Chicago Tribune (MCT)
BEIRUT — Israel's assault on Gaza is a gamble that may succeed in irrevocably weakening the Palestinian Hamas movement — but it also could backfire by strengthening Hamas and other radicals in the way that the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah ended up emboldening Lebanon's militant Shiite movement.
The longer Hamas holds out against the Israeli offensive, the greater the likelihood of comparisons with the Lebanon war, in which Hezbollah stood firm against massive Israeli airstrikes and earned the widespread adulation of the Arab world, according to experts in the Middle East.
Hezbollah later leveraged its enhanced prestige to push for greater political power within the Lebanese government — thereby increasing the influence of its patrons, Iran and Syria, in the region.
A similar scenario could unfold in Gaza, where Hamas, also backed by Iran and Syria, will only need to survive in order to claim a victory of sorts, said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut.
"As long as Hamas holds on, Hamas can always say it held its ground," he said. "No matter how this ends, the position of the so-called Arab moderates will deteriorate and Iran will get stronger."
Already, regional peace efforts have been hurt by the halting of indirect talks between Israel and Syria: Turkey, a majority Muslim nation that has relations with Israel, said Monday it could no longer serve as a broker in the talks given the ferocity of Israel's onslaught. Syria suspended its participation the previous day.
In Tehran, over 3,500 people signed up to a Web site launched by a group of conservative clerics soliciting volunteers to fight Israel. The Combatant Clergy Society offered recruits the choice of three ways to fight: military, financial and propaganda, The Associated Press reported.
And in the southern suburbs of Beirut, tens of thousands of supporters of Hezbollah staged the biggest Arab rally yet against Israel's attacks on Gaza, braving drizzling rain to wave yellow Hezbollah flags and chant "Death to Israel, Death to America."
"We hope Hezbollah attacks Israel," said high school student Noha Maha, 17, who was among those attending the rally. "We have lived through so much war, we can accept one more for the sake of Palestine."
Addressing the crowd via a video link, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah refrained from threatening direct intervention on behalf of the Palestinians. And with the region's authoritarian regimes firmly in control of their police states, a spillover of the violence seems unlikely.
But the fact that Hamas is Sunni, and ideologically affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the region's most influential Islamist movement, enhances the appeal of the movement's plight to ordinary Arabs, said Diaa Rashwan of the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Much of the wrath of the Arab world has been directed toward Egypt, which has refused to open its borders with Gaza to refugees and to allow supplies to reach stricken Palestinians. Nasrallah accused Egypt's government of "complicity" in the attacks on Gaza.
The Brotherhood is also Egypt's biggest opposition movement, and around 3,000 of its supporters staged a demonstration in Cairo Monday. Egyptian police are out in force on the streets of the capital, underlining the regime's nervousness, Rashwan said.
"The Israelis are making the same mistake the Americans made in Iraq and the Israelis themselves made in Lebanon in 2006," he said. "Aggressive actions such as these only increase the popularity of Islamists in the Arab world and widen the gap between many Arab regimes and the people, with the result of a further destabilization of the region."
Hamas' association with Iran is viewed with suspicion by many Arabs, and a successful Israeli offensive could significantly reduce Iran's influence in the region, said Riad Kahwaji of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
"If Hamas was out of the equation, then Iran will have lost one of its bargaining cards with the West," he said.
Analysts note that Israel already appears to have made greater inroads against Hamas in the first days of its offensive than it did against Hezbollah, which triggered the 2006 war by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and was well prepared for Israel's retaliation, evacuating its headquarters and other key infrastructure before Israeli warplanes struck.
However, Hamas showed defiance Monday, firing off rockets and mortars that killed three Israeli citizens. Reportedly, its senior leaders have gone into hiding.
With footage of the bloodied child victims of the Gaza airstrikes swamping Arab TV screens round the clock, Israel can't afford a long campaign, Kahwaji said.
"This is going to radicalize a lot of elements in the region," he said. "The longer it lasts, the smaller the political gains Israel will make and the more the radicals will gain."
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