US and Israel push for Palestinian coup

Between May 16 and 24, almost 100 Palestinians died and more than 340 have were injured in Gaza through a combination of renewed Israeli military attacks and fighting between Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah.

Since May 16, Israeli warplanes have carried out a series of bombing raids on Gaza's civilian population. Israeli ground forces have invaded the townships and refugee camps of Beti Lahia, Beit Hanoun and Jabalya. As a result of these attacks, more than 40 Palestinians have been killed and another 100 wounded.

During the same period, renewed factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah resulted in 55 people being killed and another 243 being injured. The latest round of factional conflict between Hamas and Fatah was sparked after Fatah member and Palestinian Authority national security advisor Mohammed Dahlan ordered Fatah fighters onto Gaza's streets without authorisation from PA President Mahmoud Abbas or the PA unity government. This round of fighting ended on May 19 when a new ceasefire between the two groups was implemented.

The growing factional strife in Gaza is a direct result of US and Israeli interference in the Palestinian political process. According to a report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, since the beginning of 2007, more than 150 people have died and 725 have been injured as a result of internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah. The May 21 report noted that the escalation in factional fighting only began in 2006. According to UNOCHA, only 19 people died as a result of factional fighting in 2005. In 2006, almost 150 people died; this figure has already been exceed within first six months of 2007.

Since January 2006, when Hamas won a landslide victory in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the US and Israel have sought to topple the democratically elected Palestinian leadership. Over the past year, the US and Israel have sought to carry out a two-prong approach in order to foster a coup, by seeking to "put the Palestinians on a diet" for electing the "wrong" government by instigating an international blockade. The other prong has been their open backing for Abbas, Fatah's leader. In late 2006, the US allocated some US$86 million for the training and arming of Abbas's Presidential Guard. Israel has allowed Fatah fighters to train in and receive weapons from Egypt.

However, growing outrage among Palestinians about the escalating Hamas-Fatah conflict forced Abbas to break from the preferred US and Israeli route. Bowing to pressure from the Palestinian street, Abbas agreed to the formation of a unity government. On February 8, Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement in Mecca to that end.

The latest factional fighting sparked by Dahlan (who is reviled by militant Palestinians for his collaboration with Israeli security forces and the CIA), along with the renewed Israeli offensive against Gaza targeting Hamas leaders, reveals that Israel and the US have not yet altered their strategy.

On May 18, the Washington Post noted that amid the renewed factional fighting, Israel moved to allow Fatah to bring a further 500 US-trained troops into Gaza. According to the Post, "the troops' deployment illustrates the increasingly partisan role that Israel and the Bush Administration are taking in the volatile Palestinian political situation". The paper quotes Israeli deputy "defence" minister Ephraim Sneh as explaining: "The idea is to change the balance, which has been in favour of Hamas and against Fatah. With these well-trained [Fatah] forces, it will help right that imbalance."

The partisan role played by Israel and the Bush administration was highlighted by an April 30 report in Jordanian newspaper Al Majd. The paper published a translation of secret US intelligence documents outlining plans to undermine and replace the Palestinian unity government. According to Al Madj, Washington's plan involves strengthening Abbas's position by building up the security forces under his command, in order to assist with dissolving the PLC.

Mark Perry and Paul Woodward noted in the May 16 Asia Times that the US plans outline how "salaries would be provided to those parts of the Palestinian government closely affiliated with Fatah and supported by Abbas", while dealing "a strong blow to Hamas by supplying the Palestinian people with their immediate economic needs through the presidency and Fatah". The documents allegedly outline how the US and its allies seek to maintain the international blockade of the PLC and starve Hamas-affiliated social programs of funds.

In a January 7 article published on the political analysis website Conflicts Forum, Perry and Alastair Crooke noted that US deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams has promoted the "hard coup" option since Hamas's election in January 2006: "the U.S. had to support Fatah with guns, ammunition and training, so that they could fight Hamas for control of the Palestinian government".

On May 20, the Israeli security cabinet confirmed that it would intensify its attacks on Gaza and seek to assassinate senior Hamas leaders. One failed assassination attempt targeted the home of Dr Khalil al Haya, a PLC member and the Hamas leader responsible for supervising the implementation of the Hamas-Fatah agreement to end factional fighting. He was not at home at the time. However, the aerial bombardment killed seven members of his family, including two children.

Sneh confirmed on May 23 that Israel was considering carrying out an assassination attempt on the life of the Palestinian prime minister, Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh.

As a result of the Israeli offensive and the threats on Haniyeh's life, Abbas and Haniyeh have met in Gaza in secret. According to Palestine newspaper Ma'an, the meeting was dedicated to discussing a national security plan involving a coalition security force in order to prevent a repetition of factional fighting between the two groups.

On May 24, Israel, which arrested more than 30 Hamas-affiliated PLC members in 2006, arrested 33 senior Hamas officials, including legislators, mayors and the PLC education minister.

[Kim Bullimore works in the West Bank with the International Women's Peace Service. Visit her blog at http://livefromoccupiedpalestine.blogspot.com.]

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