June 16, 2007 -- HAMAS gunmen celebrated their victory over Fatah yesterday by parading the bullet-ridden corpses of the rival faction's fighters in the streets of Gaza City. Amid shouts of "Allah is the greatest!" they echoed their leader Khalid Mashaal's claim that Hamas had won "a triumph for Islam." Hamas women in hijab and Islamic masks ululated from the sidelines.
The four-day battle was a disaster for Fatah and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the increasingly irrelevant Palestinian National Authority. Fatah had some 60,000 armed men in Gaza, a strip of land covering some 65 square miles. It also had heavy cannons and rocket-propelled grenades, which Hamas lacked. Yet even Fatah's four chief bases of al-Hawa, al-Muntadam, Sarayah and al-Safineh, claimed to be impregnable, fell in just a few hours, as their defenders fled.
By losing Gaza, Fatah and its security chief, the ambitious Mohammed Dahlan, lose something more than armed presence in an enclave that accounts for almost 40 percent of Palestinians in the disputed territories. In Gaza, Fatah ran a lucrative protection racket that helped finance the corrupt life-style of its leaders and the armed units on which they depend.
Control of that protection racket could enable Hamas to meet part of its cash-flow problems. Despite a $250 million "Islamic gift" from Iran last January, Hamas was running out of money to finance its social-welfare networks and its armed groups.
With Gaza under its exclusive control, Hamas can now pursue its Islamicization program with greater vigor. It has already imposed the hijab, banned alcohol and Western music, and set up Islamic courts in parts of the enclave. With no one to challenge further Islamicization, Hamas can now impose the full sharia.
Yet, in winning Gaza, Hamas may have ended up with a poison chalice.
Some 85 percent of Gaza's estimated 1.7 million inhabitants depend on U.N. refugee organizations, mostly funded by the United States, for food and other daily needs. Yet Hamas would still need some $1.5 billion a year to keep the place afloat. Iran has promised to help, and the pan-Islamist movement of which Hamas is a branch is also certain to be generous. But even if that kind of money becomes available, Hamas' ability to keep Gaza going, even at the miserable level of its current existence, is not guaranteed.
Having withdrawn from Gaza last year, Israel has sealed the strip's land, sea and air borders. The only outlet still open is the Rafa'ah crossing on the border with Egypt. Were Egypt to close the crossing, Gaza could become one of those sealed rooms in which mysterious crimes are committed.
Often labeled "the biggest prison on earth," Gaza depends on Israel and the West Bank for virtually all of its water and electricity and much of the raw material and spare parts its businesses need. If Israel, the West Bank, the Europeans and the United Nations let Hamas stew in its juices in Gaza, the Islamist movement might well collapse under the weight of the strip's economic problems and social tensions.
Despite its armed success, Hamas cannot claim to be the main, let alone the sole, representative of the Palestinians. It won some 65 percent of the votes in Gaza in the last election - but its overall share, taking into account the West Bank, was around 46 percent. Even then, observers agreed that at least half of those who voted for Hamas did so only to vote against Fatah, not because they supported the Islamist group's ideological program.
There is little doubt that Hamas' bid for exclusive control in Gaza was partly dictated by Tehran and Damascus. The Islamic Republic and Syria wish to kill all talk of a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. They need Palestine to remain a cause with which to mobilize radical Islamists across national and sectarian divides.
Tehran and Damascus also believe that a military showdown with the United States and Israel is inevitable and that their best bet is to organize a pincer operation, from Lebanon through Hezbollah and from Gaza through Hamas, against the Jewish state.
Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the countdown for the destruction of Israel had started, thanks to "our Lebanese and Palestinian brethren."
Hamas has always rejected the two-state solution and is committed by its constitution to "liberate" the whole of mandate Palestine. And that means wiping Israel off the map.
The battle for Gaza also represents the defeat of the less radical faction of Hamas, under Ismail Haniyah, by hardliners led by Mashaal. Haniyah had resisted total dependence on Iran and Syria and tried to keep a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Misha'al opposed that strategy because Riyadh and Cairo insisted that Hamas should work with Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas, and help bring down tension with Israel.
The main loser in the Gaza battle is the Palestinian people, who end up divided between Gaza and the West Bank - and hostage, in both places, to gunmen motivated by personal greed or a lunatic ideology.
With Gaza under Hamas control, Israel is unlikely to find a credible Palestinian peace partner anytime soon. The dream of a Palestinian state, of whatever size and shape, has been postponed for an unknown period.
Calls for the so-called "international community" to step in to help Hamas consolidate its hold on Gaza are both impertinent and dangerous. Hamas, having pushed the Palestinians to the brink of civil war, must be left to assume the consequences of its strategy of alliance with Tehran and Damascus in a broader conflict that has little do with Palestine, as either a cause or a political project.