The Middle Ground is Eroding Fast

Alastair Crooke

Posted on London Review of Books, January 15, 2009

‘We have to ask the West a question: when the Israelis bombed the house of Sheikh Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader, killing him, his wives, his nine children, and killing 19 others who happened to live in adjoining houses – because they saw him as a target – was this terrorism? If the West’s answer is that this was not terrorism, it was self-defence – then we must think to adopt this definition too.’

This was said to me by a leading Islamist in Beirut a few days ago. He was making a point, but behind his rhetorical question plainly lies the deeper issue of what the Gaza violence will signify for mainstream Islamists in the future.

Take Egypt. Mubarak has made no secret of his wish to see Israel teach Hamas a ‘lesson’. Hamas are sure that his officials urged Israel to proceed, assuring Amos Yadlin, Israel’s Head of Military Intelligence, at a meeting in Cairo that Hamas would collapse within three days of the Israeli onslaught.

Islamists in Egypt and other pro-Western ‘moderate’ alliance states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan have noted Israel’s wanton disregard for the deaths of civilians in its desire to crush Hamas. They have seen the barely concealed pleasure of the regimes that run those states. The message is clear: the struggle for the future of this region is going to be uncompromising and bloody.

For all Islamists, the events in Gaza will be definitive: they will tell the story of a heroic stand in the name of justice against overwhelming odds. This archetype was already in place on the day of Ashura – which fell this year on 7 January — when Shi’ites everywhere commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, killed by an overwhelming military force at Kerbala. The speeches given by Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general, were avidly followed; the ceremony of Ashura drove home the message of martyrdom and sacrifice.

Islamists are likely to conclude from Gaza that Arab regimes backed by the US and some European states will go to any lengths in their struggle against Islamism. Many Sunni Muslims will turn to the salafi-jihadists, al-Qaida included, who warned Hamas and others about the kind of punishment being visited on them now. Mainstream movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah will find it hard to resist the radical trend. The middle ground is eroding fast.

At one level Gaza will be seen as a repeat of Algeria. At another, it will speak to wider struggles in the Arab world, where elites favoured by the West soldier on with no real legitimacy, while the weight of support for change builds up. The overhang may persist for a while yet, but a small event could trip the avalanche.

Alastair Crooke is co-director of Conflicts Forum and has been an EU mediator with Hamas and other Islamist movements. Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution will come out next month.


  1. Nayef Mustafa wrote:

    I second the opinion above, since I have experienced the same. Actually before this aggression on Gaza I had some faith in Saudi Arabia, but after the blunt support of the Zionists, the silly act in the UN to get a spineless resolution, and the relentless efforts to prevent or delay any effective (or even non effective) Arabic summit, I came to know that any change that would occur in this region will not be but a bloody one. Sacrificing civilian human lives and Muslim civilian lives in particular is something that can not be justified by any means against the Muslim law, logic or even the public opinion. It shows (as stated in the article above) how far can most of the regimes in the region are prepared to go to prevent any true Islamic movement, which is unaffected by neither the west nor Iran. We have seen that in Algeria fifteen years ago, Afghanistan seven years ago (the middle eastern regimes did not support USA in that invasion because of Bin Laden, actually Bin Laden is a good excuse to suppress any Islamic movements peaceful or violent) and now in Palestine. Their continuous focus on the small details such as this movement or that organization here and their made them lose sight of the greater picture, the fact that they are fighting an ideology, and to do that you need to replace it with another better ideology, not kill or suppress its carriers. The first policy might work for now, but with the time an ember will still light from bellow the ashes, and Turkey is a life example.

  2. TimothyL wrote:

    The pre-national Zionists, as well as Israel from Day one, have never recognized a middle ground. From Israel’s point of view, Zionism demands eradication of the Arab presence by any and all means – no standards of “international law” or “human rights” apply. To fully understand this, read this brilliant scholarly piece in the Middle East Policy Journal:

  3. Mohamed Murad wrote:

    Dear Sir,

    I will respectfully disagree. The anger is seething but I do not believe it will turn into a more radical trend.

    Firstly, I do not know of a single person in the Arab world who has not long talked of Western hypocrisy when it comes to the definition of terrorism. We did not need Gaza to know that for the Western world it is not the act but the actor that defines terrorism. We saw the West’s reaction to Russia’s war with Georgia and compared it with 2006. We saw the Kosovans given a state they were not exactly entitled to “for their own protection” while the Palestinians continued to rot under occupation.

    And the reaction of the western-backed so called “moderate” Arab states to the attack on Hamas is no surprise considering these same states had the same reaction in 2006.

    What is different this time, and why the anger is so much more palpable, is that Hizballah was, as ironic as it seems, seen to be able to take on and the IDF. Furthermore, the Lebanese had escape routes. They had safe havens. For the Gazans there was no such escape. They were fish in a barrel.

    However, the “moderate” leaders of these countries are not at war with the “islamists”. They are at war with the notion of resistance. They are scared witless that those that have successfully stood up to Israel will employ the resources and techniques to ferment resistance against them. And it is this they have in common with Israel and it is that which makes them and Israel such strange bedfellows.

    The groups, whom the West defines as Islamists (I really have not managed to grasp the meaning of this term yet) that have provided this resistance and succeeded are not Al Qaeda or Fath Al Islam. It is Hizballah and Hamas. And these are not by contrast, as you know, radical Islamic groups.

    It is my belief and hope that it will be these groups that the people of the Arab world, who want a change and want to see the backs of these lick-spittle regimes, will turn to. Al Qaeda and its ilk have become practically irrelevant in the Arab world and were their methodolgies not so brutal they would be a laughing stock in comparison to the achievements of the Lebanese and Palestinians.

    That is why I do not believe Hamas and especially Hizballah will not find it hard to resist becoming more radical. They have seen the success brought about by being exactly the opposite. There is no reason why they would give up on that success now.

  4. Martin Yarnit wrote:

    The attached piece calls for fresh thinking to solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict and proposes an EU led initative to create a Middle Eastern Commonwealth linked to Europe.

    Gaza: Time for Fresh Thinking
    Martin Yarnit
    Now that there is a ceasefire of sorts in Gaza, it is time to take stock and to think about what the future might hold. But first, we need to be clear: the last few days have demonstrated again that there is no military solution in Gaza. Every generation of Palestinians produces a new wave of militants dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Without a political solution, the Israeli Defence Force will be battling the grandchildren of the people killed in Gaza this week.
    The blockade of Gaza, to prevent arms imports, the bombing to destroy the military and political base of Hamas: these make a perverted sense to Western governments who see Hamas as their enemy. For the sake of these, the same governments have had to grit their teeth while civilian casualties mount. A cease fire may stem the flow of blood, for the time being at least, but it won’t prevent a reoccurrence of hostilities in the future. For the sake of the security of the Israelis and the Palestinians and the prosperity of both peoples, the West has no alternative but to push for the end of the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, and the removal of illegal Jewish settlements.
    Why should either side consent to talks along these lines when both are committed to the pursuit of their political objectives by military means? Why should Hamas abandon its policy of overturning the Zionist state? Why should the Israelis give up on their reliance on overwhelming military force?
    The lesson from other war zones is that economic development is the only balm in the long term. France and Germany, traditional foes for generations, used the European Iron and Steel Community to bury the hatchet. The creeping creation of an all Ireland trading zone within the EU is beginning to dissolve the differences between Catholic and Protestant. The prospect of EU membership has worked wonders on intransigence in Turkey and the Balkans, strengthening the hand of democrats and supporters of human rights. The same approach should be directed now towards Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbours.
    Turkey, a trusted interlocutor between Israel and the Arabs, could act as the lynchpin of this new diplomatic initiative, with a firmer offer from the EU of membership as a reward. The US, under new leadership, which has tried and failed to install democracy in the Middle East by force, should instead support the Europeans by providing financial guarantees for a programme of peaceful economic development in the region.
    Given the EU’s hesitancy towards Turkish membership in the past, why would it now want to contemplate a major expansion of its reach in one of the world’s most troubled and poverty-stricken regions? A long term plan, perhaps stretching over 15-20 years, would have to be agreed leading to full membership which would lay down the terms for confidence building through new institutions for economic cooperation and the creation of a Middle Eastern Commonwealth. The plan would also envisage the creation of a network of major cities across the region including new cities in what is currently the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Egypt plus Jerusalem that would be governed by mixed administrations in which the Palestinians would be given an equal voice. In this way, hope would be given to the Palestinian refugees that they would find a permanent home within the new Common Market.
    The benefits for the EU are political and economic. The conflict in Gaza, like the conflict in Iraq, poses a big threat to the security and social cohesion of Western Europe, as the July 2004 bombings in London showed. After so many civilian deaths in Gaza, it would delusion to believe the world is any safer. In the short term, the lead-in costs of supporting the creation of a Middle East Commonwealth, even with the help of the US and the Saudis, would be big but the long term benefits are great. Europe would gain access to a vast developing market equivalent in size to the US. In addition, Europe might also gain an intermediate zone that would act as a pole of attraction for the waves of impoverished and war weary people who are currently fleeing Africa’s disaster zones for Spain, Italy and Malta.
    This whole idea is dogged by enormous problems, but an ambitious and imaginative proposal is needed to break the log jam in Palestine-Israel. And it will need to be ambitious to have any chance of success. The Israelis are in danger of settling into a crisis economy-permanent war outlook. They are benefitting from the international growth of their homeland security industrial sector, exporting the expertise gained in their battles with the Palestinians to create a prosperity that so far defies the global credit crunch. The Israelis, or at least the section of the population that has reluctantly been forced into the war camp by Hamas, have to have cause to believe instead that sometime soon they will be safer and no less prosperous than they are now.
    As for the Palestinians, whose internal politics are driven by desperation and hopelessness, only the prospect of a large scale transformation of their political and economic fortunes will create the conditions for a new leadership willing to do business with Europe and their erstwhile enemy, Israel.
    None of this is likely to work with the current political leadership with which both peoples are burdened. Indeed, the existing leaderships could be expected to go out of their way to block the development of the proposals put forward here. In doing that they can call on the fear, suspicion and resentment that both sides have nursed for decades. But there is a middle ground on both sides and the EU must begin to create the conditions for Palestinians and Israelis who see no future in endless warfare to meet and to exchange ideas on neutral ground.
    A Middle East Commonwealth, linked to the EU and eventually becoming part of the EU, leapfrogs across the tired debate about one state and two state solutions to provide a regional formula for peaceful development, releasing Israelis and Palestinians from the cycle of desperation in which they are currently trapped.


  5. revjobarker wrote:

    In response to Mohamed Murad…I don’t believe Hamas & Hezbollah seek anything from others except for the right to honest rightousness in action against a perpetual oppressor of both of their peoples…they fight for their homelands to thwart another Israeli blitz…there may be more coming…but, Hamas is about Palestine..not petty politics of the low-life Arab leaders,…who are the true puveyors of “hate” on the I-net…bin Laden is the last person they want to see…they want a homeland where they can walk, drive, have a picnic on the water…be able to visit relatives & friends…Hamas/Palestine cannot even do that without gazaillions of brutal checkpoints…I might add, Israel was intentionally killing the generations of children that will NEVER grow up(TO FIGHT ISRAEL), BUT THOSE WHO LIVED & are parentless, siblingless, deformed by illegal weapons…12yr olds wetting their pants again w/o control after most all of his family wiped out…WAR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY!! IF THERE IS ANY TRUE HUMANITY OF HEART LEFT IN THE WORLD…THE EU IS LOOKING LIKE ISRAEL…SAME W/ OUR NEW WHORE FOR ISRAEL JUST ELECTED…THE ONE….NOT ANYMORE…WE WERE JIGGED, AS HE TURNED ON THE PALESTINIAN FIGHT & PRAISED ABBAS; OBAMA HAS LOST THE INTELLIGENCIA FOR PEACE IN PALESTINE & AN END TO AFGHAN, PAKISTAN, & IRAQ…who quite possibly is not out of trouble internally…!!!

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