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Gaza could be test case for Obama's diplomacy

Postwar Gaza could become a test of President Barack Obama's inauguration speech offer to Muslims to "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
/ Source: The Associated Press

Postwar Gaza could become a test of President Barack Obama's inauguration speech offer to Muslims to "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

The extended hand would be open borders and international reconstruction money for the Hamas militants who rule Gaza. The unclenched fist would be the Islamic militants of Hamas giving their moderate Fatah rivals a foothold in Gaza and holding its fire against Israel.

After an Israeli offensive that killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians and left much of Gaza in ruins, the new U.S. administration and a soon-to-be new Israeli government have a chance to forge a fresh strategy toward Hamas.

The war appears to have shaken up Middle East politics and the international community could leverage Gaza's postwar reality to boost moderates in the region, taking advantage of the fact that Hamas desperately needs help following the Israeli onslaught.

That could mean giving Hamas what it most wants — an open border with Egypt — as long as Fatah and international monitors control it. Any such deal would also require providing assurances to Israel that Hamas will stop smuggling weapons over the Egyptian border.

Extending Hamas a hand runs the risk of cementing the militants' power in Gaza. But a deal with strings attached could chip away at Hamas' stranglehold on the territory, which has been the main impediment to U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Hamas, which has been holding victory rallies in Gaza despite suffering enormous losses from Israel's assault, is not about to suddenly recognize the Jewish state or join the peace talks between Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

Not a monolith
But the war proved Hamas is not a monolith. Divisions emerged between the group's Syria-based leadership, which opposed a cease-fire, and those inside Gaza who felt the bloodletting had to stop.

Hamas appears to have evolved since the days when it regularly invited youngsters to strap on bombs and blow themselves up inside Israel. Today, after violently seizing control of Gaza in June 2007, the group seems as interested in successful governance as attacking Israel.

Many Israelis believe Hamas' decision to fire rockets at Israel at the end of a six-month truce — a decision that sparked the latest war — was based solely on the group's hatred of Zionists. But the reality is more complicated.

Hamas was deeply disappointed the original truce did not bring a deal to reopen the borders of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt have blockaded since Hamas seized power. The closure destroyed almost all private enterprise in the territory of 1.4 million people, exacerbating misery in a place where 80 percent of the people need U.N. food handouts to survive.

Gazans found themselves without cement to build new apartments or make gravestones for the dead. Ninety percent of the territory's 3,600 factories shut down because of a lack of spare parts and raw materials.

$2 billion in damage
And Israel's military offensive inflicted an estimated $2 billion in damage.

Rebuilding would seem impossible under the current border regime.

"Nobody in his right state of mind can talk about reconstruction in Gaza with the crossings continuing to be ... closed," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in the West Bank this week.

Since trade links between Israel and Gaza are unlikely as long as Hamas remains sworn to Israel's destruction, efforts to ease the blockade are concentrating on opening the border with Egypt.

Fayyad made an urgent plea for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, saying the alternative is a permanent rift that will destroy Palestinians' dreams for a state of their own.

Current international proposals for a durable Gaza truce envision allowing Fatah back into Gaza to help monitor a reopened crossing into Egypt, an outcome that could be a first step toward moderates regaining a foothold in Gaza.

Hamas leaders have been defiant since a tentative cease-fire took hold Sunday, But Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum made a point of not rejecting Obama's inaugural overture.

Israel remains Hamas' enemy, he said. "That does not mean we cannot open a new page with the whole world, including the new elected American administration if they support the Palestinian people's just rights."

To be sure, no truce deal will be possible unless Israel is assured Hamas will stop firing rockets at Israel and smuggling increasingly lethal weapons across the Gaza-Egypt border.

Israel has scheduled an election Feb. 10 and none of the top candidates for prime minister has shown any willingness to rethink the position on Hamas. And the front-runner is hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made clear he favors sticks over carrots when it comes to Hamas.

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