b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    May 1, 2006 Edition 17                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  External Islamist influence
  . A strategic threat        by Yossi Alpher
Assad's regime in Syria is the weak link in the Islamist ring emerging around Israel.
. No outside influence yet        by Ghassan Khatib
There is no evidence, either from intelligence or political sources, of the presence of any external actors in Palestine.
  . Palestine, playground for Islamist actors        by Ely Karmon
Events in the Palestinian sphere are being influenced by converging and even conflicting Islamist trends.
. Encouraging al-Qaeda        an interview with Hisham Ahmed
Any further crumbling of political hope at this stage is bound to create more profound and more widespread radicalization.

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A strategic threat
by Yossi Alpher

Throughout its history, Israel's wars have been with Arab nationalists: from the seven Arab League founding members and the Palestinian national movement in 1948, through Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Baathists in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and on to Fateh and Saddam Hussein in the last two decades or so. By the by, what we might today call Islamist figures also participated: Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Saudis come to mind; Egyptian Muslim Brothers took part in the 1948 war. But in the main, the conflict has been with Arab nationalism, not Arab Islamism. The question now before us is thus of historic importance: is all that about to change?

Israel finds itself flanked on three fronts by Islamist movements that represent a broad regional trend: Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank; Hizballah in southern Lebanon. Hamas is a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which supports it. Hizballah is largely a proxy of Islamist Iran, with the connivance of Syria. Iran, mainly through Syria and Lebanon, also supports Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank and a variety of Fateh dissidents in the West Bank. On yet another front, al-Qaeda is infiltrating Egyptian Sinai and, from its new base in Iraq, increasingly targeting both Egypt and Jordan. Above and beyond this worrisome Islamist deployment, Iran's nuclear program adds an element of regional and even global escalation.

Taken separately, none of the Islamist forces bordering on Israel or infiltrating Palestine constitutes a strategic threat to Israel. Taken together, and factoring in Iran, this is indeed a strategic threat.

Looking to the months ahead, this deployment suggests a number of possible scenarios. Deterrence rarely works against determined terrorists, especially Islamists who champion suicide operations. But because Hamas is in a transition process from terrorist movement to government, it (or at least its "internal" leadership) is risking the most if relations with Israel seriously deteriorate. Hence Hamas presents the only serious prospect of an Islamist movement in Israel's vicinity moderating its policies and seeking peaceful coexistence with Israel; Hizballah has successfully resisted international and Lebanese pressures in this regard. Because the situation is without precedent in the annals of the modern Middle East, how far Hamas could conceivably diverge from the pan-Arab Islamist line remains for the moment a subject of speculation. What, if anything, Israel can do to influence Hamas' attitude toward it is also unclear.

A second scenario focuses on Syria, the regional base for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and a key link in Iran's support for Hizballah. Thus far, President Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus has successfully rebuffed international demands that it cease supporting terrorists in both the Israeli and Iraqi arenas. But Assad's regime is secular, hence not an organic element in the Islamist infrastructure, and it is weak. Indeed, it is the weak link in the Islamist ring emerging around Israel. If it could be bought off and brought into a peace process with Israel this would help fragment the Islamist forces. At a time when peace with the Palestinians is in any case not a likely option, this might constitute a logical move for Israel, if Assad is willing and the United States could be convinced to support Jerusalem despite its misgivings about the regime in Damascus.

Yet a third scenario focuses on the regional Islamist reaction to a military offensive against Iran's nuclear program. In this event, Hizballah is liable to fire a barrage of katyusha rockets against the northern half of Israel, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad escalating terrorist operations. Iran might launch a missile strike against Israel from afar. Regional stability, and particularly the status quo in Lebanon and Syria, could be affected by Israel's response.

Finally, and inevitably, there is continuation of the status quo: Israel and Hamas adjust to one another, with Fateh conceivably presenting a viable alternative if and when it carries out the necessary internal reforms; Israel, Egypt and Jordan prevent Hamas and al-Qaeda from expanding their regional presence; and Israeli and American deterrence vis-a-vis Syria constrains Damascus from supporting its and Iran's Islamist clients and proxies too enthusiastically. This is where the forces for moderation are currently focusing their efforts. This is the "safe" alternative--though hardly the most creative.- Published 1/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

No outside influence yet
by Ghassan Khatib

The victory of Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections focused attention on the increasing influence, not just in Palestine but across the region, of Islamic political parties as well as violent groups who fly the banner of Islam. While these are two separate phenomena, there are people who, either from a lack of knowledge and understanding or from ideological intention, try to confuse them.

Across the region, there is a genuine increase in public support for Islamic political parties. Most of these political expressions of Islam are not engaged in any violent activity.

But in parallel there is also an increase in the activity of violent groups that are using Islam as a pretext to justify their illegal practices and to gain popularity. Al Qaeda is a typical example of the latter category, while parties like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan are examples of the former.

For a proper understanding it is important to differentiate between the two.

Because of the dramatic increase in public support for the two types of Islamic groups, it is imperative that whoever is concerned with these developments look a little deeper than just at the activities of these groups, whether political or violent. We must try to analyze the socio-economic and political conditions that are responsible for their growth in popularity and consequently why their activities differ.

It is often remarked that those engaged in terrorism come from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds. That truth should not hide the evidence repeated in several credible studies that violent groups generally establish popular bases in specific environments characterized by poverty, economic deterioration, injustice and oppression.

The Palestinian case is complicated by the fact that more than internal dynamics are at play. The way to understand the continuing growth in support for political Islamic groups in Palestine requires us to understand both the socio-economic and internal political dynamics, as well as external dynamics regarding the behavior of Israel, which remains a very significant factor in internal Palestinian politics, and the attitude of the relevant members of the international community, particularly the US.

The strength of Hamas in Palestine that led to its victory in free and democratic elections wasn't sudden. It was a cumulative and systematic process that was shown clearly in diverse public opinion surveys and studies. It was a genuinely Palestinian process that wasn't influenced by Islamic political groups or Islamic terrorist groups outside Palestinian society and Palestinian circumstances.

These circumstances are well documented. Hamas' success is a result of the failure of the previous government and the PLO to deliver political and economic solutions.

The continuing consolidation of the Israeli occupation in the face of the peaceful stance and political positions of a Palestinian leadership willing to compromise and the parallel decision by Ariel Sharon, with American backing, to ignore the Palestinian leadership, convinced the Palestinian public to go for its only alternative.

In addition, the failure of the Palestinian pro-peace process government to deal successfully with the economic difficulties that resulted from the Israeli closure and settlement expansion policies led the Palestinian public to give up on that leadership and try an alternative.

There is no evidence, either from intelligence or political sources, of the presence of any external and non-Palestinian political influence or presence such as al-Qaeda in Palestine. The attempt to divert attention in that direction is an attempt by some to escape responsibility for what has happened and try to blame non-existent bogey-men.

However, the failure of Hamas to fulfill its promises to the public, together with a continuation of current Israeli and American positions and behavior that prevent any political solution and economic recovery might in the future create a conducive environment for more extreme groups to appear in certain parts of Palestine such as Gaza.

At the moment, what we see in Palestine are genuine Palestinian expressions of frustration both with the Palestinian leadership and its international allies.- Published 1/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.

Palestine, playground for Islamist actors

by Ely Karmon

After a short period during which the Palestinians finally took their fate in their own hands by accepting and partly implementing the Oslo agreements, the situation has changed. The violent al-Aqsa intifada and the radicalization of the Palestinian street as expressed in the Hamas victory of January 2006 have allowed the growing intrusion of Islamist players interested in derailing the negotiating process.

Beginning with Iran, the Hamas victory in the elections is seen as a golden opportunity to enhance Tehran's influence in the region. In mid-April 2006, Iran organized a three-day conference in Tehran that brought together some 600 Palestinian leaders and their supporters from Muslim countries. Hamas Secretary General Khaled Meshaal declared at the conference that his government would never recognize Israel. Iran pledged $50 million in aid to the Hamas government.

The price of this support is escalation against Israel as requested by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad during his visit to Damascus in late January 2006. He stressed that jihad by Hizballah and several Palestinian terrorist organizations was an important component of a global jihad against the US-led West: "Palestine is the center of the final stages of the battle between Islam and arrogance."

For his part, Meshaal promised in December 2005 that "if Israel attacks Iran, then Hamas will widen and increase its confrontation against Israelis inside Palestine."

Recent years have also witnessed a steep rise in Hizballah involvement in Palestinian terrorism. In 2002, seven Palestinian groups were operated by Hizballah, in 2003 there were 14, and in 2004, 51 such groups.

In spite of pressure on Hizballah to disarm, its leaders have not renounced Palestinian violence. Lately, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged giving Palestinian factions financial and political support, but claimed delivery of weapons stopped in December 2001. This denial is contradicted by hard facts, such as the Karine-A affair and the arrest of Hizballah explosives experts on their way by sea to train Palestinians in Gaza.

Turning to al-Qaeda, until 9/11 Osama bin Laden assigned low priority to the Palestinian cause. But following al-Qaeda's demise in Afghanistan he upgraded Palestine as a top priority; in parallel there was a sharp increase in jihadi suicide attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets, such as the April 2002 bombing of the historic synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia and the November 2002 attack against an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombassa, Kenya.

Since 2002, when the first Qaeda attempt to recruit a Palestinian militant in Gaza was foiled, there are signs that the organization has stepped up its presence, especially in Gaza. A new radical Muslim terrorist group, Jundallah or "Allah's Brigades", especially active in Gaza, launched its first attack on IDF soldiers in May 2005. In August 2005 a group calling itself The Jihad Brigades in the Land of the Outpost issued a declaration describing a rocket operation against Israeli settlements.

Credit for the firing of katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel on the night of December 27, 2005 was claimed by Al-Qaeda's Committee in Mesopotamia (Iraq) led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In his April 2006 video, Zarqawi declared: "We are fighting in Iraq, but our eyes are set upon Jerusalem." According to PA officials, al-Qaeda operatives have crossed into the Gaza Strip from Egypt since Israel abandoned the Rafah border crossing, helped by the lawlessness since Hamas emerged as winner of the elections.

Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi criticized Hamas for its participation in the elections in their March 2006 video clips and warned the party against contamination by the secular political process. Meshaal, in response, claimed that Hamas' conduct of politics "served the resistance". Interestingly, bin Laden himself in his April 23, 2006 video did not make the same criticism but pointed to the isolation of Hamas by the international community as proof that the "West's rejection of Hamas affirms that this is a Crusader-Zionist war against Muslims." Perhaps he sees a positive side to an Islamist government in power in the PA and its capacity to influence other countries with strong Islamist movements, such as Egypt and Syria.

At the regional level, Egypt and Jordan consider that Hamas' success in gaining control of the PA could not only radicalize Palestinians and the conflict with Israel but also constitute a dangerous precedent for their own Islamists. At the same time, they worry that too much opposition to Hamas could produce instability in the West Bank and Gaza, and they do not want to be portrayed as adversaries of a democratically elected Palestinian government.

After Hamas publicly endorsed the last suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, both Egypt and Jordan refused to meet with the PA's foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar. More critically, Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf Bakheet accused Hamas of smuggling "rockets, explosives, and automatic rifles" from Syria. Jordan arrested members of the organization who received instructions from a Hamas leader in Syria and were planning to carry out attacks in the country. Hamas rejected the allegations as "outright brazen lies", but PA President Mahmoud Abbas seemed implicitly to accept their veracity by describing the charges as "shocking and dangerous".

It would appear, then, that events in the Palestinian sphere are being influenced by converging and even conflicting Islamist trends.

Iran is interested in helping the Hamas-led government stabilize the situation and take control of the PA. But at the same time, against a backdrop of international pressure over its nuclear ambitions, it is using Islamic Jihad to carry out attacks in Israel. As the crisis concerning the nuclearization of Iran approaches a critical stage, Hizballah, the Palestinian Islamist organizations and al-Qaeda could be used to provoke a regional crisis inside the West Bank and Gaza or at Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

The Hamas victory could negatively influence the stability of Egypt and Jordan, while growing activity by al-Qaeda terrorists in Sinai could represent a direct threat to Israel and the PA.

Israel, the moderate elements in the PA, Egypt, Jordan, the US and Europe will be torn in the coming months by daunting choices: Let Hamas take control of the Palestinian Authority and "Talibanize" it, with the risk of a spillover to the neighborhood? Let the Iranian nuclear genie out of the bottle? Push for further democratization in the region, thus favoring growing Islamist successes? Or decisively challenge these threats and risk more terrorist activity in the near future, with the hope of victory relegated to the long term?- Published 1/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Ely Karmon is senior research scholar at The Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.

Encouraging al-Qaeda

an interview with Hisham Ahmed

bitterlemons: There have been suggestions in the Israeli press that foreign Islamic groups are gaining influence in Palestine. Do you think this is true?

Ahmed: Given the overall mood of profound frustration in Palestinian society today, the opportunity is quite strong for external influences to have an impact on the Palestinian arena.

Previously, pan-Arab nationalism was viewed as the road to solving Palestine's immense political and economic problems. With its defeat, Palestinian nationalism took over, in the context of the PLO. But as the PLO was tremendously weakened, especially following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Palestinian society began to shift more and more toward political Islamic groups, most notably Hamas.

Now, as the trend does not seem to favor either secular nationalists or political Islamists, the Palestinian arena could very well become ripe for other influences to try to fill the political and psychological vacuum.

Indeed, there are many ingredients present that make it possible for radical Islamists to embrace the challenge in Palestine at this stage, especially the feeling of rampant despair and deep frustration.

bitterlemons: You don't feel these external influences are present yet?

Ahmed: Nobody can say with certainty how and when such groups start to work, especially that they operate so clandestinely that they are almost devoid of political cover.

But it is to suggest that the Palestinian arena is at a threshold: either political Islam, in the form of Hamas, has its way to some extent, especially after the January 25 elections, or the internal balance of forces in Palestine is drastically tipped, a development that would certainly pave the road for other Islamic groups, especially al-Qaeda, to penetrate the psychological and political fabric of the society.

It is worth remembering that Iraq is neither geographically nor culturally distant from what goes on in Palestine.

bitterlemons: In other words, you are saying that the influence or otherwise of groups like al-Qaeda depends on the success or otherwise of the Hamas-government?

Ahmed: Absolutely. There has to be an intuitive, creative and atypically balanced international strategy that takes into account local Palestinian, regional Arab and international determinants. The consequences of destabilizing the Palestinian body politic could indeed be detrimental for all concerned.

Al-Qaeda, as its head Osama bin Laden suggested in his latest televised speech, views "with dismay" the state of affairs the new Palestinian government is facing. This suggests to me that al-Qaeda and its various groups and organs are keeping a close eye on developments in Palestine.

This is further underscored by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's recent speech in which he unequivocally stated that al-Qaeda is "no more than a stone's throw away from the gates of Jerusalem".

bitterlemons: So al-Qaeda can only be kept out if Hamas is given a chance to succeed?

Ahmed: A balanced strategy entails sending a strong message to Palestinian society that its verdict in democratic elections is honored and respected and that secular movements are not completely toppled by other competing ideological and political tendencies.

Such a strategy must differ from previous strategies that served as the catalyst for this radical shift in Palestinian society. Specifically, the demise of the political process after 10 long years of back-and-forth negotiations, the increasing intransigence of the Israeli occupation, and the destruction of hope in Palestinian society have all left hardly any political horizon for the people concerned.

Any further crumbling of political hope at this stage is bound to create more profound and more widespread radicalization in this always-oppressed society. Therefore, adopting a conventional strategy now would be like shooting oneself in the foot.

bitterlemons: In your reading, therefore, the international boycott of the PA is playing straight into the hands of al-Qaeda?

Ahmed: Without a shred of doubt. Al-Qaeda would be very much interested in seeing all political developments and arrangements regarding Palestine fail. In other words, al-Qaeda thrives and acquires its strength primarily in a highly frustrated political environment where hope is non-existent.

Imposing sanctions on Palestinian society, which could very well lead to starvation, would certainly push people to opt for other avenues in an attempt to resolve their dilemma.- Published 1/5/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Hisham Ahmed is a professor of political science at Birzeit University and the author of a 1994 book, Hamas: From Religious Salvation to Political and Social Transformation.

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