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.
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"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?"Skip to next paragraph
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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."