I HAVE just returned from a visit to the Middle East and witnessed what the American media has downplayed since the beginning of the conflict: The degree to which Israel’s assault on Gaza radicalized mainstream Muslim opinion. Shown endlessly on Arab and Muslim television stations, the massive killing of civilians has fueled rage against Israel.
Many professionals, both Christian and Muslim Arabs, previously critical of Hamas, are bitter about what they call Israel’s “barbaric conduct” against Palestinian noncombatants, particularly women and children. No one I have encountered believes Israel’s narrative that this is a war against Hamas, not the Palestinian people. A near consensus exists among Arabs and Muslims that Israel battered the Palestinian population in an effort to force it to revolt against Hamas, just as it tried to force the Lebanese people to revolt against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.
From college students and street vendors to workers and intellectuals, there was widespread reluctance to criticize Hamas. The people I spoke with felt awed by the fierce resistance put forward by its fighters. Indeed, Hamas will emerge as a more powerful political force than before.
“No one dares any longer to question Hamas’s right to represent the Palestinian people,” said a 30-year-old leftist Palestinian, a graduate of the American University in Beirut. Why so, I asked. “The Islamist resistance has earned a place at the table with blood,” he told me.
What Israeli officials and their American allies do not appreciate sufficiently is that Hamas is not merely an armed militia but a social movement with a large popular base that is deeply entrenched in society. If Israel had succeeded in killing Hamas’s senior leaders, a new generation, more radical than the present, will swiftly replace them.
Israel’s assault on Gaza has undermined the legitimacy and authority of pro-Western regimes like those of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in the eyes of many of their citizens. The regimes stand accused of collusion with the enemy against fellow believers. Egypt, which shares a border crossing with Gaza, has suffered the brunt of Muslim anger worldwide. Protesters have targeted Egyptian embassies in several countries and called on President Hosni Mubarak to open up his frontier with Gaza and relieve the suffering of besieged and bombed Palestinians.
The Gaza conflict has exposed a widening gap between Egypt’s rulers and citizens and—combined with the country’s deepening socioeconomic conditions–could have serious repercussions on stability. In this regard, Egypt’s situation is not unique. Throughout the Middle East, the so-called moderate Arab states are on the defensive, and the resistance front led by Iran and Syria is the main beneficiary.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has sought to harness anger in the region by urging Muslims to launch a jihad against Israel and condemning pro-Western Arab leaders as collaborators with the Jewish state. In a new audiotape designed to capitalize on the Gaza offensive, bin Laden vowed that his organization would open “new fronts” against the United States and its partners beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s calculations are shrewd. He knows that the Palestine predicament resonates more widely and powerfully with Arabs and Muslims than the conflicts in the other two countries.
President Barack Obama shows signs that he appreciates that time is of the essence and not running in America’s favor. After initially being quiet about Israel’s assault, he vowed to press immediately for peace in the Middle East and pursue a policy of engagement with Iran. He said he was building a diplomatic team so that “on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole.” The team would “be engaging with all of the actors there” so that “both Israelis and Palestinians can meet their aspirations.”
Pressed to elaborate on his vision, Obama has hinted at a peace settlement based on a two-state solution that includes security for Israel and a viable Palestinian state. In this regard three points are worth noting about Obama’s approach:
First, he confirmed that from the time he assumes office, he will invest the prestige of his presidency in trying to broker an Arab-Israeli peace settlement that meets the national aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Second, he stressed the need for political engagement “with all the actors there,” including Iran and Syria. Avoiding harsh rhetoric and threats, he promised “a new emphasis on respect” and “clarity about what our bottom lines are.”
Third, he signaled that he would not continue the Bush administration’s confrontational policies. He would break with his predecessor by emphasizing that “engagement is the place to start.”
Only time will tell if President Obama will be able to make good on these changes and transform U.S. policies in the Middle East. Certainly his task will not be easy. If history is a guide, the odds are against him.
Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent books are Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy and The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global.