From the Independent - December 30, 2008
ISRAEL'S response to rocket attacks by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip - one of the world's most densely populated and squalid places - can only fuel the cause of Islamic radicalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The killing and injuring of hundreds of Palestinians, many of them civilians, and the bombing of Hamas political and security infrastructure as well as mosques and Gaza's Islamic University, have the potential to play into the hands of al-Qa'ida and its supporters.
Israel could not have chosen a more inappropriate time to attack than the period between Christmas and New Year, when the world's attention is focused on messages of peace and goodwill, and when the US presidency is in a transitional mode. This is precisely the time the Soviets chose when they invaded Afghanistan nearly 30 years ago. For this, the Soviets were roundly condemned, but one wonders whether Israel will be criticised.
Israeli leaders have tried to be too clever by half. They preceded their onslaught by opening the Gaza crossing into Israel to allow some humanitarian aid to get through to the besieged and starving people of Gaza.
The purpose was to cast Israel as a compassionate actor in international eyes, and then to pound the territory so intensely that Gazans could not benefit from the aid. The result is even greater shortages of food, medicine and essential services, endangering the lives of many more Gazans.
Meanwhile, like the former right-wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon - who took advantage in 2002 of George W. Bush's declaration of war against al-Qa'ida and its Taliban allies to punish the Palestinians as terrorists - Israeli spokesman Mark Regev has equated Hamas with the Taliban. The intention is to impress on the US and its allies that Israel is as justified in fighting Hamas as they are in their struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already blamed Hamas for the present situation. This is despite the fact that the primitive Qassim rockets fired by Hamas militants last week, in response to the Israeli killing of three Hamas figures at a time when there was supposed to be a ceasefire in place, has taken only three Israeli lives.
The Hamas leadership has vowed not to surrender and has called for a third intifada (Palestinian uprising) against Israel, while the Arab and Muslim world has rallied in support of the Palestinian cause. The Israeli leadership seems to have learned little from the history of Israel's application of excessive force. Since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Israel's military might has not succeeded in suppressing the Palestinian nationalist movement.
At first, Israel targeted the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation as a terrorist group and even supported Hamas when it came into existence in the late 1980s as a counter to the PLO. However, when it realised that an increasing number of Palestinians was turning to Hamas for salvation, it adopted the PLO as a partner in peace to combat Hamas as a terrorist group. What Israeli leaders do not want to acknowledge is that the issue is not Hamas or the PLO, but the demand of the Palestinian people for justice, freedom and independence.
As long as this demand remains unfulfilled, neither Israel's partnership with the PLO nor its military assaults against Hamas will work.
The PLO has gained nothing from its partnership to make it credible in the eyes of a majority of Palestinians, while Hamas has proved resilient enough to make an Islamist imprint on the nationalist movement and become a popular force capable of fighting for the Palestinian cause.
The branding of Hamas as a terrorist group has been a strategic mistake on the part of Israel and some of its international backers, especially the now widely discredited Bush administration. This much is now recognised across the world, including by former US president Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who have strongly urged a dialogue with Hamas as a necessary and reasonable step toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If Israel and its international supporters fail to move in this direction, there is little hope of peace in the Middle East. Just as Israel's disproportionate attack on Lebanon against Hezbollah in mid-2006 failed to achieve its objectives and resulted in enhancing rather than diminishing Hezbollah's credibility, Israel's military onslaught carries the risk of making Hamas stronger and providing the forces of radical political Islam with more oxygen.
Such a legacy would not help US president-elect Barack Obama in his desire to improve America's standing in the Muslim world.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University inCanberra.