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Thursday, Feb. 1, 2007

Toward a Palestinian civil war


LONDON -- The recent fighting in the Gaza Strip, which left many people dead, confirms that the internal strife plaguing the occupied territories since Hamas took power in January 2006 was not entirely the outcome of outside meddling in Palestinian affairs. It is also a violent expression of the already existing weaknesses and disunity that has sadly defined the Palestinian political milieu for generations.

The fighting intensified between Hamas and Fatah on Jan. 25 and then reached unprecedented levels over a period of five days when 31 Palestinians -- including a toddler -- were murdered. The death toll since December has now exceeded 60.

It was on Jan. 25 a year ago that Hamas was elected to power in a landslide victory. Hamas' absolute majority in the legislature allowed it to solely form and confirm a government. But since that critical date the U.S. and Israel have initiated a campaign of economic boycott and military coercion that has cost hundreds of Palestinian lives and has almost completely crippled the already traumatized Palestinian economy.

This boycott was a success, for it also involved all the forces that traditionally came to the aid of Palestinians -- at least morally and financially -- including Arab neighbors, the United Nations and the European Union.

There was no doubt that Palestinians were being collectively punished for electing Hamas, whose victory meant that the easy ride that Israel has enjoyed dealing with the self-serving elites of Fatah would be disrupted. It also meant that the United States' regional designs -- which were aimed at introducing artificial democracy to the Middle East (giving a face-lift to the already corrupt political structure of its friendly allies, coupled with the implementation of regime change for its foes) -- were disastrously damaged by Hamas using the democracy vehicle assembled in Washington.

It was not the religious posture of Hamas that irked the U.S. and Israel, nor was it Hamas' rhetoric, for Washington knew too well that Hamas is simply not capable of "destroying" Israel. It was because Hamas' rise was an anomaly at a time that the U.S. was trying to rearrange the political map of the Middle East to marginalize Iran and Syria, the former being the top priority.

Hamas has enjoyed a safe haven and financial backing from both Tehran and Damascus. By isolating Hamas, who was subsequently ostracized and deprived of the Arabs' support, the options of the Islamic movement were limited even more, further radicalizing its rhetoric and increasing Iranian influence over the beleaguered group.

The U.S. was wary of the fact that Iran's influence in the region was reaching unprecedented heights, beginning with the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the rise of Shiite political exclusivity there, and continuing with the astounding victory of Hezbollah over Israel last summer. Hamas' survival in the face of the decided American-Israeli campaign prolonged and strengthened the Iranian alliance. As expected, Iran vowed hundreds of millions of dollars to support the Hamas government, funds that are largely blocked from entering the occupied territories.

Contrary to the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, the Bush administration has yet to engage, rather than isolate, Syria and Iran, despite the fact that the latter's considerable sway over many Iraqi Shiite groups is giving it a serious stake in determining the stability (and thus the future) of Iraq.

Fearing that such engagement could be mistaken for a political concession, and still faithful to Israel's own regional calculations, the Bush administration braved other dangerous options by doubling support to the Lebanese government, which is fighting an intense political war against Hezbollah, and by arming and financing the Palestinian Fatah movement.

Fatah had received generous financial help from the U.S., and President George W. Bush recently requested that Congress approve an additional $85 million, notwithstanding massive amounts of American weapons and training.

According to The Washington Post, citing senior U.S. officials, the U.S. also decided to heighten its confrontation with Iran by ordering the killing of Iran's "agents" in Iraq, nearly 40,000 individuals. All of these policy revelations coincide with the U.S. decision to beef up its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, the surest sign of the encroaching military showdown between the U.S. and Iran.

The lines of hostility have never been clearer between the two countries. The U.S. is spearheading a campaign aimed at banishing Israel's remaining foes, joined by Israel, Fatah and Arab governments that are increasingly uneasy over the Shiite political resurgence. On the other side, Iran stands backed by Syria, many of Iraq's Shiite and Hamas -- the latter being unwittingly shoved into the alarming equation.

Though Iran may seem the weakest link, its strength stems from two important cards: U.S. military failure in Iraq and Israel's poor performance in its most recent military showdown in Lebanon.

Nonetheless, the entire blame for this unfolding drama does not rest on the cold war between the U.S. and Iran. In Lebanon, for example, sectarianism and factionalism, similar to Iraq's sectarianism and tribalism, have rendered the country nationally fragmented so that it hardly possesses the necessary requirement of making allegiance to the state, not to a sect, clan or tribe.

The same is true for the Palestinians, where corruption is rife and disunity has been the longest defining factor of the Palestinian political temperament. While plenty can be said about how physical fragmentation has lead to national disintegration in Palestine, and about how many Palestinian groups, willingly or otherwise, served the interest of regional powers, the truth is that the Fatah-Hamas clash was forthcoming and preceded Washington's ongoing blunders in the region.

The U.S.-Israeli backing of Fatah merely exposed the perpetual weaknesses that have marred Palestinian society for generations by providing political, financial and military requirements to intensify the fight so that Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation might fizzle out. This outcome is evident in the current fighting.

It is indeed more than disheartening to see that Palestinians themselves have surrendered readily to the Israeli and American designs, allowing their revolting factionalism to morph into a near civil war that has already taken many lives. Those responsible for the violence -- blame that can no longer be placed on a cluster of individuals -- must have forgotten that their infighting is taking place in an occupied land, besieged by Israeli fences and walls, and under the watchful eye of Israeli intelligence, which must be brimming with glee as Palestinians shamelessly slaughter one another.

Ramzy Baroud's latest book is "The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle" (Pluto Press).


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