A Palestinian man walks through a damaged building next to graffiti reading, “The Presidential guard walked through here” inside the Islamic University after it was attacked in Gaza, 3 February 2007. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)
In recent days the unremitting, murderous brutality of the Israeli occupation has been eclipsed by the carnage in Gaza as dozens of Palestinians have been killed in what is commonly referred to as “interfactional fighting” between forces loyal to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction on the one hand, and the Hamas-led government on the other.
The airwaves have been filled with anguished calls from every sector of Palestinian society — political parties, nongovermental organizations, and Christian and Muslim religious leaders — for the fighting to cease and for a return to dialogue.
Perhaps for fear of exacerbating the already bitter situation, few of these voices have directly confronted the engine of this violence.
In the fevered minds of Bush administration ideologues, Palestine has become another front in what they conceive of as a new Cold War against “Islamofascism.” They see Iran as the central target and proxy battles are being waged against a phantom enemy from Afghanistan and Pakistan, through Iraq into Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia and ever onwards wherever Arabs and Muslims are to be found. In every case, local conflicts with specific histories are being escalated and marshalled into this grand narrative .
Mahmoud Abbas and Gaza warlord Muhammad Dahlan have become the willing proxies for the Palestine franchise of this wider project, as their tactics and loyalists’ statements reveal.
The latest round of fighting began on February 1, when forces of the Palestinian Ministry of Interior, run by the Hamas government, attempted to interdict a convoy of trucks that crossed into Gaza from Israel. Officials alleged that the trucks were carrying weapons destined for the Presidential Guard, the militia loyal to Abbas.
Fatah figures, speaking on the BBC Arabic Service, vehemently denied the allegation, making contradictory claims about the contents of the trucks. One said they contained “food and medicine for the Palestinian people,” another “tents and equipment,” and another still “electrical generators and spare parts.” No two denials matched.
Yet the fact that the Presidential Guard is receiving arms via Israel is common knowledge to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and has been talked about openly in the Israeli media for months. Since October, eight truckloads of AK-47 rifles and machine guns and several million rounds of ammunition have entered Gaza from Israel through the Nahal Oz and Kerem Shalom crossings, according to a high-ranking officer of the Force-17 Fatah militia who conveyed this information to Hebron-based journalist Khaled Amayreh. Not all these guns go solely to the Presidential Guard; many are sold on to the highest bidder.
In order to change the subject from the scandal of the Palestinian “presidency” receiving US arms through Israel to use against the Palestinian people, the Presidential Guard launched a counterattack against the Islamic University in Gaza shelling, burning and destroying parts of it. Abbas’ officials claimed that their forces had arrested seven Iranian weapons experts working for Hamas, and labelled Hamas leaders “extremists” and “putschists.” Fatah and Fatah-backed local radio even accused Hamas of burning down the Islamic University themselves in order to blacken Fatah’s ‘glorious image.’ The allegations about Iranians were universally dismissed but they revealed the extent to which Abbas officials have adopted the Israeli and American paradigm as their own.
In several recent demonstrations, Dahlan loyalists have shouted “Shia, Shia,” at Hamas supporters. This was perhaps supposed to draw attention to Iranian support for Hamas (the movement, like the rest of the Palestinian Muslim community, is Sunni) but this hateful sectarian incitement, hitherto unknown in Palestinian society, serves (for now) the wider strategic agenda of Abbas’ and Dahlan’s sponsors.
After Hizbullah defeated Israel last summer, the Lebanese Shia movement, backed by Iran, gained enormous prestige among the region’s people, especially Palestinians, as an Arab nationalist and pan-Islamic movement, standing firm against Israeli aggression, in contrast to toothless, unpopular and corrupt governments. Hence the active promotion of Sunni fear of their Shia brethren is designed to limit the influence of Iran — and serve up a good old-fashioned dose of divide and rule. (Thus from this perspective, the carnage in Iraq and the outrage at the brutal televised hanging of the Sunni-identified Saddam Hussein by a Shia-identified militia was a real bonus.)
Abbas is at last doing what Arafat was always urged to do, while Israel and the US watch with glee. As Ha’aretz explained, Israel felt no need to launch a large scale revenge operation against Gaza following the January 29 Eilat bombing: “When Fatah and Hamas are so good at killing each other, why should Israel intervene and spur them to close ranks against the common enemy?”
As the battles were raging in Gaza, the mouthpiece of American policy, the so-called Quartet (made up of representatives of the US, European Union, the United Nations and Russia) met to discuss the long-dead “peace process.” The body voiced its “deep concern at the violence among Palestinians and called for respect for law and order.” In a repeat of the American approach to last summer’s Lebanon war, the Quartet pointedly did not call for a ceasefire.
It did however call “for Palestinian unity behind a government committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of the obligations under the Roadmap,” while remaining totally silent about Israel’s continued slow-motion ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, particularly last week’s announcement by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert that Israel was extending the illegal West Bank separation wall further east to annex several large Jewish-only colonies. This measure will add twenty thousand to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already cut off in walled ghettos that former US President Carter has likened to “apartheid.”
The Quartet even “welcomed” US arming of the Presidential Guard, though in diplomatic doublespeak this was euphemized as “efforts to reform the Palestinian security sector and thus to help improve law and order for the Palestinian people.”
Bleak as things are, cracks are starting to appear. Although US propaganda asserts that the arming of the Abbas militia is in part a response to growing Iranian influence, the British parliament’s International Development Committee last week concluded that it was Western sanctions and isolation that had driven Hamas to seek Iranian support. The committee condemned the UK government’s refusal to talk to Hamas, urged it to do so as it did with the IRA, and urged consideration of EU sanctions against Israel, such as suspending the Association agreement granting the Jewish state special trade privileges.
Israeli and American propaganda, now also adopted by the European Union, attempts to obscure the basic understanding that Palestine is the struggle of a colonized people for liberation. The policy of supporting a quisling group to fight as a proxy on behalf of empire, colonizer and occupier will only increase the bloodshed. But it will ultimately fail in Palestine as it did before in Northern Ireland, Southern Africa and Central and Southern America, and as it is failing in Iraq.
Ali Abunimah is the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse