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

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.

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.

Recommended: Who is Hamas? 5 questions about the Palestinian militant group.

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.

"If Abbas's forces aren't strengthened with weapons, technical training, and money, Gaza is lost. That's the bottom line. Do the Americans and the Israelis want to write off Gaza to the Islamic fundamentalists?"

But the impression shared by many in Gaza that the US is helping Fatah in its power struggle with Hamas, rather than simply strengthening border security, could lead to a spiral of violence, some in Gaza warn.

"Palestinians believe the American support to Abbas is to take out Hamas rather than help secure the border crossings," says Omar Shaban, a political expert in Gaza who once worked as an adviser to Abbas.

The US has to "present it in a way that they are helping the PA and not the president's office," he said. Otherwise, "it puts more oil on the fire. There is a big fear within Hamas that these weapons will be used against them, which makes them take the initiative to get more weapons and to protect themselves … you are promoting the competition between the Fatah generals and Hamas."

While the US says that is not part of its goal, it will be difficult to convince Hamas supporters otherwise.

"All of the support by the US administration of the Presidential Guard has made a real crisis between the Hamas and the Presidential Guard," says Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson in Gaza. He accused the US of promoting sectarian strife across the Middle East to protect Israel. "The new Middle East is dependant upon splitting the people into two sides," he says.

Mr. Baskin said that while the Israeli military establishment was at first leery of allowing shipments of arms to forces loyal to Abbas, the prevailing view among Israel's generals is that a direct military confrontation inside Gaza with Hamas is inevitable, so some generals believe it's worth arming Abbas first.

Whether a Palestinian civil war is good or bad for Israel, he said the military is split.

For Egypt, which is backing the US effort along with other secular authoritarian Arab states, anything that may weaken Hamas may be viewed as a positive. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular opposition movement, and currently hundreds of Brotherhood members are in Egyptian jails as political prisoners.

"We can not accept the point of view that the US and Egypt are trying to push this situation in Gaza to civil war, or to cause violence among Palestinian factions. Only pro-Hamas, pro-Muslim brotherhood people believe that," says Emad Gad, a political scientist at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and International studies, which is partially funded by the Egyptian government.

"The Egyptian regime here is trying to minimize the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and any success for the Hamas government means more support for the Brotherhood in Egypt, so the Egyptian regime has to seek to minimize their role."

Mr. Gad says Egypt would also like to see the Mecca Agreement of earlier this year, which was brokered by Saudi Arabia and saw Hamas and Fatah enter into a unity government, fall by the wayside, since it legitimizes Hamas, a movement he says that stands in the way of "regional cooperation and an eventual settlement."

The internal Palestinian fighting has helped bolster the position of Fatah members like Mohammed Dahlan, who heads the Palestinian National Security Council. Mr. Dahlan, who has spent five years in prison for alleged terrorism against Israel, has considerable armed support in Gaza and his supporters have sought to destabilize Palestinian governments when he's been sidelined in the past.

Although US insiders say that when Dayton drew up his training plans for the Fatah forces, he had hoped to sideline figures like Dahlan, and bring in new faces untainted by the allegations of corruption that swirl around such figures.

The Presidential Guard is something of an elite unit drawn from Force 17, a Fatah commando group that was created in the early 1970s to focus on assassinating Israeli officials.

"What you used to have is Force 17, and the Presidential Guard was a unit within Force 17," says Mr. Rabbani of the ICG. "I think the American approach is to extract it, establish it as an independent force, and give the Presidential Guard a role well above and beyond [that of] protecting the president."

"I wouldn't characterize the recent escalation as a product of US policy, it was clearly first and foremost an internal Palestinian dispute that led to this escalation," says Rabbani. "But the US involvement has contributed to it negatively, and I would argue, deliberately, if the policy is one where having the Palestinians operate on the basis of a broadly based consensus rather than violent political rivalry is being undermined."

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