The latest escalation of violence in Gaza, sparked by the assassination of five Hamas militants, saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Occupied Territories for years. Between 27 February and 3 March, at least 106 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more were wounded. According to B’Tselem, over half of those killed (including 25 children) were civilians who did not take part in the hostilities. During the same period, one Israeli civilian and two Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinians. Israel’s atrocities were so extreme that even the UN Secretary-General, the EU and this clown felt compelled to condemn them as "excessive" and illegal. The British government produced a pathetic statement effectively backing the violence of the Israeli occupation while condemning the "terrorist acts" of the resistance.
Israel’s operation ("Warm Winter") did nothing to stop the Qassams, which are themselves primarily a response to Israeli attacks. This is no surprise: Israel carried out a similar offensive in late 2006, killing hundreds of Palestinians, most of whom were civilians, which failed to halt the rocket fire. Israel now faces a dilemma, reflected succinctly by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who recently told a parliamentary committee that,
"[w]hat happened in recent days was not a one-time event … The objective is reducing the rocket fire and weakening Hamas."
The problem is that these two objectives – halting the rocket attacks on the one hand and weakening Hamas on the other – are mutually incompatible. In the short-term, the only way to end the rocket attacks short of genocide is to accept Hamas’ overtures and negotiate a ceasefire. This option is supported by a majority of the Israeli public, but is rejected by the U.S. and Israeli governments because it undermines their second objective: "weakening Hamas."
Engineering a coup
Indeed, as recently leaked confidential documents show, Israel and the U.S. were bent on toppling Hamas from the moment it entered office in early 2006. In an important article for Vanity Fair, from which I’ll be quoting extensively (apologies for that!), David Rose shows how the U.S. and Israel systematically worked to undermine and destroy the elected Hamas government throughout 2006 and 2007. He further demonstrates that, to quote the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Hamas takeover in Gaza was "a direct result of the policies advocated by Fatah’s ‘old guard’ … [and] US officials in charge of Palestine policy: the neo-conservative Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch." After Hamas’ electoral victory, the U.S. response was unequivocal. According to a senior State Department official quoted by Rose,
“[t]he administration spoke with one voice: ‘We have to squeeze these guys.’ With Hamas’s election victory, the freedom agenda was dead.”
And so the U.S. and Israel resolved to topple the elected Palestinian government. The plan was two-fold. Firstly, "possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions … in modern times" was imposed on the Palestinians to paralyse the government and destroy the economy. In parallel, Israel drastically extended its control over the West Bank, kidnapped 64 Hamas legislators and launched a brutal military assault which extensively destroyed government and civilian infrastructure and killed over 600 people, mostly civilians. The sanctions were designed to undermine public support for Hamas and forment internal Palestinian violence. As Ha’aretz reported in October 2006,
‘Israeli sources say that the United States is interested in the fall of the Hamas government currently in power in the Palestinian Authority.
During the Quartet meeting in London, the Americans expressed their satisfaction with the results of the boycott of Hamas’ government, which has undermined its standing among the Palestinians.
However, the U.S. administration is also certain that the sanctions against Hamas will inevitably result in a violent confrontation between Hamas and Fatah, and in such a scenario, they would prefer to strengthen the "good guys" headed by Abbas.’
Support for the "good guys" involved arming, financing and training an elite Fatah militia with the goal of destroying Hamas. This force would be under the control of Muhammed Dahlan, a Fatah warlord described by President Bush in 2003 as "our guy". According to three U.S. officials cited by Rose, this assessment was shared by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Assistant Secretary David Welch, among others:
"[Welch] cared about results, and [he supported] whatever son of a bitch you had to support. Dahlan was the son of a bitch we happened to know best. He was a can-do kind of person. Dahlan was our guy."
Lieutenant General Keith Dayton was put in charge of the operation. In November 2006 Dayton met with Dahlan to discuss the new "security plan". According to the notes of the meeting made by an official, Dayton said:
"We need to reform the Palestinian security apparatus … But we also need to build up your forces in order to take on Hamas."
"The idea was to simplify the confusing web of Palestinian security forces and have Dahlan assume responsibility for all of them in the newly created role of Palestinian national-security adviser. The Americans would help supply weapons and training."
Dayton promised Dahlan an immediate package worth $86.4 million, but failed to win approval from a Congress nervous about the possibility that military aid may end up being used against Israel. To get round this, a reduced $59 million package of "non-lethal" aid was approved by Congress in April 2007, while other, covert means were arranged provide the weapons and training. According to a State Department official cited by Rose,
"Those in charge of implementing the policy were saying, ‘Do whatever it takes. We have to be in a position for Fatah to defeat Hamas militarily, and only Muhammad Dahlan has the guile and the muscle to do this.’ The expectation was that this was where it would end up – with a military showdown."
Throughout the second half of 2006, the violence between Hamas and Fatah increased, as predicted by U.S. planners. According to outgoing UN Middle East envoy Alvaro de Soto, a U.S. official said of this conflict: "I like this violence … It means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas." Dahlan boasts that he waged "very clever warfare" against the government for months. Indeed, he announced his intentions regarding Hamas quite clearly as early as June 2006:
"Hamas is now the weakest Palestinian faction. They are whining and complaining. Well, they will have to suffer yet more until they are damned to the seventh ancestor. I will haunt them from now till the end of their term in four years. And I swear, whoever within Fatah says ‘we should join the government,” I will humiliate them."
This "clever warfare" involved kidnappings and torture, among other atrocities that were reciprocated by Hamas. Frustratingly for U.S. officials, despite the sanctions, the Israeli bombing and the increasingly internal conflict, the Hamas government remained steadfast. In late 2006, an impatient Condoleeza Rice met with Abbas and stated, according to an official who witnessed the meeting:
"So we’re agreed? You’ll dissolve the government within two weeks?"
"Maybe not two weeks. Give me a month. Let’s wait until after the Eid."
‘Rice got into her armored S.U.V., where, the official claims, she told an American colleague, “That damned … [meeting] has cost us another two weeks of Hamas government.’
After weeks passed without any action from Abbas, Jake Walles, the consul general in Jerusalem, was sent to (in Rose’s words) ‘deliver a barely varnished ultimatum to the Palestinian president.’ According to a copy of the "talking points" memo prepared for him by the State Department (and authenticated by U.S. and Palestinian officials), Walles told Abbas:
"We need to understand your plans regarding a new [Palestinian Authority] government,” Walles’s script said. “You told Secretary Rice you would be prepared to move ahead within two to four weeks of your meeting. We believe that the time has come for you to move forward quickly and decisively…
Hamas should be given a clear choice, with a clear deadline: … they either accept a new government that meets the Quartet principles, or they reject it The consequences of Hamas’ decision should also be clear: If Hamas does not agree within the prescribed time, you should make clear your intention to declare a state of emergency and form an emergency government explicitly committed to that platform…
If you act along these lines, we will support you both materially and politically…We will be there to support you."
In other words, the U.S. was pushing Abbas to overthrow the Hamas government. Recognising the potential for violence, it promised to support Fatah "materially and politically" in the event of a conflict.
However, as the violence continued to deteriorate, Abbas departed from the American script and agreed to a national unity government in February 2007 (the ‘Mecca Agreement’). This agreement, which had real potential to end the inter-Palestinian violence, was supported by an overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population. It received a rather different welcome from the U.S. According to a State Department official quoted by Rose, “Condi was apoplectic.”
The International Crisis Group reported in August 2007 that:
"[I]t would be disingenuous in the extreme to minimise the role of outside players [in the collapse of the national unity government], the U.S. and the European Union in particular.
By refusing to deal with the national unity government and only selectively engaging some of its non-Hamas members, by maintaining economic sanctions and providing security assistance to one of the parties in order to outmanoeuvre the other, they contributed mightily to the outcome they now publicly lament.
The obvious conclusion, though not drawn explicitly by the ICG, is that the U.S. (supported by the EU) wanted the national unity government to fail, so that it could continue with its plans to overthrow Hamas. The documents revealed by David Rose show that, in his words, the U.S. responded to the Mecca Agreement by ‘redoubling the pressure on its Palestinian allies’ to confront Hamas.
This pressure took the form of "Plan B", which aimed to "enable [Abbas] and his supporters to … produce a [Palestinian Authority] government through democratic means that accepts Quartet principles" by the end of 2007 (quoting a State Department memo). It called for Abbas to "collapse the government" if Hamas continued to reject the (absurd) Quartet "principles" and demanded that Fatah maintain control of the security forces, in violation of the Palestinian constitution, and "avoid Hamas integration with these services, while eliminating the Executive Force or mitigating the challenges posed by its continued existence." The memo continued:
"Dahlan oversees effort in coordination with General Dayton and Arab [nations] to train and equip 15,000-man force under President Abbas’s control to establish internal law and order, stop terrorism and deter extralegal forces."
The objective, again, was clear: to give Abbas "the capability to take the required strategic political decisions … such as dismissing the cabinet, establishing an emergency cabinet." That is, to enable Abbas to overthrow the Hamas government. The plan went through several draft stages, detailing U.S. proposals to expand Fatah forces and provide them with "highly specialized training abroad", in total amounting to $1.27 billion in "lethal and non-lethal" military aid over five years. The final draft confirmed that Abbas had "approved" the plan, and presented it as if it were a Palestinian idea as opposed to an American one.
On 30 April, an earlier draft of the plan was leaked to a Jordanian newspaper. In mid-May a regiment of 500 newly-trained Fatah militiamen entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt, while Dahlan was appointed national-security advisor, as stipulated by Dayton back in November 2006. On 7 June, Ha’aretz reported that Abbas and Dayton had asked Israel to permit the transport of the biggest arms shipment to Fatah forces to date, including ‘dozens of armored cars, hundreds of armor-piercing rockets, thousands of hand grenades, and millions of rounds of ammunition.’ All these events led Hamas to conclude, quite correctly, that Fatah was preparing to launch a U.S.-backed coup against it.
As Rose writes, ‘[a] few days later, just before the next batch of Fatah recruits was due to leave for training in Egypt, the [Hamas] coup began in earnest.’
Thus David Wurmser, a staunch neo-conservative who resigned as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East adviser in July 2007 and is hardly a pro-Palestinian radical, accused the Bush administration of "engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory." He continued,
"It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen".
Of course, the plan went awry when Hamas took the initiative and soundly defeated Fatah forces in June 2007, taking control of Gaza in the process. Since then the U.S. and Israel have continued their efforts to depose Hamas, specifically by treating the 1.4 million residents of Gaza like vermin, progressively reducing their supply of food, water, electricity and fuel until they learn to follow orders. Aid agencies reported yesterday that Gaza’s medical system is at breaking point. "Children constitute more than half the population of Gaza and are bearing the brunt of the crisis", said UNICEF in a statement.
The Israeli government appears to be preparing a large-scale invasion in the near future, possibly with a view to re-establishing a permanent military presence in the Strip. Naturally, this will be justified by the claim that "we have no other option".
In fact, since January 2006 there have been numerous opportunities to make diplomatic progress with Hamas. The organisation entered office in the middle of an 18-month long unilateral ceasefire on a platform that was far closer to the standard two-state settlement (which is explicitly rejected by both Israel and the U.S.) than it was to the movement’s 1988 Charter. It repeatedly called for a power-sharing arrangement with Fatah, as it continues to do, and supported the Prisoner’s Document, which agreed to concentrate resistance in the West Bank and Gaza and called for "an independent Palestinian state with full sovereignty on all land occupied in 1967." It agreed to abide by any settlement reached by Abbas with Israel provided it be submitted to a Palestinian referendum, and in February 2007 agreed to a government of national unity on a platform that "respected" previous Palestinian agreements signed with Israel. Without exception, Israel and the U.S. reacted to these significant opportunities with violent rejectionism, flatly refusing to engage even superficially in a political process.
This approach continues today – despite almost universal recognition that some basic level of cooperation between Hamas and Fatah is a necessary pre-requisite for any serious attempt at peace, Israel and the U.S. have explicitly conditioned aid and diplomatic engagement with Abbas on his refusal to negotiate with Hamas. This in itself reveals a lot about the sincerity of Israel’s professed intentions.
Those who systematically undermine all alternatives to violence make violence inevitable. As long as Israel and the U.S. view a Palestinian ‘peace offensive’ as something to be feared rather than welcomed, the conflict will continue, and you’ll know just who to blame.
‘Elliot Abrams’ uncivil war‘, Conflicts Forum
‘Victory for Hamas in Gaza‘, The Heathlander
‘The Stage Is Being Set For A U.S.-backed Coup In Gaza‘, The Heathlander
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