Palestinians: "Taliban" versus "Mujahideen"?
World Defense Review columnist
Most analysts tend to agree (as of the end of June 2007) that a new
reality has transformed the geopolitics of the Palestinian territories
to the disadvantage of all parties claiming to represent the
"Palestinian cause." And certainly among the most extreme critics of the
recent events in Gaza are the Palestinian citizens who witnessed the
horrors that took place in those areas. Since 1947, generations of
civilians have lost hope and paid the price of misjudged and misused
leadership, which continues to allow the repetition of what we, today,
see are the victims of the latest bloody civil war among Palestinians.
Today there is a new reality in the two Palestinian enclaves: A
Taliban-like power has taken shape in Gaza with a full Hamas control,
and across the 40 km of Israeli territory, a beleaguered Palestinian
authority struggles to maintain the West Bank's enclaves under its
wings. A thorough reading in geopolitics leaves us with little doubt: a
Jihadi regime has emerged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Negev
desert. Indeed Hamas is an Islamic Fundamentalist movement, which
believes in Jihadism as an ideology and employs terror as its means of
accomplishing its objectives. Not only will it use extreme violence
against the civilians of its declared enemy, Israel, but it has recently
committed according to Palestinian civilians in Gaza "war crimes."
Today questions arise from all corners of the region and the world: Was
Hamas' military victory in Gaza predicted? What are Iran's and Syria's
roles? Will the Palestinians accept the new reality? Will the Arabs,
Israelis, Americans, Europeans and others address the situation? And
last but not least, what are the direct consequences of the Hamas coup
Was Hamas's military takeover of the Palestinian authority's agencies
and institutions across Gaza predictable? Many in the media and some in
academia expressed their surprise at the rapid developments that took
place in that enclave. They were among those who advocated the peaceful
and "democratic" choices of Hamas within Palestinian politics. Scores of
intellectuals and commentators in the West were singing the praises of
Hamas' "transformation" into a politically democratic body, which as
they argued obtained "a legislative majority." Many European
legislators and commissioners were attempting to convince their
electorates that Hamas like Hezbollah is neither terrorist nor
fascist. This advocacy logically ended last week with the bloody coup
organized by the thought-to-be-civil organization. But aside from the
failed expertise and myopic political statements in the West, was Hamas'
leap into full military power in Gaza foreseeable? Absolutely yes, if we
had perceived the group into what it was and continue to be: Jihadist.
For, in comparative politics, a sound projection comes from an accurate
description. Because many in the West, particularly Europe defined Hamas
as a democracy-leaning "political" movement, all subsequent analytical
predictions collapsed. For Hamas, as we understood it based on its own
literature and history is a Jihadi Salafi organization, formerly
financed by the Wahabis and currently funded by the Iranian regime.
Hence the ballistics of its planning couldn't be clearer: First,
infiltrate. Second, penetrate. Third, takeover and form a Jihadi regime.
Hamas's past strategy
Since its inception as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group
evolved as of the 1980s from one intifada to another until it claimed a
"political" victory in 2006 in Palestinian legislative elections.
Obviously, the two decades of financial support from regional regimes
and the full control of the political education of the enclave produced
a militia-inspired political win. But Hamas played it wisely inside the
Palestinian landscape. It surely had several opportunities to strike at
its competitors, including Fatah and the PLO as of 1986 and the
Palestinian Authority as of 1994. But it opted to grow slowly under the
wings of patience and a stream of Syro-Iranian lifeline, until time
came: Actually until Tehran and Damascus ordered the final crunch
against the Palestinian Authority. Like the old Soviet strategies, the
Jihadi "long term plans" have also been used by the Islamists of Hamas.
And as it practiced internally, the group also refrained from striking
externally against the U.S., the West and its Arab enemies, and here
again, until "orders" will came from the regional master.
Iran and Syria's long arms
Hamas, acronym of Harakat al Muqawama al Islamiya (Movement of Islamic
Liberation) is Jihadi ideologically but has developed extended regional
cross-sectarian and cross-ideological alliances. Another example of
Western intellectual failure in seeing beyond ethnocentric lenses is how
academics and commentators exhausted their energies in convincing
audiences that Shiia and Sunni fundamentalists cannot strike deals and
nationalists and Islamists cannot work together, when needed. After
failing to "see" it in Iraq, then in Lebanon, the elite's analysis also
evaporated with Hamas external ties.
Undaunted by the sectarian divide the "very Sunni" Hamas received
significant support from the "very Shiite" Iran. And against all
so-called mainstream thinking in Europe and North America, the very
"Islamist" Hamas struck an alliance with the very "Arab nationalist and
secular" Syria. In short, Tehran and Damascus gained long arms in the
region by feeding Hezbollah and other groups in Lebanon as well as Hamas
and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. Hence, those strategic
leaps by the "long arms" were and are in fact moves executed within the
wider scope of the Syro-Iranian axis. Only such an analysis could
explain why would Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah triggers a war last July
and Ismael Hanieh of Hamas launch a blitzkrieg in Gaza this spring.
Post Arafat: Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas
As long as Yassir Arafat was alive, Hamas wouldn't attempt to take over
ultimate power among Palestinians, even though it may have had the
strength. No Palestinian warlord, even though many have been backed by
Arab regimes in the past decades, would have been able to accomplish
that task. Once the "abu Ammar" (nick name of Arafat) was gone, the
clock began ticking in Hamas' war room. First, they pressured Abbas
(replacing Arafat) for legislative elections while they were still armed
and well funded. The results were obvious: they would grab the seats of
all districts under their militia control, most of Gaza. Then they
formed a cabinet, "playing democracy." And as they controlled the
central part of the executive branch they slowly infiltrated the main PA
military and security agencies, upsetting Fatah, also armed. Since both
elections, Presidential and legislative the civil war was inevitable.
The two camps knew it was inevitable and both lied to their
constituencies. Hamas said it would never turn its weapons against other
Palestinians, but it did. Abbas said he would not allow a coup to occur,
but he did. The ballistics leading to the clash was so obvious over the
past few years, rather months. The Hanieh "cabinet" was working extra
hours to create a state militia (the "executive force") and put it under
the ministry of interior. Instead of a police force, the "executive
units" looked more like a modernized Taliban.
The latter became the pillar of the coup last week. The Fatah militiamen
and the Presidential guard were fully aware of the mounting threat but
Mahmoud Abbas never gave them the order to strike first. The reason is
clear: Abu Mazen made the choice to appoint Hanieh as a Prime Minister
and thus couldn't send his forces to eliminate his own government: He
needed an alibi. While many critics in the West rightly so blame
Abbas for not acting earlier, reality in Palestine is a little bit more
complex. Abbas had perhaps the constitutional power to disband the
cabinet and had enough forces to resist the "Talibanization" of Gaza,
but he lacked the legitimacy to do so in the context of the dominant
political culture in the Palestinian national community. Here is why:
For decades, the PLO, then followed by Hamas and PIJ in the 1980s,
produced a one way ideological path to the solution of the crisis: the
destruction of the state of Israel. Hence, when in 1993 a breakthrough
occurred via the Oslo process, the heavy machine of the Palestinian
Authority wasn't even able to reverse the ideological trend fully.
Arafat himself wasn't capable (some say unwilling because he was one of
its founders) to reign in on radicalism. This dominant "ideological
culture" loomed over the public discourse in the territories and of
course in the regional Palestinian Diaspora. Hamas and PIJ took
advantage of the radicalized discourse to shield them selves from any
criticism as they developed their suicide bombing tactics. In other
words, even though the PA resented Hamas and was practically in a state
of undeclared civil war with the latter, it was nevertheless unable to
utter the word "terrorist" about a group which was launching attacks on
Israel. Abbas was locked in an equation that forced him to wait for the
Jihadists to strike first and hard. He was bound by an ideological
culture created by his predecessors.
Hamas's final leap
So why did Hamas decide to proceed to the final leap? The short answer:
Because it is moving to the next stage of its goals. Hamas as a movement
was patient for 21 years until it reached two major benchmarks: One, its
consolidation within Gaza. Two, the fact that it formed a "government."
Western political culture rarely understands the "long term plans" of
the Jihadists. The second benchmark wasn't in Hamas' hands but in the
axis'. The blitzkrieg waged by Haniah's men against Fatah and Abbas'
positions inside the enclave was strategically "ordered" by the
Ayatollahs' regime in the global movements to crumble Peace processes
and democratic movements. The chess players in Tehran and Damascus are
racing to crumble the situations in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and
within the Palestinian Territories. Regionally, Hamas is a pawn moved
around by its funding sources, hence it responds to the latter's
strategic orders. While domestic tensions with Fatah are the changing
variable, the orders from Tehran are the central matrix. As for
Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza leaps at Khamenei's clock. The
calculations made by both partners, in Palestine and Iran (as well as in
Syria ) were thorough and followed an extremely detailed study of the
situation of the foe, both Abbas and the United States. Hamas
preparations to strike (as well as Hezbollah's in Lebanon) were parallel
to the weakening of America's resolve against Ahmedinijad and Assad.
Last year's congressional elections in the U.S. were read positively by
the "axis" not in terms of partisan results but in terms of divisions
which would affect U.S. foreign policy. The offensives led by Hezbollah
in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza few months after the issuing of the
Baker-Hamilton report are organically linked to the latter. When
bipartisan advice to the president recommended "talking" to the Iranian
and Syrian regime about the "future of the region," followed by a high
level visit to Assad led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the "axis" kitchen
gave the green light to the spring offensives. In their minds, the
anti-democracy planners of the region projected a non-response by
Washington. Hamas' offensive against Fatah finds its roots in the
perceived general mollification in the U.S. and in the belief that
Israel has been significantly contained in Lebanese and Palestinian
By launching a coup-like multidirectional offensive against all sites of
Fatah, PA and presidential services in the enclave, Hamas took out the
capacities for a counterattack by its opponents. In other words,
Hanieh's forces had to take over "all" positions of their enemies, with
the high price in human casualties only because they (Hamas) couldn't
afford leaving any type of holes in Gaza, which could be used by Abbas
as beachheads. From this perspective, military analysts can understand
the logic of Hamas brutality: it was part of a psychological deterrence,
a type of terrorism, applied against any Palestinian who would dare
consider retaliation. Gaza had to be cleansed from all Palestinian
security presence other than Hamas (and its allies) in a very brief
moment. This may explain the beheadings, torture, executions and other
horrors committed by the Jihadists in the enclave. Hamas' brutality
bought repugnant images never seen by Palestinians before, even at the
hands of whom they believe were their worse enemies in Israel, Jordan
and Lebanon over four decades. The Jihadi massacre of PA and Fatah
members and their relatives will create shock and awe among the civilian
population in Gaza and beyond. Hamas wanted this treatment a la Taliban
to serve as a deterrent within its own new borders, but no one knows
exactly how the extreme bloodshed by Hamas will work in terms of
reaction. For Palestinian political sociology could produce different
and possibly opposed reactions, but it is too early to judge.
However, the "Palestinian-Taliban," now in charge of the zone can only
go forward. With all ties to Mahmoud Abbas broken, the Ismael Hanieh
(Gaza) Khaled Mishaal (Damascus) junta has to rapidly consolidate its
grip over Gaza and even begin a campaign to destabilize the West Bank. A
Hamas-only "regime" in Gaza, free from the PA international commitments
would most likely resort to transform the enclave into a super-bastion
for Jihad. This would include:
A mass mobilization, in an attempt to levy an Army of more than 60,000
fighters. Hamas' expectation is to see Iran and eventually Syria and
Hezbollah heavily involved in providing weapons and training. But such a
projection could be mitigated by international opposition.
The creation of dozens of "Fallujahs" in the strip in anticipation of an
"outside" offensive at some point. A series of no-surrender fortresses
to deter any would-be attacking force.
An attempt to deploy a wider and more complex battery of missiles while
using the civilian population as shields.
Use civilian travel to the West Bank to insert cells and individuals
inside the PA territories.
Link up with the Hamas supporters within the Palestinian camps in
Lebanon, Jordan and also inside Israel.
The Gaza "regime," free from Abbas supervision, will activate its
overseas operations (including in the United States and the West) to
deter potential American and international reprisals in the future.
Last but not least, the Palestinian-Taliban could become the recipient
of future Iranian non-conventional weaponry, including the deployment of
tactical nuclear weapons.
In view of the above, a Western response is strategically obligatory but
not necessarily automatically. The rise of an Iranian-backed military
entity between the Israeli and Egyptian borders, with an access to the
Mediterranean is a direct threat to Arab moderates, U.S. and Western
presence, and the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis.
Hence, other than Iran and Syria's regimes, this new reality isn't very
attractive to the region. But the bigger question now is unavoidably the
following: what can be done and by whom?
The Israelis have the military might, but because of many obvious
reasons, and aside from last resort defense in a regional war, they
shouldn't use it alone: it would according to projections and lessons
from Lebanon give Hamas all that it needs: legitimacy. The PA units of
Abbas should be the ones to counter this project but can't win now:
they've just lost all their bases in Gaza and are too weak to defeat
Hamas at the present stage. An international force dispatched to the
area would be fought by the Jihadists, both locally and internationally
with barbaric terror. Without a strong international commitment under UN
Security Council special resolutions, a multinational force at this
point would be obsolete. The Arab moderates, particularly Egypt have a
direct and vital interest in opposing the rise of a Taliban-regime in
Gaza. The bombings by al Qaeda in the Sinai over the past two years are
only the appetizers to what is to come if such an "emirate" is
established. But Egypt needs an Arab backing, which could be fought
against by Syria, and ironically too by Qatar, the new champion of the
Islamists in the region. Finally, the U.S. is engaged in Iraq and in
Afghanistan and its units are called upon in various hot spots around
the world: Marines landing in Gaza is not the best idea for now.
what is the answer to the question and is there one? In fact, as in the
cases of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Somalia, the answers are hard
to find because it took a long time for the victims of Jihadism, in this
case the Palestinians, to realize how deep the problem was (and is).
But I do argue that a strategic response to the challenge of "Hamastan"
is possible under a set of conditions, the most important of which is
coordination between the various parties called upon to address the
challenge. A lot of change of attitude must take place in the region and
significant change in direction has to develop in Washington and
The immediate future
Expect Hamas and its regional allies to do their utmost to consolidate
their "acquisition" for now. Iran and Syria will move regionally and
internationally in multiple directions to confirm the new status quo.
Damascus and Tehran will deploy all skills in the Arab world to waste as
much time as possible, and diplomatic "initiatives" will fly all over.
Hamas will play two games: One, to deepen the control and widen the
defenses of Gaza. Two, to reassure everyone they can that they are no
threat. Khaled Mashaal, the Syrian-based boss of Hamas used airtime
generously offered by al Jazeera to assuage feelings and fears.
"Yes we are Islamists but we aren't establishing a fundamentalist
religious state (yet)," he said, repeating almost word-for-word what the
spokesperson of the Somali Islamic Courts said after their takeover of
Mogadishu earlier this year.
"We have good relations with Iran and Syria, but that doesn't mean
anything," he continued. Then he offered a panoply of psychological
gadgets: Hamas still recognizes Abbas as a president; it would work on
liberating the British hostage (before it would grab more in the future);
it welcomes Arab initiatives; it will keep the Palestinian flags higher
than Hamas'; and to make sure Jihadi energies are still up, the group's
leaders pledged they will continue their relentless fight against
In fact, attacking Israel with missiles and suicide bombers is what
Hamas has in mind if its feels the threat would come too close from all
opposed parties together. It thinks that striking against the "Jewish
entity" would be the best shield against a counterattack by the PA and
its allies. Thus, it is important that the government appointed by Mr.
Abbas and headed by Salam Fayyad would take the initiative
internationally and press for an isolation of the terrorists. The key to
the next stage is in the hands of Abbas-Fayyad but in view of Fatah's
heavy past, and the significant reforms the movement needs to undertake
before it is considered a full partner in the War on Terror, time is now
a dangerous factor. It is the temporal space between Abbas cleaning up
his enclaves and reforming the PA radically and Hamas taking the
offensive into the West Bank while dragging Israel into confrontation.
The immediate future of Hamastan needs hyper-skills on behalf of
Washington and Brussels to calibrate the response to the regional
And until the fog of uncertainties disappears, Palestine is now divided
between the equivalent of Afghanistan's "Taliban" and "Mujahideen."
Dr Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense
of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C., and director of the Future
Terrorism Project of the FDD. He is a visiting fellow with the European
Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. His most recent book is Future
Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West.
Dr Phares holds degrees in law and political science from Saint Joseph
University and the Lebanese University in Beirut, a Masters in
international law from the Universite de Lyons in France and a Ph.D. in
international relations and strategic studies from the University of
He has taught and lectured at numerous universities worldwide, practiced
law in Beirut , and served as publisher of Sawt el-Mashreq and Mashrek
International. He has taught Middle East political issues, ethnic and
religious conflict, and comparative politics at Florida Atlantic
University until 2006.
Dr. Phares has written seven books on the Middle East and published
hundreds of articles in newspapers and scholarly publications such as
Global Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, the Journal of South Asian and
Middle East Studies and the Journal of International Security. He has
appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, BBC, al Jazeera,
al Hurra, as well as on radio broadcasts.
Aside from serving on the boards of several national and international
think tanks and human rights associations, Dr. Phares has testified
before the US Senate Subcommittees on the Middle East and South East
Asia, the House Committees on International Relations and Homeland
Security and regularly conducts congressional and State Department
briefings, and he was the author of the memo that introduced UNSCR 1559
**Visit Dr. Phares on the web at walidphares.com and defenddemocracy.org.
© 2007 Walid Phares
Also by Walid Phares:
Palestinians: "Taliban" versus "Mujahideen"?
[26 Jun 07]
Syro-Iranian massacre of politicians in Lebanon
[16 Jun 07]
The Syrian-Jihadi "highway" in Lebanon
[02 Jun 07]
Losing the War in Congress: Not in Iraq
[24 Apr 07]
Royal Navy incident: The larger plan of Teheran's regime
[26 Mar 07]
A Muslim Resistance against Jihad?
[08 Mar 07]
London warning: A new step in Jihad Terror
[08 Feb 07]
President Bush's new plan: Redirecting Iraq's campaign
[29 Jan 07]
FUTURE JIHAD Terrorist Strategies against the West and other
[11 Jan 07]
Hezbollah offensive in Lebanon: Days One, Two, and Three
[08 Dec 06]
On Iraq: Listen carefully to General Abizaid
[20 Nov 06]
Hezbollah's offensive in Lebanon has begun
[13 Nov 06]
The "Caliph-strophic" Debate
[23 Oct 06]
The Continued Misunderstanding of the Salafi Jihad Threat
[09 Oct 06]
U.S. Embassy: Assad allows attack, offers "protection" and aims at
[13 Sep 06]
Hezbollah's Political Blitzkrieg
[14 Aug 06]
Israeli targets in Lebanon
[27 Jul 06]
Zarqawi: Killing the future chief of al Qaida
[09 Jun 06]
From London to Toronto: Dismantling cells, dodging their ideology
[05 Jun 06]
The Strategic Waves of Iraq's Liberation
[01 May 06]
Are you ready for Hezbollah's Preemptive Terror?
[10 Apr 06]
A Jihad window at the Emirates' gate?
[28 Feb 06]
Osama's unmistakable message
[26 Jan 06]
The US and Pakistan
Allies or Not Allies Is the Question [16 Jan 06]
Catch them, but do not watch them!
Spying on al Qaeda in America [20 Dec 05]
Iraqi Victory, American Achievement
The October 15 Referendum [17 Oct 05]
Debate on al Qaida's losses in Iraq
Newsweek's speedy conclusions lead to analytical crash [29 Sep