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What's behind the violence in Gaza?

June 22, 2007 | Page 16

ERIC RUDER reports on the conflict in Gaza--and what comes next for Palestinians.

THE ISLAMIST organization Hamas took firm control over Israeli-occupied Gaza in June after ongoing armed confrontations with forces of the rival Fatah movement.

But Israel and its U.S. sponsors are determined to isolate Hamas, the party that won the last Palestinian elections by a solid margin. Their strategy: Bolster the position of Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank--by ending their 17-month economic embargo of the PA.

George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hope that flooding Abbas and Fatah with financial resources will encourage the Palestinian people to turn their backs on Hamas--and deepen the divisions within the Palestinian national movement. "We should take advantage of this split to the end," said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

There are also ominous reports that the Israeli military is preparing for a massive military offensive in Gaza--under the leadership of Ehud Barak, who became defense minister after recently winning the vote for leader of Israel's Labor Party.

"Barak is planning an attack on Gaza within weeks to crush the Hamas militants who have seized power there," reported London's Sunday Times in mid-June. "According to senior Israeli military sources, the plan calls for 20,000 troops to destroy much of Hamas' military capability in days. The raid would be triggered by Hamas rocket attacks against Israel or a resumption of suicide bombings."

A source close to Barak told the Sunday Times reporter, "The question is not if, but how and when."

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HAMAS WON the January 2006 Palestinian election, displacing Fatah at the head of the PA because of widespread disaffection with the Oslo "peace process" that began in 1993 and revelations of corruption among leading figures associated Fatah.

Earlier this year, Hamas and Fatah entered into a national unity government in an attempt to force Western powers to end their economic embargo and try to resolve factional battles.

But in June, the skirmishes between Hamas and Fatah forces took on new intensity. Some 100 Palestinians died in the fighting, and many more were injured. The fighting ended with Hamas' routing of Fatah forces in Gaza, and Abbas' declaration of a "state of emergency" and decree dissolving the unity government.

Hamas' victory over the 20,000-strong Preventive Security Force, commanded by Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, dealt a setback to the U.S. and Israel, which have funneled weapons and tens of millions of dollars to Dahlan in recent months.

The willingness of Fatah to act as a U.S.-Israeli proxy force against Hamas is the culmination of a long process that began with the Oslo "peace process."

During the Oslo years, Fatah--under the leadership of the late Yasser Arafat--bargained away Palestinian national demands without getting anything but a string of broken promises from Israel in return. Meanwhile, a small group of political and economic elites within Fatah enriched themselves.

After Arafat's death in 2004, Palestinians' patience with Abbas' conciliatory posture towards Israel quickly wore thin, leading to the Hamas election victory.

"What we've seen is Hamas taking a last resort move to put an end to what it describes as a coup intended to overthrow the election result," Ali Abunimah of ElectronicIntifada.net said of Hamas' takeover in Gaza on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! "It's a major blow for the United States and for the Bush doctrine, although it's very hard to see how it helps Palestinians very much, considering that Israel and the United States are likely to tighten the siege of Gaza and to continue to fund the militias."

Pitting Palestinian factions against one another has been a matter of U.S. policy. In a confidential report leaked in early June, UN Middle East envoy Alvaro de Soto wrote that Abbas advisers worked with the U.S., Israel and the European Union in a "plot" to "bring about the untimely demise of the [Palestinian Authority] government led by Hamas." De Soto also recounted hearing a U.S. official twice declare at a meeting in Washington, "I like this violence."

As writer Mike Whitney put it on the CounterPunch Web site, "Bush and Olmert are using the familiar 'divide-and-conquer' strategy to provoke 'Arab-on-Arab' violence. The policy is an extension of Henry Kissinger's dictum during the Iran-Iraq war: 'I hope they all kill each other.' The goal is the same today as it was then."

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