In most of Washington, the Palestinian civil war in Gaza hasbeen understood as yet another setback for the Bush WhiteHouse and yet another sign of an ascendant Iran. As if Washington policymakers vying for a job in the nextadministration didn’t already know it, Gaza is a sharpreminder that the peace process is dead. At this stage at least, it is nothing more than a jobs program for deeplycynical American officials past and present who do not givea damn that Arab and Israeli lives are being thrown away, aswell as US money and prestige, all for the privilege of beating a dead horse.
But all is not what it seems in the Middle East, where chaos in Gaza is perhaps less dramatic than it appears and the Lebanese Army’s battle in Tripoli is an unheralded achievement for Washington and its regional allies.
The Americans are all but oblivious to the fact that whathappened in Gaza is the continuation of a Palestinian civilwar that began more than 70 years ago with Hajj Aminal-Husseini’s Arab Revolt. He assassinated rivals whileestablishing the basis of Palestinian political culture —extremism is rewarded and moderation is futile if notsuicidal.
Yasser Arafat is the father of Palestinian nationalismprecisely because he was able to quell the Palestinian civilwar. In doing so, he also rescued the Palestinian file fromregional players, namely Gamal Abd el-Nasser and Hafezal-Asad. Arafat established his own power and consolidatedwarring clans and rival centers of power into one entitythrough a simple tactic — waging war against Israel, acommon enemy that all Palestinians could safely agree to fight.
When the Palestinians elected Hamas in 2005, they voted against Fatah corruption, but they did not vote for good governance — or, in President Bush’s formula, “fixing streetlights.” A vote for Hamas was a vote for the politicalinstitution most likely to prosecute a successful waragainst Israel. Except for Islamist domestic policies, Hamaschampions exactly the same causes as Fatah, just moreintransigently.
The US is allied with Mahmoud Abbas but should be under noillusions as to his political orientation or, moreimportantly, his ability to win the Palestinian civil war.Abbas’ choice for new PA Prime Minister is telling. He choseSalam Fayyad, former PA finance minister. Obviously Abbas isnot interested in winning this fight; rather he isinterested in making sure the money keeps flowing to himselfand Fatah.
The major point that the Americans need to recognize is thatGaza is not the only Palestinian battlefield in the regionright now, and so we should put it in its regional contextand look elsewhere for clues to which way the region isheading. If the fighting is Gaza is about something old,developments in Lebanon are pointing to something very newindeed.
Perhaps we will never know who fired rockets from southernLebanon into Israel, but it is useful to remember ithappened just as the Lebanese Army seemed on the verge offinishing off Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared refugeecamp.
Lebanese readers may be surprised to know that neither theAmerican press (like Seymour Hersh), nor the US intelligencecommunity (especially the CIA) are willing to admit thatFatah al-Islam is a function of the Syrian regime, one ledby a man described in the Arab press as a Syrianintelligence asset, Shaker al-Absi. With defeat on thehorizon, it seemed Damascus was looking to open up anotherfront to attack the Lebanese government. However, the keyfactor in the equation is the Palestinians.
In 1975, Lebanon’s Christian community wanted to put down the PLO and other Palestinian factions that sought to turn Lebanon into a garrison state. However, the Christians were blocked by the Sunnis, both within Lebanon and in the region. Today the situation is reversed. The Syrians have lined up with Iran to challenge Sunni primacy throughout the Middle East, and the Sunni response has been unequivocal. Fouad Siniora has the support of the Gulf States and other Sunni powers, like Egypt and Jordan, to take on an armed Palestinian group manipulated by the Alawi regime in Damascus.
And so with Arafat gone, foreign actors are once againtrying to use the Palestinian file to their own advantage — namely, Iran, through Hamas in Gaza, and Syria, throughFatah al-Islam and others in Lebanon. This Iranian-Syrian attack against the Sunni order is also a directchallenge to Washington, for whether the Americans, stillangry at Saudi and Egypt after 9/11, like it or not, theSunnis as it turns out are allies. The Shia emancipationprogram in Iraq did not turn out as the US had hoped, butthe Middle East will continue to shift under the White Houseeven as it is tottering astride it.
And some of that movement is to Washington’s advantage —Sunni support for putting down an armed Palestinianinsurgency in Lebanon represents a significant sea change inthe regional order. Moreover, the Lebanese Army’s fight is atentative sign that the government is able to assert itssovereignty, a fact that can only make Hezbollah uneasy,while the Islamic resistance’s Syrian sponsors have suffereda very palpable setback.
Lee Smith is a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and reporter on Middle East affairs.