Guess who's flourishing in the Arab spring?
While Washington hails advances for democracy in the Middle East, two of the chief beneficiaries are Hezbollah and Hamas, hard-line foes of U.S. Mideast policy. Both the Shiite political party/militia of Lebanon and the Islamic network in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories are gaining popularity and influence, according to online commentators in the region.
One sign of this trend was a cordial meeting last weekend in Lebanon between Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah and Walid Jumblatt, the most prominent leader of the Lebanese opposition. Another sign came in Gaza, where Hamas confirmed its plans to participate in July 25 elections to choose a new Palestinian parliament.
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In Lebanon, Jumblatt said that ending Syrian domination of the country does not require the immediate disarmament of Hezbollah, as demanded by the United States and France. According to the BBC, Jumblatt said disarming Hezbollah would not be discussed until Israel withdraws from a disputed area on Lebanon's southern border known as Shebaa Farms.
The arms issue "is not open to discussion at this stage," Jumblatt said.
In the occupied territories, Hamas's first venture into electoral politics is widely seen as a sign of its democratic strength. The group boycotted such elections in 1996. Now, Hamas's "prominent role in a 4 1/2-year uprising against Israel has enhanced its popularity," reports Aljazeera.net. Both Hezbollah and Hamas enjoy significant public support, according to the online media reports.
Hezbollah has a strong position in Lebanese politics, notes the BBC, because it was "the only Lebanese political party to openly keep its arms at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war and was a main force in driving Israeli troops from southern Lebanon in 2000, after a 22-year occupation."
The group also "calls for the destruction of the state of Israel" and has in the past "adopted the tactic of taking Western hostages, through a number of freelance hostage taking cells," notes the BBC's guide to Hezbollah. Nonetheless, the Daily Star in Beirut, one of the leading reformist newspapers in the region, called for the opposition and Hezbollah to "hold a high-profile meeting in which they can publicly recognize their differences, even celebrate their differences, before pledging to get down to the business of dealing constructively with the realities of diversity on the path to forging a new Lebanon."
"Now is not the time for exclusion," said the Daily Star editors.
Similarly, Hamas is poised to take on a larger role in Palestinian politics, the group's leader told Palestine News Network. Mahmoud Zahar said the group would form a government on its own or with a coalition partner if it wins the elections.
An opinion poll cited by Aljazeera showed support for Fatah, the more moderate, secular Palestinian faction, had dropped to 36 percent from 40 percent in December, while Hamas's popularity had grown from 18 percent to 25 percent. The Web site of the Arab news channel also notes that in January Hamas won 77 of 118 elective posts in Gaza municipal elections.
In Israel, commentators are uneasy about the legitimization of Hezbollah and Hamas via democratic politics. "The prospect of the enhanced political empowerment of radical Islamist movements that have been deeply involved in terrorism" may be a sign of progress or the seeds of disaster, writes Israeli defense analyst Yossi Alpher in bitterlemons.org, a Web site dedicated to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
"In Lebanon, Hizbullah looks poised to move deeper into the political arena, where it seeks to lead Lebanon's Shiites, some 40 percent of the population," Alpher writes. "In Palestine, Hamas is now entering the political arena, where many Palestinians believe it could begin to rival Fatah -- which is riven by dissent, corruption and tension between the generations -- for power.
"These movements will not easily abandon their totally negative attitude toward Israel and its very right to exist. . . . The democratizers in Washington and elsewhere appear to believe that this obstacle can be overcome -- that integration of (hopefully) non-violent Islamists is better than endless confrontation with them, and that democracy is the answer -- let the chips fall where they may," writes Alpher.