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Mahmoud Sabit

Cairo, Egypt

Mahmoud Sabit is a historian and an authority on Egypt’s 19th century political reforms. Sabit also works as a writer and producer of historical documentaries. Close.

Mahmoud Sabit

Cairo, Egypt

Mahmoud Sabit is a historian and an authority on Egypt’s 19th century political reforms. more »

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In a Fragile Situation, Engage Hamas

Egypt -- This Middle East crisis is different from many before. Israel's decision to engage Lebanon's fragile state and carry out strikes deep within the country is serious. A good first step to defusing what could otherwise be a climactic showdown between regional powers is to talk to the Palestinian leadership, Hamas.

The sudden escalation of this crisis has taken us all by surprise -- from Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers during a cross-border raid on Wednesday, to the reaction by Israel to bomb Beirut airport on Thursday and the constant cross border shelling of both southern Lebanon and northern Israel, areas with significant concentration of civilians. But both the Hezbollah raid and the Israeli military reaction have the hallmarks of pre-planned operations. Both sides seem to have been waiting for the appropriate pretext to present itself.

If one looks at this present crisis with a longer view, one sees that it really began with the election of a Hamas government in January and the economic boycott imposed by Israel, the European Community and the United States on the Palestinian Territories. The boycott resulted in an economic and humanitarian crisis. When the economic crisis became acute, this provoked the emergence of an anti-Hamas Palestinian front centered on President Mahmoud Abbas, which brought the Palestinian Territories close to a civil war just few weeks ago. There were some moves towards reconciliation between the two parties, but Hamas' confrontation with Fatah and its inability to solve the ongoing economic crisis as a result of the boycott had begun to dilute Hamas' authority.

This crisis is about initiative: Who has the initiative and who is losing the initiative in the region. I think that the military actions by Hezbollah should be seen as an effort to help Hamas retain its upper hand. It is still too early, however, to determine whether the present twist -- the ambush of a military patrol and the capture of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit -- developed from a deliberate effort undertaken by Hamas or by a splinter group in support of Hamas.

The reaction of Israel has been largely predictable, although possibly not its violent extent. In many respects, Israel has reacted extremely violently in Gaza, knowing full well that so long as Corporal Shalit is a prisoner, it may have to engage with and, by so doing, validate Hamas. This is something Israel would prefer to avoid. Every day that Corporal Shalit remains in captivity is a day in which Israel is losing its own initiative. The Israelis are not in the habit of conceding and Hamas and Hezbollah are well aware of this since they have engaged in conflicts with their enemy for so long.

There are also other factors at play that we may not be aware of: How does the Iranian leadership view the ongoing civil war in Iraq? Iran is a predominantly Shia'a country with strong ties to the Iraqi Shia'a and especially to the Hezbollah Shia'a organization in southern Lebanon. There is a contradiction here. While on the one hand in Iraq there is a ferocious ongoing civil war between the Shia'a and the Sunni, on the other, Hezbollah, a Shia'a Muslim organization, is collaborating in strategic terms with Hamas, a Sunni Muslim organization. These parties are in agreement about Israel, and what they perceive as the threat that Israel and U.S. hegemony over the region represents. Iran would certainly desire something that would help bury ideological differences to unite them in confronting this common threat. Israel has been alarmed about the character and nuclear ambitions of Iran's leadership. They have been thinking some sort of action should be undertaken at some future date should Iran continue to develop nuclear technology. Certainly, the sooner the better from their perspective.

Another factor is Syria's friendly relationship with Iran, which may lead to a mutual defense arrangement between the two countries. Would military action against Syria therefore provoke an Iranian response? To what extent is this crisis the opening move towards a larger confrontation in the near future? One could almost believe that all the parties to this crisis have decided it is time for the climatic showdown.

For these reasons this crisis must be defused as soon as possible. Engaging Hamas in a real political dialogue and challenging them to compromise in exchange for real progress is a way out. Moving towards some sort of mutually equitable overall settlement in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Israelis would go a long way in addressing much of the root hostility that has developed against the West in general and the U.S. in particular. It would also allow both the Israelis and the Palestinians much needed relief from this constant state of mutual siege, wherein each crisis becomes successively more lethal.

Here is my lineup of the powers most involved in the current situation:

- Hezbollah was originally a Shia'a Lebanese Islamist group founded in 1982 to fight the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. Shia'as are the largest religious denomination in Southern Lebanon. Over the years they have also developed into an organized civilian institution that has many social services, including hospitals, media services and schools. They are also a political party with two representatives in the Lebanese parliament. Many in the Arab and Muslim world consider them a legitimate resistance movement.

- Syria recently disengaged from Lebanon. It is not in a position to militarily confront Israel on its own. And there is still the question of the Golan Heights, which was Syrian territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.

- The sizeable U.S. military presence in Iraq, just a few hundred miles away, is fighting an active ongoing insurgency, which has transposed itself into a sectarian civil conflict pitting the Muslim Shia'a against the Muslim Sunni.

- Hamas or the "Islamic Resistance Movement" is a Palestinian Sunni Islamist organization, founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin as a Gaza offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As a political party, Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the Palestinian Parliament in January 2006. This signaled a political and ideological shift in Palestinian leadership from one that was formerly Arab Nationalist and secular in character to one that is engaging in an emerging Muslim Nationalism. It has different ideas about pragmatism, political expediency and tactics and strategy in confronting Israel. Hamas has been more emphatic, more absolutist, and less compromising.

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