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Opinion

An inside story of how the US magnified Palestinian suffering

The covert push to empower Fatah failed. And isolating Hamas just made things worse. But it's not too late to change course.

By Norman H. Olsen, Matthew N. Olsen / January 12, 2009



Cherryfield, Maine; and Washington

A million and a half Palestinians are learning the hard way that democracy isn't so good if you vote the wrong way. In 2006, they elected Hamas when the US and Israel wanted them to support the more-moderate Fatah. As a result, having long ago lost their homes and property, Gazans have endured three years of embargo, crippling shortages of food and basic necessities, and total economic collapse.

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We spoke again Saturday with three of our longtime Gazan contacts. They and their families, all Fatah supporters, were in their eleventh day without electricity, running water, or heat. They are cowering in cold basements trying to protect their children from the storm of explosions that is filling Shifa hospital with amputees and the dead. Our friends in Israel are likewise living in fear.

The 850-plus dead Gazans, more than a dozen dead Israelis, and some 3,000 injured have since the end of the cease-fire become part of what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called the birth pains of a new Middle East.

It didn't have to be this way. We could have talked instead of fought.

Hamas never called for the elections that put them in power. That was the brainstorm of Secretary Rice and her staff, who had apparently decided they could steer Palestinians into supporting the more-compliant Mahmoud Abbas (the current president of the Palestinian authority) and his Fatah Party through a marketing campaign that was to counter Hamas's growing popularity – all while ignoring continued Israeli settlement construction, land confiscation, and cantonization of the West Bank.

State Department staffers helped finance and supervise the Fatah campaign, down to the choice of backdrop color for the podium where Mr. Abbas was to proclaim victory. An adviser working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) explained to incredulous staffers at the Embassy in Tel Aviv how he would finance and direct elements of the campaign, leaving no US fingerprints. USAID teams, meanwhile, struggled to implement projects for which Abbas could claim credit. Once the covert political program cemented Fatah in place, the militia Washington was building for Fatah warlord-wannabee Mohammed Dahlan would destroy Hamas militarily.

Their collective confidence was unbounded. But the Palestinians didn't get the memo. Rice was reportedly blindsided when she heard the news of Hamas's victory during her 5 a.m. treadmill workout. But that did not prevent a swift response.

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