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Our Second Biggest Mistake in the Middle East

Alaister Crooke writes in the London Review of Books:

‘The situation in Gaza is dangerous, and the danger is that Hamas will take over and turn Gaza into “Hamastan” – into a kingdom of thugs, murderers, terrorists, poverty and despair.’ This was the reaction of Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defence minister, to Hamas’s seizure of a number of key security institutions in Gaza in the days leading up to 14 June, when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, dismissed the unity government. But, despite what much of the media says, this is not a ‘civil war’, and Hamas is not made up of ‘gangs beyond the control of their leaders’. Hamas’s action was conducted with the aim of removing the influence of just one of Fatah’s security forces in Gaza, the militia controlled by Muhammad Dahlan, Abbas’s national security adviser. Hamas has insisted that this has not been a conflict with Fatah in general, and it was notable that neither the Palestinian security forces – effectively the Palestinian ‘army’ – nor the police in Gaza were targets of the recent violence.

The origins of the Hamas action in Gaza lie in the reaction of the international community, and of Fatah, to Hamas’s overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of January 2006. Fatah, Yasir Arafat’s movement, saw itself as the founder of the Palestinian Authority; it believed it was the natural party of government; and it had fought a long battle with Arab neighbours to establish itself as synonymous with the PLO, and therefore, implicitly, as the ‘sole representative of the Palestinian people’. Some within Fatah were unable to come to terms with their loss of power, or to reconcile themselves to the claim that, on the basis of the election result, an Islamist party best represented the views of the Palestinian people. At this crucial juncture, the International Quartet intervened: they pressed President Abbas not to yield to Hamas, to hang onto power; and they promised to support him if he did so.

Not only was Abbas not to yield security control to the government and its Interior Ministry, as the constitution provided, but the International Quartet also demanded that he claw back powers from the new government and embody them in the presidency: financial responsibilities would be removed from the Ministry of Finance; the salaries of government officials would be paid by the president’s office; all key policy decisions would be enacted by presidential decree. The government was to be rendered powerless. As Azzam Tamimi notes in Hamas: Unwritten Chapters, the Hamas government had no police force at its disposal, and no authority over frontier crossings.

At the same time, the West imposed financial sanctions on the government and isolated it politically, insisting on conducting business and channelling funding exclusively through Abbas. In short, instead of helping Fatah through the transition and facilitating Palestinian unity – and taking advantage of a real chance to include Hamas, Islamism’s moderates, in the political process – the international community pursued an aggressive policy of internal division that established the conditions for the recent violence in Gaza. Europeans may wring their hands at what they see on their TVs, but European policy, acting in concert with the US, bears a large measure of responsibility for what has happened.

The US and some European countries, including Britain, also chose to finance, train and arm the security apparatus led by Muhammad Dahlan, whom many Palestinians suspected – rightly – was being groomed as the ‘strong man’ who would eventually assume the presidency and restore Fatah to power. The ultimate aim was to build a Fatah militia around Dahlan that could confront Hamas militarily – and win. American officials hoped in the meantime to place Fatah in a position to depose Hamas from power – in other words, to promote a soft coup d’état against the government. A strategy document prepared by one of the US-led coalition of ‘moderate’ Arab states which was circulating among Palestinians in March 2007 said that the US objective was to have Abbas dismiss the Hamas government in August. The International Quartet endorsed these plans in principle. The support the US and Europe give to Fatah is considerable and arrives by a variety of routes: through NGOs and development agencies; through Fatah reform initiatives; through youth development programmes; through information and media projects; and – most significantly – through a large programme aimed at recruiting, training, equipping and financing Fatah security cadres, Dahlan’s chief among them. In addition, every NGO contract has a clause inserted into it by USAID requiring the organisation to pledge that it ‘will not engage in activity with groups deemed as terrorists’.

In the scathing final report he wrote before resigning in May as UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Alvaro de Soto said: ‘The US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, so much so that, a week before Mecca’ – where the two factions met in February and under the auspices of King Abdullah agreed a unity government – ‘the US envoy declared twice in an envoys’ meeting in Washington how much “I like this violence,” referring to the near civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because “it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”’ It was this situation that pushed Hamas into pre-emptive action. With Fatah refusing to delegate constitutional authority over the security services, and with the build-up of the Dahlan militia, the military arm of Hamas moved to seize all the key assets associated with Dahlan and his colleagues in Gaza. Having achieved complete control, the elected government is now finally in a position to provide security in Gaza.

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