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Israel, US, and Egypt back Fatah's fight against Hamas

The Bush administration has spent most of its $84 million in aid to Palestinians to train an elite corps of Fatah-loyal fighters.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2007

Cairo and Tel Aviv

Senior US officials in Washington on Wednesday promised ongoing military support for secular Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas amid his power struggle with Islamist Hamas as part of an $84 million aid package largely aimed at improving the fighting ability of an elite corps of loyalists from his Fatah Party.

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Israel, too, is making overtures to Mr. Abbas, reported the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday, allowing light arms to flow to members of his Presidential Guard and saying that it would allow some of the US training of his forces to take place in the West Bank.

That policy puts the US and Israel on a highly unusual course in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Four-square support for Fatah to contain, if not defeat, the growing power of Hamas, which won the Palestinian Authority's (PA) last election.

But whether the effort will succeed is far from certain, and some analysts say there are risks to that course, chief among them the possibility of further fueling the internal Palestinian conflict, leading to deeper despair in the occupied territories and a PA less able to make the compromises on peace with Israel than it is today.

"They want to see Hamas removed from office and see Fatah in control of everything, and [the military assistance program] should be seen as part and parcel of that approach," says Mouin Rabbani, of the International Crisis Group (ICG), reached in Amman, Jordan.

"If you want to reach a stable and durable Palestinian settlement you can't do that by empowering one faction at the expense of the other, since you very much guarantee that the other faction, which is being marginalized, will seek to undermine any peace agreement."

In the West Bank on Wednesday, Israeli troops arrested more than 30 top Hamas officials in a renewed offensive against the group after a spike in rocket fire on southern Israel. Among those apprehended was Palestinian Education Minister Nasser Shaer.

The US insists that all of its aid to the Presidential Guard is "nonlethal," consisting of training, uniforms, and supplies, as well as paying for better infrastructure at Gaza's borders.

Regional analysts and Palestinian officials say the rifles being provided to the guards are being provided by other Arab states with close ties to the US.

And supporters of the program say the US has little choice but to back Abbas as the best hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"As a soldier, I believe there's a point when inaction, a wait-and-see attitude, is no longer an option," said Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who is overseeing the program, in testimony to a congressional subcommittee Wednesday.

"The situation has gotten to be quite dire in Gaza, we have a situation of lawlessness and outright chaos," he said. "This chaotic situation is why the [US] is focused on [helping] the legal, legitimate security forces in our effort to reestablish law and order."

Abbas now finds himself engaged in an elaborate, multiparty dance involving Hamas, the US, and the Israelis.

He has been quietly urging Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah, of Hamas, to stop rocket fire at Israel by the Islamic militants, something that has won him praise from the Americans and Israelis. But gunmen from his Fatah movement have also engaged in a series of battles with Hamas militants in recent weeks, killing at least 50. The two sides have reached a tenuous truce.

Last week, when that fighting veered towards open warfare between the Palestinian factions, Israel allowed about 500 Fatah loyalists to cross back over the Rafah crossing into Gaza from Egypt, where they were receiving US training, an unusual move for Israel, which seeks to strictly limit the movement of fighting-age men through the Gaza border with Egypt.

These men have been widely reported to be members of the Presidential Guard, though a source who works in Israel says they may have been from another Palestinian unit. In his testimony, General Dayton referred to the men as "soldiers" and members of the National Security Service.

Dayton said that by chance, as the freshly trained men crossed into Gaza, that crossing was attacked by Hamas. "Training does pay off and the Hamas attack was repulsed and the Rafah crossing is under the control of the Palestinian Presidential Guard today," he said.

The return of the 500 troops followed a Hamas attack on another camp for Abbas's Presidential Guard near the Karni crossing with Israel on May 14 that left eight dead. The US is paying for training of the guardsman at the camp, though in that case the Dutch are actually doing the work.

That attack was a "wake-up call" to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas on the need to do more to strengthen forces loyal to the Palestinian president, says Gershon Baskin, codirector of the independent Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.