US, Israel fan Fatah-Hamas conflict

Addressing Palestinians for the first time since he declared a state of emergency a week earlier, in a nationallly televised speech on June 21, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas denounced Hamas' leaders as "murderous terrorists" who had carried out a "coup" in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas, who is the head of rival Fatah party that lost the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections to Hamas, claimed that Hamas leaders had plotted to assassinate him. "These charges are baseless and aimed to cover up crimes committed by members of the Palestinian Authority guard", commented Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri.

Abbas's speech was aimed at justifying the moves he has made against Hamas since June 14 — dismissing the three-month-old "national unity" government headed by PM Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, outlawing Hamas affiliated militias and appointing an "emergency" government led by former World Bank economist Salam Fayyad.

Hamas has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Abbas's appointed emergency government. Zuhri told the June 18 British Guardian that the Fayyad government was "illegitimate", as it had "broken the national consensus and all the previous agreements" between Hamas and Fatah.

Abbas's moves against Hamas came after Hamas members had routed the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip. The PPSS is controlled by Gaza-based Fatah MP Mohammed Dahlan, widely regarded by Hamas supporters as a CIA collaborator. Late last year, Hamas openly accused Dahlan of being behind a botched assassination attempt on the life of Haniyeh.

Ahmed Yousef, a senior political adviser to Haniyeh, told the Palestinian Maan news agency on June 20 that "Hamas's actions were to secure Gaza from the horrific recent violence of the Palestinian contras… The assassinations of Hamas officials and supporters, attempts on the life of the elected prime minister, and kidnappings and bombings by some in President Mahmoud Abbas's paramilitary groups had to stop."

Yousef went on to say that "those who collaborate with the occupiers to void the electoral process will not succeed. Abbas's 'state of emergency' and his US and Israeli arms will not prevail in Gaza or quench the thirst for political freedom in the West Bank."

In a June 17 report, the Maan news agency noted that "Abbas decided to suspend three articles of basic Palestinian law in order to extend his jurisdiction and legitimise his declaration of a state of emergency". These included provisions in the basic law (constitution) requiring any new government to be approved by the PLC, the popularly elected legislature.

Under the PA's basic law, the president can only implement a "state of emergency" for 30 days. Any extension requires the approval of two-thirds of the PLC. In the 2006 elections, Hamas won 74 of the PLC's 132 seats.

Israel, the US and the European Union, which had previously demanded a popularly elected PA government, responded to Hamas's 2006 election win by imposing a crippling financial embargo on the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories (OPT)

At a June 18 media conference at which he announced the lifting of this embargo and his support for Abbas' actions, US President George Bush accused Hamas of "assaulting" Palestinian democracy.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the media conference that now that Hamas had been ousted from any role in the PA government "we intend to lift our financial restrictions on the Palestinian government, which has accepted previous agreements with Israel and rejects the path of violence".

However, in forming the "national unity" government with Fatah three months ago, Hamas had accepted as the government's platform all the previous agreements that Israel and the Fatah leadership had signed before 2006, including the 1993 Oslo Accords that were supposed to provide the framework for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The June 19 Los Angeles Times reported that the White House " announcement reflected "a course the administration set upon last week — in which it will seek to build up Abbas' government by helping it improve services in the West Bank territory that Fatah still controls, and leave Hamas responsible for the struggling and impoverished Gaza Strip. The US hope is that the contrast in services will strengthen Abbas and the moderates who support him…

"As the administration seeks to make the best of the losses that Abbas suffered in Gaza last week, when Fatah security officials fled in the wake of Hamas' lightning offensive, it may well find that Abbas and Fatah have many of the same problems in the West Bank as they had when their government sought to run both territories. 'It's a lot easier to see to it that Hamas fails in Gaza than Fatah succeeds in the West Bank', said Jon Alterman, director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank…

"At the same time, Alterman said, with Fatah playing no role in Gaza, Hamas may be able to take advantage of whatever it can accomplish there to claim political credit."

In a June 19 speech at a human rights conference in Dublin, former US president Jimmy Carter also criticised Bush's policy toward Hamas, saying Washington's refusal to accept the outcome of the "free and fair" January 2006 PLC election was"criminal".

Carter, Associated Press reported, said: "The United States and Israel decided to punish all the people in Palestine and did everything they could to deter a compromise between Hamas and Fatah." He also said that the US had supplied the Fatah-controlled security forces in Gaza with vastly superior weaponry in hopes they would "conquer Hamas in Gaza", but Hamas had easily routed these forces because of its "superior skills and discipline".

In an interview with the Australian Lateline TV program on June 19, former national unity government information minister Mustafa Barghouti observed that the division of the OPT between a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and a Fatah-controlled West Bank "serves exactly the Israeli interests of imposing their own reality on the ground which we see through the building of the [separation] wall, the expansion of settlements and transforming the Palestinian entity into clusters of prison-like ghettos.

"If the Israelis want to empower Mr Abbas really, they will declare they are ready to end occupation, stop building the wall, stop settlements building, announce they are ready to allow East Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestinian state and then Mr Abbas will be the hero of all Palestinians."

He went onto say that this would not happen because the Israeli plan for the PA "is only a limited self-governing government that has control on people but not on land, not on water, not with sovereignty" and that Tel Aviv wants a PA regime that will "suppress its own people on behalf of the Israelis, some kind of a security sub-agent for the Israeli side. That was the dream of Israelis when they signed Oslo…

"The problem remains the same. The cause of all what we see today is this Israeli military occupation, which has been here for 40 years, longer than any other occupation in modern history."

[Kim Bullimore is currently living in the West Bank, where she is working with the International Women's Peace Service].