CAIRO - A recent article in Vanity Fair magazine "exposing" a U.S.-planned coup attempt against Palestinian resistance movement Hamas last year has ignited a storm of debate about Washington's Middle East policies. Yet for more than nine months, details of the plot were reported in the independent Arabic press -- and elsewhere -- leading some observers to ask: where was the mainstream media?"
From the very beginning, Hamas has publicly insisted that what happened in Gaza last year came in reaction to plans being hatched against it," Tarek Abd al-Gaber, former news correspondent for Egyptian state television covering Israel and the Palestinian territories, told IPS.
Hamas has been widely blamed in much of the mainstream media for carrying out a "violent coup" against the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Gaza Strip last summer. After six days of heavy fighting, Hamas wrested control of the territory from the government of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the U.S.-backed Fatah movement, in mid-June.
Hamas fighters quickly seized all official institutions and symbols of governance in the Gaza Strip, including the presidential residence in Gaza city.
Declaring a state of emergency from the Fatah-ruled West Bank, Abbas announced the dissolution of the previous national unity government, led by Hamas-affiliated Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. Hamas leaders in Gaza, however, refused to recognise the declaration, and have remained in control of the territory.
Most western capitals, led by Washington, quickly condemned the takeover, placing blame for the dangerous turn of events squarely on Hamas. The refrain was taken up by much of the western media, which consistently portrayed the dispute as one between "extremist" Hamas in the Gaza Strip and "moderate" Fatah in the West Bank.
Many Arab capitals, too, denounced Hamas's seizure of the volatile territory. The day after the upset, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quoted in the state press as describing what happened as "the overthrow of Palestinian legitimacy."
"What happened in the Gaza Strip was nothing less than a military coup d'etat," Mohamed Basyouni, former Egyptian ambassador to Israel and current head of the Shura (upper parliamentary) Council's committee for Arab affairs, told IPS at the time. "It was totally illegitimate."
Yet in its April issue, the U.S. leisure magazine Vanity Fair makes a startling claim: that Hamas's takeover of the territory was prompted by a secret U.S. plan aimed at extirpating the Islamist group's leadership in Gaza.
In an article entitled 'The Gaza Bombshell', the magazine purports to "lay bare a covert initiative" approved by the White House and implemented by the U.S. State Department "to provoke a Palestinian civil war."
Relying on confidential documents and former administration officials, author David Rose writes that after Hamas's unexpected victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, the U.S. administration drew up a plan to arm Fatah cadres with the aim of forcefully removing Hamas from power in Gaza. Under the terms of the arrangement, Rose writes, Fatah received arms and financing through a handful of Washington's Arab allies, including Egypt and Jordan.
According to sources cited in the article, the plan was to be jointly coordinated by U.S. Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton and long-time Fatah strongman Mohamed Dahlan.
But the conspiracy was stillborn. After a Jordanian newspaper leaked details of the plot, Hamas pre-emptively seized control of Gaza on Jun. 14 and arrested much of Fatah's leadership throughout the territory.
Instead of driving the Islamist group from power, Vanity Fair writes, "U.S.-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza."
White House and State Department officials have strenuously denied the article's claims. Nevertheless, the Gaza "bombshell" has received wide coverage in the western news media, with several commentators comparing the magazine's "revelations" to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, which also involved the covert -- and illegal -- supply of arms to the Middle East.
Yet according to many local observers, the existence of the so-called "Dayton Plan" has been fairly well known since the upset in Gaza more than nine months ago.
"Hamas has consistently and publicly stated that what happened in June came in reaction to the Dayton Plan, which aimed at the group's destruction," said Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of independent daily al-Dustour, which published Hamas's allegations last summer.
"But the group's claims received little coverage in the mainstream Arab media -- even (Arabic language news channel) al-Jazeera didn't give the issue much attention," Eissa told IPS. "The plot allegations were only covered in a handful of independent newspapers and on websites sympathetic to Hamas."
Abd al-Gaber agreed that Egyptian state media wholly neglected to convey Hamas's point of view regarding the reasons for the Gaza seizure.
"The official press took the U.S. line and simply blamed Hamas for everything," he said. "The White House insisted on calling Hamas's actions a 'coup' regardless of the circumstances, and official media -- in the west and in the Arab world -- repeated this mantra."
One notable exception to this was the Egyptian English-language state broadsheet al-Ahram Weekly. In its Jun. 21 edition, only one week after the Gaza upset, the newspaper quoted Hamas leader Yehia Moussa at length about the failed plot.
"[U.S.-backed Fatah fighters] were planning to carry out a bloody coup against Hamas involving the murder of hundreds of people, including Hamas's political and religious leaders," Moussa was quoted as saying. "But we managed to thwart their plans before they could carry them out."
Nor did IPS miss the story. In August of last year, in an article devoted to Fatah's declining popularity ('Bush Could Have Given Fatah That Kiss of Death'), IPS explicitly cited the Dayton Plan as a chief reason for Fatah's deteriorating image on the Arab Street.
"Fatah's image has also been tarnished by revelations that emerged in the immediate wake of the Gaza upset regarding a failed plan to extirpate the Hamas leadership," IPS reported from Cairo on Aug. 21. "According to Hamas officials, the 'Dayton Plan' -- named after U.S. General Keith Dayton -- had been scheduled to take place on Jul. 13."
Citing Hamas spokesmen, the article noted that that the operation "was to be led by Fatah-affiliated strongman Mohamed Dahlan with logistical support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency."
The article went on to quote Essam al-Arian, a leading member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood movement -- which controls a fifth of the Egyptian parliament and is ideologically close to Hamas -- as saying: "The so-called Dayton Plan aimed to manipulate the Palestinians into waging war against each other."
So why, then -- if details of the U.S. plan were so readily accessible for the last nine months -- are Vanity Fair's disclosures being treated by the mainstream media as new information?
Mohamed Mansour, professor of media at Cairo University, says the belated reporting proves the overwhelming bias against Hamas in much, if not all, of the western media.
"Western media institutions do everything in their power to tarnish the image of the Palestinian quest for statehood," Mansour told IPS. "This can only be attributed to the Zionist influence on western, particularly American, media -- a fact that can no longer be debated."
Although the Vanity Fair article serves to vindicate Hamas's Gaza takeover, Mansour went on to question the timing of its publication.
"Why did the media take so long to break the story?" he asked. "I suspect the article was only published now to further aggravate the rift between Hamas and Fatah and divert attention from developments elsewhere."
According to Eissa, Egypt's official press has yet to mention the contentious Vanity Fair report.
"Even now, the state press hasn't reported on the Vanity Fair story," he said, noting that al-Dustour, by contrast, had published translated selections from the article in the first week of March.
Eissa added: "Like much of the western media, the official Arab press would rather ignore Hamas than publish stories that might serve to justify the resistance group's actions."
© 2008 Inter Press Service