice about trying to do so.
"What we've learned is that Hamas doesn't believe in democracy. They are using democracy to reach their goals," says Mr. Masarweh, a columnist with Al Rai newspaper in Amman.
"We shouldn't give them any sort of sympathy. They built up a majority in Palestine, or in a part of Palestine, and then they used this majority to stage a coup d'état, which is not democracy at all," he says. "And when they did so, they must know that they are telling the world they are not interested in being a part of Palestine anymore. They are an Islamic emirate, which Tehran is trying to create in the Arab world."
Indeed, the path to Hamas's complete control in Gaza has many pointing to Iran, a stated patron of the Islamic resistance group.
Others in the Arab world blame the US, the European Union, and the rest of the international community for backing Fatah and for refusing to accept the outcome of the January 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power.
And amid questions about whether rushing to the aid of Abbas will quell the uncertainty in the region or put even a temporary end to the Palestinian power struggle, regional Arab governments will be eyeing their own Islamic groups for the message that Hamas's ascendancy sends to them.
"It's a symbolic moment. It boosts the moral of the militants and it can be raised as an emblem of victory," says Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, also known as London's Chatham House.
"But in reality, some will see the obstacles that they would face if they tried to pursue the same path," says Dr. Azzam. She says they are aware that Hamas was stymied "until a situation developed where it was no longer possible to be part of the government."
Around the Arab world, the Hamas coup is being read in very different ways.
To pro-Western moderate Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt, Hamas's victory raises a sensitive question that has often created a standoff between the Arab world and Washington: Can Islamic militant groups be co-opted into the democratic arena?