Saturday, 16 August 2014

Hamas and the Islamic State

            Fiction has given way to fact.  Charges against Israel of crimes against humanity, nay of deliberate genocide of the Palestinian people, cunningly manipulated and loudly trumpeted by Hamas, were taken up with enthusiasm by the world’s media.  Now they have been displaced by genuine and horrific reality in the northern mountains of Iraq.  And apart from what might be termed “the usual suspects”, most world leaders appear to have recognized the real thing when they see it.

Over the past few weeks, as the army of the Islamic State (IS) has been bulldozing its way into vast tracts of Iraq, tens of thousands of Christians with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, have been fleeing for their lives from towns like Qaraqosh and Bartilla.

"What's happening now to the Christians, to the Yazidis, to the minorities," Dr Sarah Ahmed, of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, told CBS News“is a genocide.”  She said that they were shooting people, including children, laying them on the ground and driving tractors over them in front of their families. 

   "We have striking evidence,” reported Iraq’s Human Rights Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, “obtained from Yazidis fleeing Sinjar and some who escaped death, and also crime scene images, that show indisputably that the gangs of the Islamic State have executed at least 500 Yazidis after seizing Sinjar.  Some of the victims, including women and children, were buried alive in scattered mass graves in and around Sinjar."

Beheadings, crucifixions, amputation of hands, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children, burying victims alive ­ these are indeed ferocious and savage crimes against humanity committed by barbaric terrorist extremists lacking the faintest spark of compassion for the fellow human beings they regard as the enemies of Islam.

No longer in the spotlight, and with the world’s headlines concerned with efforts by the western powers to bring humanitarian relief to the refugees and military assistance to those battling the armies of the IS, Hamas is desperate to snatch some shreds of victory from the jaws of defeat, as they managed to do in their previous encounters with Israel.  Negotiation is the only way to come out of this self-generated conflict with something to show for all the wasted effort and unnecessary death, so Hamas takes advantage of the dip in media attention to extend the ceasefire and negotiate.

In a final ceasefire Hamas may indeed come away with some achievements it can wave in the public’s face. It is unlikely to get all it wants. It may gain the payment of salaries to its employees and an increase in the distance that Gazan fishermen are permitted to fish. It wants a free flow of people into and out of Israel through the Erez crossing, and Israel may agree to more flexibility on this. Hamas is demanding a port and airfield. Israel is mulling over the possibility of reopening Gaza port.  To Hamas’s demand for the free flow of cement into Gaza, Israel, determined that it be restricted to rebuilding infrastructure and not for reconstructing military installations or tunnels, might agree, but only under the condition of strict international control and supervision.  Similar rigorous restrictions would be imposed on any easing of the rules governing the flow of Israeli goods into Gaza, and for the same reasons.

These will be modest achievements. Hamas has no-one in its leadership with the charisma or undoubted military talent of the enigmatic Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now dubs himself the Caliph of the Islamic State and the head of Muslims the world over. When the new Islamic State was set up, in June 2014, the group's spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, declared “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.  Support your state, which grows every day.''

   An official document, released in English and several other languages, urged Muslims to "gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war."  The announcement  was couched in terms of ending a century-long calamity ­– namely the break-up of the Islamic Middle East into artificial sovereign states following the first World War – and as marking the return of dignity and honour to the Islamic umma or nation.

Planning to take an iron grip on the whole of Syria and Iraq, Baghdadi doubtless has ambitions to extend his caliphate ever wider, swallowing Jordan, Lebanon and no doubt the Palestinian lands including Gaza.  He may balk somewhat at the thought of confronting Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Israel, but if he succeeds in winning a convincing victory against President Bashir Assad in Syria, and then in pouring over the border into Lebanon, he will have considerably weakened Iran’s allies and Iran itself.

A so-far unanswered question hangs over the IS. As journalist David Blair recently pointed out, volunteers are flocking to fight under Baghdadi’s black banner, including many from Europe, America and even Australia. In capturing territory, securing vast financial resources, achieving propaganda coups and sowing terror by persecuting Christians, Shias and Yazidis, Baghdadi has come further and faster than he could ever have dreamt except, as Blair puts it, “there is one missing piece in his jihadist jigsaw”.  He has not yet landed a blow on the West, the antithesis of everything he stands for. But with volunteers flowing in from all over the world, with his military successes and almost limitless resources, Baghdadi has a real opportunity to strike the West. Will he do so? Will he, in short, having broken with mainstream al-Qaida, attempt to beat them at their own game by carrying the Islamist struggle into the western world, the main enemy of Islamist values?

Compared to the boundless ambition of the new caliph, Hamas’s aspirations are comparatively modest, but they put the organisation ultimately at odds with the Islamic State.  Like the IS, what Hamas really seeks is power – power to rule over the Gaza Strip, power to take over the Palestinian Authority and extend its domination to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and finally the power to attack, overcome and defeat Israel and, by slaughtering, expelling or subjugating all Jews in the area, establish control over the whole of the old mandated Palestine “from the river to the sea”.  How frustrating it would be, while striving to achieve these objectives, to be out-manoeuvred by a triumphant caliph at the head of a rampant Islamic State army, dedicated to imposing his own brand of extremist Islam not only across the Middle East, but on the whole world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 August 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 August 2014:

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