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Hurtling into the darkness

THE Palestinian civil war, in which the Islamist outfit Hamas has now taken control from Fatah of all of the Gaza Strip, is first a tragedy for the Palestinian people throughout the occupied territories. The fighting has been as cruel as anything seen in the Middle East.

Women and children have been gunned down trying to get to hospital. Opponents have been bound and gagged and thrown from the tops of buildings.

In one widely reported incident, Jamal Abu al-Jadian, a senior Fatah leader, dressed as a woman to escape his home. But when he went, wounded by gunfire nonetheless, to a nearby hospital, a group of Hamas gunmen discovered him and shot him through the head more than 40 times.

Since the election victory of Hamas last year in the occupied territories - Gaza and the West Bank - something in the order of 700 Palestinians have been killed by other Palestinians in factional fighting.

But tragedy aside, the Hamas victory in Gaza represents a new strategic reality in the Middle East. It is a profound strategic change and it is emblematic of a broader dynamic throughout the region.

What we have seen in Gaza is radical Islamist extremism eating radical secular extremism. Moderation and democracy have not been on the playing field for a long time.

No one should be in any doubt about what Hamas is or what it represents. It is a terrorist organisation backed by Iran and Syria, dedicated to the destruction of Israel and wider opposition to the West. Its manifesto is a hate-filled document. Its propaganda is frequently anti-Semitic. Its Islamist agenda is unambiguous. It is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fountainhead extremist Islamist organisation in the Middle East. It has closed down bars and restaurants and the like throughout Gaza because they do not conform to Hamas's Islamist identity.

The Hamas victory follows a pattern we can see in many parts of the Middle East, and in some other parts of the Islamic world. Overtly, Islamist extremism is the only ideology left standing.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation, of which Fatah is part, was for long a terrorist organisation that conceded only at the end of the 1980s, in a tenuous way, that Israel had any right to exist.

It pioneered much of modern international terrorism. But it was a broadly secular movement. In the '70s the PLO was widely supported by Western Marxists and it had a secular nationalist agenda, although it never had a democratic agenda that it believed in.

Arab secular nationalism is now dying all over the Arab world and it is being replaced by millenarian Islamism.

Every recipe, every received opinion about the Middle East is contradicted by the Hamas victory, and indeed by the trend of events in recent years.

It is as near to a universal truism of the international diplomatic community as there can be that the problems of the Middle East are all ultimately caused by, or at least mostly caused by, Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

Yet look now at the history of Israeli withdrawals in recent years and see where they have led.

Several years ago Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. The most morally compromising aspect of this withdrawal was that it left many of Israel's Lebanese allies, especially those associated with the South Lebanon Army, open to terrible retribution.

But the longer term strategic consequence was the emergence of Hezbollah as a powerful military and political force, which now threatens the Lebanese Government.

Broader trends in Lebanon are equally disturbing. An al-Qa'ida backed militant group has challenged the Lebanese army in fierce military clashes in Palestinian refugee camps in northern Lebanon, opening a new front for al-Qa'ida in the Middle East.

Apparently Syrian-backed assassins are murdering Lebanese politicians who are opposed to Syrian influence one by one. The pro-Syrian Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, is increasingly relying on Hezbollah, which stands a good chance of dominating and perhaps formally leading a Lebanese government in due course.

Similarly, the Israelis withdrew from all of Gaza in 2005. Gaza was to be the showpiece of Palestinian self-rule and democracy. Now the occupied territories have been shattered and divided into two. Gaza is now effectively Hamastan.

The West Bank is run by Fatah under the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

But this bland statement in truth overestimates Fatah's strength. Fatah's domination of the West Bank is only really sustainable because the West Bank remains under Israeli military occupation.

Fatah has been competing with Hamas over claiming an Islamist identity. Fatah will presumably cling to power in the West Bank by whatever means are necessary, including tactical accommodations with Israel, but the sap of extremism rises in the West Bank as well.

While the genuine grassroots support for the extremist Islamist ideology is perhaps the single most disturbing feature of the situation today, the role of outside powers is a close number two. Iran and Syria are delighted at the turn events have taken.

Western realists believe a grand bargain awaits the US with Iran. But Iran can look out at the broader Middle East delighted at what it sees. The US is bogged down and bleeding in Iraq. President George W. Bush, who once terrified the mullahs in Tehran, now looks enfeebled and embattled on all sides. Iran's nuclear program is proceeding effectively unchallenged with a huge increase in centrifuge numbers, a clear precursor to nuclear weapons.

Iran's proxies everywhere are flowering. Iran has sponsored Shia as well as Sunni terrorism in Iraq. It has manufactured the explosively formed projectiles used increasingly in improvised explosive devices, which are causing dreadful casualties among US troops and Iraqi civilians.

All the realists, from Washington to Brussels, from New York to the Australian National University, can suggest is that the US hold talks with Iran. Tehran is delighted with this prospect. It can play around with talks forever while it pursues its deeper strategic aims at home and abroad. Its role in the Gaza Strip should not be discounted.

The efforts of Syria and Iran in Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied territories demonstrate the way terrorism has become a strategic weapon and shows the folly of local analysts who believe that terrorism cannot be a threat to the international system.

After 60 years, Israel's neighbours, and especially its antagonists, have worked out that you cannot beat Israel with armies and air forces. No Arab power, nor Iran, will oppose Israel militarily. That way lies defeat, along the lines of 1948, 1967, 1973.

The enemies of the US have worked out the same truth. No nation, except Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the Taliban's Afghanistan, is suicidal enough to take on the Americans force on force.

Any army that marches against the US will be defeated in weeks, any air force in days, any navy in hours. But there are other ways to hurt the US, and to hurt it strategically.

China discovered this in years gone by and proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan to hurt India, and to the Middle East to hurt the US.

That is an example of one state going over the forces of the US to hurt it militarily and strategically. Now terrorism offers a new strategic weapon, a way to go below the forces of the US.

Iran and Syria and others can reach out through the sponsorship of terrorism to hurt the US and Israel and other allies and interests of the US throughout the Middle East and indeed throughout the world.

And where they can do this on the back of terrorist movements such as Hamas or Hezbollah, which have some genuine grassroots support, their connection can be more easily denied, greater distance between the state sponsor and the terrorist acts can be established.

But in any event at this stage in the US electoral cycle, and with Bush weakened, the state sponsors of terror calculate that the chance of any meaningful US retaliation is small.

And the extreme increase in lethality of weapons readily available to terrorists, from IEDs to anti-tank missiles, means any military confrontation with terrorists is militarily costly as well as politically fraught.

Hamas will now likely consolidate its rule in Gaza, murdering its opponents, perhaps seeking a period of relative peace, but all the time intensifying the arms trade across the Egyptian border.

Then there will be longer range rockets to fire at bigger concentrations of Israeli population across the border, forcing the Israelis once more into retaliation which, no matter what the justification, will once more cost them international support and help to further radicalise the Muslim population.

These are dark days in the Middle East.

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