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USA: Funding the civil war in Palestine

Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke (repost) | 08.01.2007 15:33 | Anti-militarism | Anti-racism | Repression | World

US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams - whom Newsweek recently described as "the last neo-con standing" - has had it about for some months now that the United States is not only not interested in dealing with Hamas, it is working to ensure its failure.

In the immediate aftermath of the Palestinian elections won by Hama last January, Abrams greeted a group of Palestinian businessmen in his White House office with talk of a "hard coup" against the newly elected Hamas government - the violent overthrow of its leadership with arms supplied by the US.

While the businessmen were shocked, Abrams was adamant - the US had to support Fatah with guns, ammunition and training, so that it could fight Hamas for control of the Palestinian government.

While those closest to him now concede that Abrams' words were issued in a moment of frustration, the "hard coup" talk was hardly just talk. Over the past 12 months, the United States has supplied guns, ammunition and training to Palestinian Fatah activists to take on Hamas in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank.

A large number of Fatah activists have been trained and "graduated" from two West Bank camps - one in Ramallah and one in Jericho. The supplies of rifles and ammunition, which started as a mere trickle, have now become a torrent (the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reports that the US has designated an astounding US$86.4 million for Abu Mazen's - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' - security detail), and while the program has gone largely without notice in the US press, it is openly talked about and commented on in the Arab media - and in Israel.

Thousands of rifles and bullets have been poring into Gaza and the West Bank from Egypt and Jordan, the US administration's designated allies in the program.

At first, it was thought, the resupply effort (initiated under the guise of "assist[ing] the Palestinian Authority presidency in fulfilling PA commitments under the roadmap to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza", according to a US government document) would strengthen the security forces under the command of Abbas.

Officials thought that the additional weapons would easily cow Hamas operatives, who would meekly surrender the offices they had only recently so dearly won. That has not only not happened, but the program is under attack throughout the Arab world - particularly among America's closest allies.

While both Egypt and Jordan have shipped arms to Abbas under the Abrams program (Egypt recently sent 1,900 rifles into Gaza and the West Bank, nearly matching the 3,000 rifles sent by the Jordanians), neither King Abdullah of Jordan nor Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak believe the program will work - and both are now maneuvering to find a way out of it.

"Who can blame them?" a Bush administration official told the authors recently. "While Mubarak has no love for Hamas, they [Egyptians] do not want to be seen as bringing [it] down. The same can be said for Jordan."

A Pentagon official was even more adamant, cataloguing official Washington's nearly open disdain for Abrams' program. "This is not going to work and everyone knows it won't work. It is too clever. We're just not very good at this. This is typical Abrams stuff."

This official went on to note that "it is unlikely that either Jordan or Egypt will place [its] future in the hands of the White House. Who the hell outside of Washington wants to see a civil war among Palestinians? Do we really think that the Jordanians think that's a good idea? The minute it gets under way, Abdullah is finished. Hell, 50% of his country is Palestinian."

Senior US Army officers and high-level civilian Pentagon officials have been the most outspoken internal administration critics of the program, which was unknown to them until mid-August, near the end of Israel's war against Hezbollah. When then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld learned about it, he was enraged, and scheduled a meeting with President George W Bush in an attempt to convince him the program would backfire.

Rumsfeld was concerned that the anti-Hamas program would radicalize Muslim groups among US allies and eventually endanger US troops fighting Sunni extremists in Iraq. According to these authors' reports, Rumsfeld was told by Bush that he should keep his focus on Iraq, and that "the Palestinian brief" was in the hands of the secretary of state. After this confrontation, Rumsfeld decided there was not much he could do.

The Abrams program was initially conceived last February by a group of White House officials who wanted to shape a coherent and tough response to the Hamas electoral victory of January. These officials, the authors were told, were led by Abrams, but included national security advisers working in the office of the vice president, including prominent neo-conservatives David Wurmser and John Hannah. The policy was approved by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The president then, the authors were told, signed off on the program in a Central Intelligence Agency "finding" and designated that its implementation be put under the control of the CIA.

But the program ran into problems almost from the beginning. "The CIA didn't like it and didn't think it would work," the authors were told in October. "The Pentagon hated it, the US Embassy in Israel hated it, and even the Israelis hated it." A prominent American military official serving in Israel called the program "stupid" and "counter-productive".

The program went forward despite these criticisms, however, though responsibility for its implementation was slowly put in the hands of anti-terrorism officials working closely with the State Department. The CIA "wriggled out of" retaining responsibility for implementing the Abrams plan, the authors have been told.

Since at least August, Rice, Abrams and US envoy David Welch have been its primary advocates, and the program has been subsumed as a "part of the State Department's Middle East initiative". US government officials refused to comment on a report that the program was now a part of the State Department's "Middle East Partnership Initiative", established to promote democracy in the region. If it is, diverting appropriated funds from the program for the purchase of weapons may be a violation of congressional intent - and US law.

The recipients of US largesse have been Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan, a controversial and charismatic Palestinian political leader from Gaza. The US has also relied on advice from Mohammad Rashid, a well-known Kurdish/Palestinian financier with offices in Cairo. Even in Israel, the alliance of the US with these two figures is greeted with almost open derision.

While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hesitantly supported the program, many of his key advisers have made it clear that they want to have nothing to do with starting a Palestinian civil war. They also doubt whether Hamas can be weakened. These officials point out that since the beginning of the program, Hamas has actually gained in strength, in part because its leaders are considered competent, transparent, uncorrupt and unwilling to compromise their ideals - just the kinds of democratically elected leaders that the Bush administration would want to support anywhere else in the Middle East.

Of course, in public, Rice appears contrite and concerned with "the growing lawlessness" among Palestinians, while failing to mention that such lawlessness is exactly what the Abrams plan was designed to create. "You can't build security forces overnight to deal with the kind of lawlessness that is there in Gaza, which largely derives from an inability to govern," she said during a recent trip to Israel.

"Their [the Hamas-led PA] inability to govern, of course, comes from their unwillingness to meet international standards." Even Middle East experts and State Department officials close to Rice consider her comments about Palestinian violence dangerous, and have warned her that if the details of the US program become public, her reputation could be stained.

In fact, Pentagon officials concede, Hamas' inability to provide security to its own people and the clashes that have recently erupted have been seeded by the Abrams plan. Israeli officials know this, and have begun to rebel. In Israel, at least, Rice's view that Hamas can be unseated is now regularly, and sometimes publicly, dismissed.

According to a December 25 article in Ha'aretz, senior Israeli intelligence officials have told Olmert that not only can Hamas not be replaced, but that its rival, Fatah, is disintegrating. Any hope for the success of a US program aimed at replacing Hamas, these officials argued, will fail. These Israeli intelligence officials also dismissed Abbas' call for elections to replace Hamas - saying that such elections would all but destroy Fatah. Ha'aretz reported:

"Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet Sunday [December 24] that should elections be held in the Palestinian Authority, Fatah's chances of winning would be close to zero. Diskin said during Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting that the Fatah faction is in bad shape, and therefore Israel should expect Hamas to register a sweeping victory."

Apparently, Jordan's King Abdullah agrees. On the day that article appeared, December 25, Abdullah kept Abbas waiting for six hours to see him in Amman. Eventually, Abdullah told Abbas that he should go home - and only come to see him again when accompanied by Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Most recently, Saudi officials have welcomed Haniyeh to their country for talks, having apparently made public their own views on the US program to replace Hamas. And so it is: one year after the election of Hamas, and one year after Abrams determined that sowing the seeds of civil war among a people already under occupation would somehow advance America's program for democracy in the Middle East, respect for America's democratic ideals has all but collapsed - and not just in Iraq.

Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke (repost)