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Gaza: Another Mess Made in U.S.

By Tony Karon,
June 14, 2007

Coming, as he does, from Fox News, Tony Snow is obviously a deeply cynical fellow, but this takes some beating: Asked to comment Wednesday on the bloodbath in Gaza, he answered: "Ultimately, the Palestinians are going to have to sort out their politics and figure out which pathway they want to pursue — the pathway toward two states living peaceably side-by-side, or whether this sort of chaos is going to become a problem."

Everyone following the conflict in Gaza knows full well that the reason for the violence is not that Palestinians have not "sorted out their politics" — they've made their political preferences abundantly clear in democratic elections, and later in a power-sharing agreement brokered by the Saudis. The problem is that the U.S. and the corrupt and self-serving warlords of Fatah did not accept either the election result or the unity government, and have conspired actively ever since to reverse both by all available means, including starving the Palestinian economy of funds, refusing to hand over power over the Palestinian Authority to the elected government, and arming and training Fatah loyalists to militarily restore their party's power. Unfortunately, after three days of some of the most savage fighting ever seen in Gaza, that strategy now lies in tatters. Fatah is, quite simply, no longer a credible fighting force in Gaza, where it has long been in decline as a credible political force.

But Snow's cynicism is hardly unexpected. Back in January, I wrote:
In the coming weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will cluck regretfully about the violence unfolding in the Palestinian territories as if the chaos in Gaza has as little to do with her as, say, the bizarrely warm winter weather in New York. And much of the U.S. media will concur by covering that violence as if it is part of some inevitable showdown in the preternaturally violent politics of the Palestinians. But any honest assessment will not fail to recognize that the increasingly violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah is not only a by-product of Secretary Rice's economic siege of the Palestinians; it is the intended consequence of her savage war on the Palestinian people – a campaign of retribution and collective punishment for their audacity to elect leaders other than those deemed appropriate to U.S. agendas. Moreover, the fact that the conflict is now coming to a head is a product of Rice's micromanagement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's political strategy – against his own better instincts.

Rice's siege strategy was premised on the belief that the economic torture of the entire Palestinian population would either force the Hamas government to chant the catechism of recognizing Israel-renouncing violence-abiding by previous agreements (again, Israeli leaders have to giggle at that one!) — or else, preferably, force the Palestinian electorate to recant the heresy of choosing Hamas as its government in the first place. Frustrated by the failure of this collective punishment to produce the desired results — and mindful of the need to quickly reorder Palestinian politics in order to satisfy the urgent need of the increasingly marginal Arab autocracies that Washington seeks to mobilize against Iran — she has stepped things up a notch, cajoling the hapless Abbas to take steps to toppled a government democratically elected only 11 months ago and beefing up the forces of the Fatah warlords dedicated to taking down Hamas in order to restore their own power of patronage.
At about the same time, Conflict Forum reported on the aggressive campaign by White House Middle East policy chief Elliot Abrams to provoke a coup by Fatah against Hamas. The U.S. policy was to prevent a Palestinian unity government from forming, and once it was formed, the policy became to topple it. And Robert Malley and Henry Siegman warned that the White House policy failed to reckon with the fact that Fatah had been defeated politically, and would not be able to restore its leadership of the Palestinians through a putsch. Even if his forces could be boosted, they warned, "(they) will remain a far less motivated one (than Hamas), seen by many as doing America's and Israel's bidding. In such a contest, success is far from assured, as we should know from Iraq, Lebanon and, indeed, Palestine itself."

Last month, when the first round of fighting between Fatah and Hamas began, I noted that its key protagonist on the Fatah side was not President Abbas, but the warlord Mohammed Dahlan. I noted:
Dahlan's ambitions clearly coincided with plans drawn up by White House Middle East policy chief, Elliot Abrams — a veteran of the Reagan Administration's Central American dirty wars — to arm and train Fatah loyalists to prepare them to topple the Hamas government. If Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to embrace the confrontational policy promoted by the White House, Dahlan has no such qualms. And given that Abbas has no political base of his own, he is dependent entirely on Washington and Dahlan.

...Dahlan was just about the only thing that the U.S. had going for it in terms of resisting the move towards a unity government. Although his fretting and sulking in Mecca couldn't prevent the deal, the U.S. appears to have helped him fight back afterwards by ensuring that he was appointed national security adviser, a move calculated to provoke Hamas, whose leaders tend to view Dahlan as little more than a torturer and a de facto enforcer for Israel.

But Dahlan appears to have made his move when it came to integrating the Palestinian Authority security forces (currently dominated by Fatah) by drawing in Hamas fighters and subjecting the forces to the control of a politically neutral interior minister. Dahlan simply refused, and set off the current confrontations by ordering his men out onto the street last weekend without any authorization from the government of which he is supposedly a part.'s plain that Dahlan, like Pinochet a quarter century, would not move onto a path of confrontation with an elected government unless he believed he had the sanction of powerful forces abroad to do so. If does move to turn the current street battle into a frontal assault on the unity government, chances are it will be because he got a green light from somewhere — and certainly not from Mahmoud Abbas.

But the confrontation under way has assumed a momentum of its own, and it may now be beyond the capability of the Palestinian leadership as a whole to contain it. If that proves true, the petulance that has substituted for policy in the Bush Administration's response to the 2006 Palestinian election will have succeeded in turning Gaza into Mogadishu. But it may be too much to expect the Administration capable of anything different — after all, they're still busy turning Mogadishu into Mogadishu all over again.
This analysis was echoed by Haaretz's Danny Rubinstein, who writes:
"The recent events we have been witnessing in Gaza are actually the disbanding of Palestinian rule. The primary reason for the break-up is the fact that Fatah, headed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to fully share the PA's mechanism of power with its rival Hamas - in spite of Hamas' decisive victory in the January 2006 general elections.

"Fatah was forced to overrule the Palestinian voters because the entire world demanded it do so. The United States, the European nations, most of the Arab leaders and, of course, the State of Israel, warned Fatah not to share power with Hamas.

"And so, after the Israeli pullout, instead of becoming a model for Palestinian self-rule, Gaza turned into the exact opposite. Matters have come to the point where Hamas operatives attempted all through Monday and Tuesday to take by force what they believe they rightfully deserve."
Indeed, in this month of observing the anniversary of the 1967 war, Hamas appears to have taken a leaf from Israel's playbook in that conflict. Instead of standing by and letting Dahlan set the terms of the conflict, slowly raising the temperature of the confrontation in keeping with the capabilities of his forces, Hamas went to war this time to destroy Fatah's capability to fight in Gaza. Having trounced Fatah on the polls, it now moved to trounce them on the streets in a well-orchestrated military campaign that scattered and neutralized Dahlan's forces. Many of them surrendered or simply melted away; some 40 officers of the U.S.-trained presidential guard were last seen blowing a hole into the Israeli wall around Gaza through which they fled to Egypt, where there commander, Dahlan, happened to be anyway.

The rout has been complete in Gaza, forcing Abbas to accept Hamas's terms for a new truce. Gaza, as Abbas aides have said bluntly, "is lost." Another spectacular Middle East debacle for the Bush Administration's trophy cabinet. Hundreds of Palestinians have died and thousands more have had their lives ruined by the brutal arrogant folly of Rice, Abrams and company. Hamas is in power because the Palestinian people wanted it there, and no amount of economic strangulation or proxy warfare has altered that fact. It didn't have to go this way; this was the route that Washington chose, believing it would prevail.

The administration's response when Hamas was elected in January 2006 echoed Brecht's mocking of the East German leadership in 1948: "The people have lost confidence in the party? Well, then, why not dissolve the people and elect another?" It was widely warned that Hamas was an intractable reality, that the U.S. should engage with rather than try to ignore or eliminate. I wrote in February of last year,
The administration that proclaims its mission as spreading democracy now seeks to punish the Palestinians for using their votes to get rid of a corrupt and decrepit regime (that happens to be headed by a U.S. ally). Shades, here, of Kissinger's rationale for the coup in Chile: "We can't stand by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." The Bush people are so tragically out of touch with the reality on the ground that they spent the weeks before the election funding desperate last-minute projects by local Fatah candidates in the hope of saving their hides. The effect was probably just the opposite: Hamas was only too pleased to point out that these were America's candidates, knowing that in Palestinian eyes that's a kiss of death.

...The Palestinian electorate was able to abandon Fatah for the simple reason that Ariel Sharon, with the backing of the Bush administration, had shown the Palestinians that Fatah was entirely irrelevant to their fate. The New York Times says some U.S. officials wonder whether the election should have been delayed further in order to allow Fatah to gain maximum benefit from Sharon's Gaza pullout. And to think that these geniuses are paid a salary out of my tax dollars... The only Palestinians to benefit politically from Sharon's Gaza pullout was Hamas. After all, it was not negotiated with Fatah or Abu Mazen; it was a unilateral action coordinated with Washington, and the Palestinian street deduced that is must therefore have been a victory for the resistance of Hamas and likeminded Fatah elements. Abu Mazen was never going to get the benefit from Gaza no matter how long the election was delayed, but a second delay (remember, they were supposed to be held last summer) would have doomed his party to an even heavier defeat.

The Palestinians simply decided to move on rather than maintain the illusion that Abu Mazen somehow had a diplomatic strategy that would deliver their national goals. Conventional wisdom after 2001 was that the Palestinians, through their intifada, had elected Ariel Sharon to lead Israel. And five years later, it may be argued that Sharon elected Hamas.

...The election of Hamas is not a threat to the peace process; it's a symptom of the failure of that process. And the Bush administration's passivity, and its encouragement of Sharon's unilateralism, contributed in no small part to that failure, and therefore to the victory of Hamas. (I mean, has everyone really forgotten the warnings of years ago from the Fatah moderates and the Israeli doves that failure to reach a deal with Fatah would leave Israel to have to deal with Hamas? It really was that obvious.) For the decade of Oslo, West Bank Palestinians had stood by and watched Fatah leaders enriching themselves while the Israelis continued to grab their land and choke off their economic life. Fatah had come to represent Palestinian powerlessness as Sharon bulldozed his way around, remaking the landscape of the West Bank and Gaza to his own specification knowing that the only consequence would be the sound of Saeeb Erekat complaining to Wolf Blitzer. It's hardly surprising that Hamas managed to cloak itself in the mantle of the redeemer of Palestinian national dignity and subjectivity.

...The U.S. can't afford to restrict itself to scolding and warning the new Palestinian government. Engagement is vital at this point, and the grownup position – as articulated by the Europeans – is that Hamas must be judged, in the new situation, on its actions rather than on the contents of its slogans, songs and manifestoes. There is, strangely enough, an enhanced prospect for security and stability in the new situation, if it's smartly managed on all sides. That, of course, is a big if.
As, indeed, it was. Instead, the U.S. talked the Europeans around to reluctantly signing on to their siege strategy until Hamas was ready to symbolically surrender. That didn't happen. Now, Hamas has made clear that it is an intractable reality, although the fighting has likely greatly increased the balance within the organization in favor of the more confrontational element. And Dahlan turned out to be a Paper Pinochet.

Still, given their spectacular inability to comprehend the reasons for their defeats in the Palestinian territory, I don't expect the U.S. to begin engaging pragmatically with the reality of Hamas as an indispensable component of the Palestinian leadership. Instead, given the endless capacity for self-delusion of the people running U.S. Middle East policy, I fully expect to see the U.S. rush resources to Egypt where Dahlan can be reunited with his scattered forces in preparation for his next historic role — at the head of a "Bay of Pigs" type invasion of Gaza.

Reprinted with permission from the author:

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