For Islamists in Gaza, Palestine is part of a global religious struggle not a battle to create an independent state
The conflict in Gaza has been triggered by Israel's belief that the status quo has become intolerable and should be overturned. There are several reasons why Israel felt it could not live with the situation in Gaza. The most immediate is the rocket attacks by Hamas that have made life for nearly a tenth of Israelis an exercise in anxiety. Also a factor is that Hamas, since it staged its putsch two years ago, has closed Gaza to all Palestinian groups that have accepted a two-state solution. This makes it impossible for Israel and the administration of President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the West Bank to restart negotiations that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. More importantly, perhaps, Hamas has forged an alliance with Iran based on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's strategy of “wiping Israel off the map”. Tehran's investment in Hamas is large enough to have given it a decisive say in shaping the group's strategy. Israelis see Hamas as one of the two arms of a pincer, along with Iranian-funded Hezbollah in Lebanon, that Tehran is building against them. Thus, Israel's war aims are clear: end the rocket attacks, reopen Gaza to other Palestinian parties and eliminate the Iranian presence. This means creating a new status quo in which Hamas is not the dominant party in Gaza.Some commentators have claimed that the cause of the current war is Israel's occupation. But Gaza - until last weekend - was the one bit of Arab territory nominally under Israeli occupation that was free of Israeli settlers and troops. Yet, most of Israel's troubles, in the form of rocket attacks and suicide operations, came from Gaza. At the other end of the spectrum, the Golan Heights, under Israeli occupation since 1967, have been as quiet as a churchyard despite the presence of large numbers of Israeli settlers and troops.Hamas, as its charter and political literature make clear, does not want an end to Israeli occupation. It wants the end of Israel. That is because Hamas is part of a pan-Islamist movement with global messianic ambitions. Creating a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank is not its aim. A branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas dreams of world dominion for its version of Islam rather than a mini-state in 5,000 square kilometres of barren land in a geopolitical backyard.Although officially created in 1987, Hamas's roots go back to the 1930s when Haj Amin al-Hussaini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine under the British Mandate, allied himself with Hitler and dreamt of reviving the Islamic Caliphate with himself as Caliph.That Hamas cares little about Palestine as a would-be nation state is clear from its name and charter. Hamas is the Arab acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”, making it clear that the movement regards Palestine not as a nation in its own right but as a small part of the ummah, the community of believers. Hamas is the only significant party in Palestine whose name does not include the words Palestine or Palestinian.To Hamas ideologues, such as the late Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, love of Palestine as a nation is a form of sherk, that is to say false worship or idolatry. Hamas sees Palestinian nationalists such as Abu Mazen as traitors to Islam.To Hamas, Palestine is part of a cause rather than a political project. One cannot negotiate with a cause that claims celestial benediction, especially when it rejects the very legitimacy of one's existence. A political project, however, is negotiable because it is about worldly problems such as territory, borders, security, exchange of populations and joint administration of certain areas, which could have worldly solutions.For decades, Palestinians suffered because their leaders - starting with the Mufti and ending with Yassir Arafat - linked the problem of Palestine with big power rivalries in which Palestine was a slogan and a pretext. It was only in the 1990s that the Palestinian leadership, led by Fatah, managed to redefine Palestine as a territorial conflict between two neighbouring nations, rather than as part of a clash of civilisations. That redefinition led to the Oslo Accords and the creation of a Palestinian administration - the first step towards statehood. Hamas, however, rejects that redefinition and is trying to recast Palestine as a religious issue in Islam's global struggle against the “infidel”. Many Palestinians see this as a betrayal of their national aspirations. They do not wish to be the sacrificial lamb of pan-Islamist global ambitions as they were for pan-Arabism in the 1960s.Cutting Hamas down to size would be good not only for Israel but also for the Palestinian people, more specifically the people of Gaza, who have become captives of a one-party state mired in corruption and incompetence.That, however, is no easy task. Hamas is a many-headed beast. One head represents the part of Hamas that deals with welfare, health and education. It imposed its domination in that field by driving out more than 200 NGOs, seizing control of the running of independent clinics and schools and infiltrating its people into the running of international aid agencies.A second head is represented by Hamas's political network that managed to win 46 per cent of the votes in the only free elections held in the territories. Although the Hamas political machine remains strong, it is not at all certain that it could deliver that many votes in the next elections.A third head of Hamas consists of its network of business concerns. Through a mixture of patronage, judicious investments and intimidation it has gained control of the Gazan economy - everything from barber shops to textile workshops. It also runs a protection racket and a contraband network. As a business concern, Hamas raised its profile when it seized control of more than 600 companies controlled by Fatah and the Arafat clan.Finally, there is Hamas's terror machine, a paramilitary force of about 20,000 men and women, answerable only to their own command structures. It is that part of Hamas that Tehran is trying to buy and control through figures such as Khaled Mishal, head of the Hamas political bureau.Later this year Palestinians are due to vote for a new parliament and president. Divided into a Hamasstan in Gaza and Fatah-land in the West Bank, they would have little chance of creating a unified government capable of pressing for a Palestinian state. A change of status quo in Gaza could give them a chance.