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The US Role in the Gaza Tragedy

There is much blame to go around regarding the tragic turn of events in the Gaza Strip. While Hamas is the most immediate culprit, responsibility also rests with Fatah, Israel - and the United States.

The seizure of power in the tiny coastal territory by Hamas militants after bitter factional fighting with Fatah militiamen has only encouraged anti-Palestinian hardliners in Israel and the United States who claim that the Palestinians are unworthy of statehood and that Israel should continue its occupation and colonization of major segments of Palestinian territory seized by the Israeli armed forces in June 1967. The scenes of the bloody infighting among Palestinians have seemingly reinforced racist notions common in the United States and Israel, as exemplified by the statement by former Israeli Prime Minister and recently re-elected Labor Party leader Ehud Barak's that Israel was "a villa in the jungle."

The vast majority of ordinary Palestinians, meanwhile, are disgusted at the behavior of both Hamas and Fatah, who see it as little better than gang warfare and a tragic setback in their struggle for freedom against foreign military occupation. Whether the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip or the newly established parallel government in Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank will be recognized as legitimate by the Palestinians themselves remains to be seen.

As much responsibility as the Palestinian leadership itself must bear for the current situation, none of this would have happened if the U.S. government had lived up to its responsibilities as guarantor of the Oslo Accords and self-proclaimed chief mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. U.S. refusal to force Israel to live up to its legal obligations to end its colonization drive in the West Bank and withdraw from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees has led much of the Palestinian population to give up on the peace process and embrace groups like Hamas, which demand control of all of historic Palestine.

A Siege, Not a Withdrawal

The myth perpetuated by both the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties was that Israel's 2005 dismantling of its illegal settlements in the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of military units that supported them constituted effective freedom for the Palestinians of the territory. American political leaders from President George W. Bush to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have repeatedly praised Israel for its belated compliance with a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling for their withdrawal of these illegal settlements (despite Israel's ongoing violations of these same resolutions by maintaining and expanding their illegal settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights). Pelosi, for example, called Israel's pullout a "courageous" and "gut-wrenching" decision that constituted "a decisive milestone on the road to peace" toward which the Palestinians have responded by violence, proving that the "conflict is not over occupation...it is over the fundamental right of Israel to exist."

In reality, however, the Gaza Strip has remained effectively under siege. Even prior to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, the Israeli government not only severely restricted - as is its right - entry from the Gaza Strip into Israel, but also controlled passage through the border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt as well. Israel also refused to allow the Palestinians to open their airport or seaport. This not only led to periodic shortages of basic necessities imported through Egypt but resulted in the widespread wasting of perishable exports - such as fruits, vegetables and cut flowers - vital to the territory's economy. Furthermore, Gaza residents were cut off from family members and compatriots in the West Bank and elsewhere in what many have referred to as the world's largest open-air prison.

Since the election of a Hamas majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, international sanctions led to a reduction in government spending by the Palestinian Authority by more than half, severely reducing available health care, education and other basic services and dramatically increasing unemployment and malnutrition.

In addition, Israeli bombing, shelling, and periodic incursions in civilian areas in the Gaza Strip during the past year have killed over 200 civilians, including scores of children. Bush administration officials, echoed by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, have justifiably condemned rocket attacks by some Hamas-allied units into civilian areas of Israel (which have resulted in scores of injuries but only one death), but have defended Israel's far more devastating attacks against civilian targets in the Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Strip's population consists primarily of refugees from Israel's ethnic cleansing of most of Palestine almost 60 years ago and their descendents, most of whom have had no gainful employment since Israel sealed the border from most day laborers in the late 1980s. Crowded into only 140 square miles and subjected to extreme violence and poverty, it is not surprising that many would become susceptible to extremist politics, such as those of the Islamist Hamas movement. Nor is it surprising that under such conditions, people with guns would turn on each other.

Undermining the Unity Government

When factional fighting between armed Fatah and Hamas groups broke out this spring, Saudi officials negotiated a power-sharing agreement between the two leading Palestinian political movements. U.S. officials, however, unsuccessfully encouraged Abbas to renounce the agreement and dismiss the entire government. Indeed, ever since the election of a Hamas parliamentary majority last year, the Bush administration had been pressuring Abbas and Fatah to stage a coup and abolish parliament.

The national unity government put key ministries in the hands of Fatah members and independent technocrats and removed some of the more hard-line Hamas leaders and, while falling well short of Western demands, Hamas did indicate an unprecedented willingness to engage with Israel, accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and negotiate a long-term cease fire with Israel. For the first time, this could have allowed Israel and the United States the opportunity to bring into peace talks a national unity government representing virtually all the factions and parties active in Palestinian politics on the basis of the Arab League peace initiative for a two-state solution and UN Security Council resolution 242. However, both the Israeli and American governments refused.

Instead, the Bush administration decided to escalate the conflict by ordering Israel to ship large quantities or weapons to armed Fatah groups to enable them to fight Hamas. Israeli military leaders initially resisted the idea, fearing that much of these arms would end up in the hands of Hamas, but - as Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put it - "our government obeyed American orders, as usual." That Fatah was being supplied with weapons from Israel while Hamas was fighting the Israelis led many Palestinians - even those who don't share Hamas' extremist Islamist ideology - to see Fatah as collaborators and Hamas as liberation fighters. This was a major factor leading Hamas to launch what it saw as a preventive war or a counter-coup by overrunning the offices of the Fatah militias and, just as the Israelis feared, many of these newly-supplied weapons have indeed ended up in the hands of Hamas militants.

The United States also threw its support to Mohammed Dahlan, the notorious Fatah security chief in Gaza, who - despite being labeled by American officials as "moderate" and "pragmatic" - oversaw the detention, torture, and execution of Hamas activists and others, leading to widespread popular outrage against Fatah and its supporters.

Alvaro de Soto, who recently stepped down from his term as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, stated in his confidential final report leaked to the press a few weeks before the Hamas takeover that "the Americans clearly encouraged a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas" and "worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry." De Soto also recalled how in the midst of Egyptian efforts to arrange a cease fire following a flare-up in factional fighting earlier this year, a U.S. official told him that "I like this violence...it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas." Weakening Palestinian Moderates

For moderate forces to overcome extremist forces, the moderates must be able to provide their population with what they most need: in this case, the end of Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip and its occupation and colonizing of the remaining Palestinian territories. However, Israeli policies - backed by the Bush administration and Congress - seem calculated to make this impossible. The noted Israeli policy analyst Gershon Baskin observed, in an article in the Jerusalem Post just prior to Hamas' electoral victory, how "Israel 's unilateralism and determination not to negotiate and engage President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority has strengthened the claims of Hamas and weakened Abbas and his authority which was already severely crippled by ... Israeli actions that demolished the infrastructures of Palestinian Authority governing bodies and institutions."

Bush and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress have also thrown their support to the Israeli government's unilateral disengagement policy that, while withdrawing Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, has expanded them in the occupied West Bank as part of an effort to illegally annex large swathes of Palestinian territory. In addition, neither Congress nor the Bush administration has pushed the Israelis to engage in serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which have been suspended for over six years, despite calls by Abbas and the international community that they resume. Given that Fatah's emphasis on negotiations has failed to stop Israel's occupation and colonization of large parts of the West Bank, it's not surprising that Hamas' claim that the U.S.-managed peace process is working against Palestinian interests has resonance, even among Palestinians who recognize that terrorism by Hamas' armed wing is both morally reprehensible and has hurt the nationalist cause.

Following Hamas' armed takeover of Gaza, the highly respected Israeli journalist Roni Shaked, writing in the June 15 issue of Yediot Ahronoth, noted that "The U.S. and Israel had a decisive contribution to this failure." Despite claims by Israel and the United States that they wanted to strengthen Abbas, "in practice, zero was done for this to happen. The meetings with him turned into an Israeli political tool, and Olmert's kisses and backslapping turned Abbas into a collaborator and a source of jokes on the Palestinian street." James Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, observed correctly that "at every turn in the last seven years, the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to Israel's aggressive expansion in the West Bank and its systematic humiliation of the people there, and its assault on Gaza. In this context, it was plainly stupid for the administration" to reject the outcome of the Palestinian parliamentary elections and "frustrate Saudi efforts to reconcile that outcome with the demands of the international community."

Only Sticks

M.J. Rosenberg of the Israeli Policy Forum, a liberal pro-Israel think tank based in Washington, noted how the United States "offered no carrots, only sticks. And we didn't even make much of an effort to strengthen Hamas's arch-enemy, President Mahmoud Abbas, with Congress hastening to impose redundant and insulting conditions even on aid that was intended for him."

De Soto's report to the UN Secretary General, in which he referred to Hamas' stance toward Israel as "abominable," also noted that "Israeli policies seemed perversely designed to encourage the continued action by Palestinian militants." Regarding the U.S.-instigated international sanctions against the Palestine Authority, the former Peruvian diplomat also observed that "the steps taken by the international community with the presumed purpose of bringing about a Palestinian entity that will live in peace with its neighbor Israel have had precisely the opposite effect."

Some Israeli commentators see this strategy as deliberate. Avnery noted, "Our government has worked for year to destroy Fatah, in order to avoid the need to negotiate an agreement that would inevitably lead to the withdrawal form the occupied territories and the settlements there." Similarly, Rosenberg observed, "the fact is that Israeli (and American) right-wingers are rooting for the Palestinian extremists" since "supplanting... Fatah with Islamic fundamentalists would prevent a situation under which Israel would be forced to negotiate with moderates."

The problem, according to Avnery, is that "now, when it seems that this aim has been achieved, they have no idea what to do about the Hamas victory."

Among the few American elected officials to recognize the folly of U.S. policy has been Ohio Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who noted that "the chaos and factional violence in Gaza that ultimately led to the Hamas military takeover...demonstrates a failure of President Bush's strategy." This and similar statements which have allied Kucinich with Israeli and Palestinian moderates have resulted in strong rebukes from most of his rivals for the 2008 presidential nomination.

Last year, former President Jimmy Carter presciently warned that in trying to "punish Hamas, we'll actually going to be punishing the Palestinian people who are already living in deprivation. And it's going to turn the Palestinian people even more against the West and against Israel and make Hamas seem to be... their only friend." As with Kucinich, in response to such calls for moderation, Carter has been harshly criticized by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.

Current U.S. Policy

Since their humiliating defeat in the Gaza Strip, Fatah militia have been engaging in a wave of arrests and kidnappings of Hamas activists in the West Bank. This has led to fears of a popular backlash if the repression goes too far. Furthermore, while Hamas' popular support has traditionally been less in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip, where the majority of its residents live in impoverished refugee camps, the Islamist group's support is still quite strong in the West Bank as well. Indeed, the weakness of Fatah's resistance to the Hamas uprising in the Gaza Strip - despite having a larger number and better-armed fighters than Hamas - is indicative of their continued weak political standing.

Despite its dubious constitutionality, President Abbas announced a new emergency cabinet without any Hamas participation within days of Fatah's ouster from the Gaza Strip, and included some prominent technocrats, reformers and independents. His new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, is a highly intelligent economist and former World Bank official who lived for most of his adult life in the United States. He served as the representative for the International Monetary Fund to the Palestine Authority before briefly becoming its Finance Minister in 2005 in a belated effort by Abbas to clean up the Fatah government's chronic corruption. Fayyad then formed a small centrist party with scholar and human rights activist Hanan Ashrawi to challenge both Fatah and Hamas in last year's parliamentary election, but their slate received only 2.4% of the vote. Though a sincere nationalist and reformer, Fayyad's close ties to the United States and international financial institutions, coupled with his poor electoral performance, raises questions regarding his legitimacy in the eyes of most Palestinians.

The makeup of his new government is not Abbas' biggest problem, however. The Palestinians recognize that the United States has defended repeated Israeli attacks against Palestinian population centers, supported the Israeli seizure of the Gaza Strip and vetoed a series of UN Security Council resolutions and blocked enforcement of a series of others calling on Israel to abide by international humanitarian law. They are aware that the Bush administration and Congress have endorsed Israel's annexation of Arab East Jerusalem and surrounding areas, funded Israel's occupation and colonization of the West Bank and defended Israel's construction of an illegal separation barrier deep inside occupied Palestinian territory.

They also know how the United States has rejected Palestinian proposals for a permanent peace with Israel in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory while backing Israeli plans to annex much of the West Bank, confining the Palestinians into tiny cantons surrounded by Israel. As a result, the strong U.S. backing shown so far by Washington for Abbas' new government may not help its credibility among the Palestinian population. Indeed, it is already been widely labeled as a collaborationist regime due to its strong backing from Israel and the United States.

Israel has announced it will unfreeze funds seized from the export of Palestinian goods to Abbas' new government. The government's hope is that by improving the quality of life for Palestinians, it will show how much better things are under Fatah than under Hamas and weaken support for the Islamists.

Concrete Political Initiatives

However, unless there are concrete political initiatives as well, this will not be enough.

Abbas has called for peace with strict security guarantees for Israel, including the dismantling of Hamas' militias, in return for an independent state on the 22% of Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967, and has even expressed his willingness to accept minor and reciprocal border adjustments. Polls show that a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would accept such an agreement.

Israel has refused that offer, however, insisting on its right to annex large swaths of West Bank territory, including Arab East Jerusalem, in such a way that would make a contiguous and viable Palestinian state impossible. Under this Israeli plan - endorsed by the Bush administration and a broad bipartisan majority of Congress - Israel would be able to control Palestinian air space, Palestinian water resources, and movement in and out of the Palestinian entity and between its separated territories. These non-contiguous Palestinian cantons, therefore, would more closely resemble the infamous Bantustans of apartheid South Africa than a viable independent state. And, unless the Palestinians have strong prospects that a viable independent state will eventually emerge, the credibility of Abbas' government will erode and the appeal by the radicals of Hamas will grow.

The Israeli government, with no apparent objection from the United States, has thus far refused to even put a freeze on the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank that are eating up ever more Palestinian land needed to make a Palestinian state viable. Furthermore, Israeli occupation forces have yet to lift the scores of checkpoints paralyzing economic life in the West Bank. Israel also continues to refuse to release Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic Fatah reformer who would be the most likely Palestinian leader to unite the country in accepting a two-state solution with Israel. Such confidence-building measures are critical in the period prior to a resolution of the important final status issues if talks are to move forward and extremists are to be marginalized.

However, as a result of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, "the Prime Minister's advisers [declared] the Palestinian Authority dead, [saying] there is no one to talk to...and that the Bush administration will not put pressure on Olmert at this stage to come up with ideas for renewing the negotiations with Abbas and promoting a diplomatic solution."

As Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group and former and former National Security Council member and special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs under President Bill Clinton, has noted how "Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged."

Hamas' armed takeover of the Gaza Strip has shown this to be all too true, and the U.S. embrace of Abbas' new government without concomitant pressure on Israel may prove to have similar results.

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