The Palestine Papers and the “Gaza coup”

Palestinians demonstrate in support of national unity in Gaza City, July 2009. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

It has long been known that following Hamas’ victory in Palestinian Authority legislative elections in January 2006, Israel and its allies, particularly the United States, worked to undermine the Hamas-led government. Their aim was to restore the authority of the Fatah movement led by Mahmoud Abbas, which had controlled the PA since it was created in 1994 after the Oslo accords were signed the previous year.

In February 2007, after months of clashes between their supporters, Fatah and Hamas agreed to form a “national unity government” headed by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Enraged by this, the US government hatched a plot, along with Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, to engage Hamas militarily in Gaza. But the plot failed and in June 2007 Hamas turned the tables and overran Dahlan’s US-supported militias.

Until now, the most comprehensive and essential account of these events was contained in David Rose’s April 2008 Vanity Fair article, “The Gaza Bombshell.”

An initial reading of the Palestine Papers supports Rose’s account and provides details of hitherto unknown secret, high-level “Quadripartite” meetings among Israeli, American, Egyptian and Palestinian officials whose explicit goal appears to have been to undermine the national unity government. The essential point here is that part of the PA — loyal to Mahmoud Abbas and backed by the US — was actively plotting with Israel and its allies against the legitimately-constituted unity government.

Two documents in the Palestine Papers contain minutes of these meetings. The first is dated 11 March 2007 and titled “Quadripartite Meeting of the Gaza Security Committee.”

The Palestinians in attendance were Dahlan, Jamal Quaeid, Rashid Abu Shbak, Basil Jaber and one more whose name has been redacted by Al Jazeera. The American team was headed by US Army Lt. General Keith Dayton, the Israeli team by General Amos Gilad and the Egyptian team by one General Sharif.

This first meeting was intended to establish the “quadirpartite forum” and lay down “rules of engagement.” Firstly it was agreed that only Gaza would be discussed, not the West Bank.

Secrecy was to be the top priority. According to the rules of engagement, “All parties made very clear that nothing discussed in the meeting should be shared with anyone outside the forum. All parties made clear that any leakages would greatly hurt the forum and all those participating. All parties made clear that any leakages would immediately result in the cessation of the use of this forum and the projects being aborted. Also not to be shared is the fact that the forum exists, nor should who is attending the meetings be leaked. The press will not be involved.”

The minutes also note that “The forum is backed by the highest political echelons of each government represented.” In terms of substance, the record notes that “The implications of the national unity government were discussed by all parties in general terms.”

The Israeli team then presented their “perception of the security situation in Gaza, focusing on Hamas activities.” The Israelis, according to the minutes, “highlighted the use of tunnels for all purposes including storage and meeting areas, the import/smuggling of advanced weaponry.” The Israeli team alleged that Hamas fighters were being trained in Iran and that Hamas was attempting to “emulate the Hizballah model, which in turn is based on the Iranian model.” The Israelis asserted that “The main strategic goal of Hamas is to take over the PA then the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. Most Palestinians do not adhere to this Hamas ideology.”

Referring to these and other Israeli positions, the minutes note that “The Palestinians agreed that this may be part of the analysis” — an indication of complete agreement that Hamas was the common enemy.

The second “Quadripartite Security Meeting,” held on 3 April 2007, focused on the political situation and stopping the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Lt. General Dayton observed that “The purpose of these efforts is to prevent Hamas from using the NUG [National Unity Government] as a means of gaining more powers and building up more arms.”

He also advised the Palestinians: “If you can keep Hamas from overwhelming the PLO forces, and keep Fatah together, until Hamas is no longer an attractive option — you prevent it from winning militarily until the next elections.” Dayton clearly saw his role as preparing Fatah for military confrontation with Hamas.

During a discussion of Egypt’s role, Israeli General Amos Gilad had high praise for Egypt’s repressive state security services. “I always believed in the abilities of the Egyptian Intelligence service [GIS],” he said. “It keeps order and security among 70 millions — 20 millions in one city — this is a great achievement, for which you deserve a medal. It is the best asset for the middle east.”

The Palestinian team gave a PowerPoint presentation of its plans to destroy the Gaza tunnels which included suggestions to destroy Palestinian homes near the border wall — as Israel had previously done. At one point Dayton asked Palestinian officer Rashid Abu Shbak “When Israel tells you about a tunnel, what do you do?” Abu Shbak replied, “In the past there was a good level of cooperation. But recently it is inadequate. Despite that, we deal seriously with every information they give us.”

Overall, many documents among the Palestine Papers indicate a deep “security” relationship — even codependency — between Israel, the occupying power, and the Palestinian Authority, supposedly representing the occupied. The “Quadripartite” forum sheds new light on the joint effort to overthrow the Hamas-led national unity government.

Yet there also appear to be notable gaps in the Palestine Papers. Hamas routed the US-backed PA forces in Gaza between 7-14 June 2007. The minutes and documents immediately before, during and after that period are curiously silent about the momentous events in Gaza. It is difficult to believe that the Hamas takeover would not have been the primary concern of all the actors so this absence suggests that whoever leaked the documents to Al Jazeera has been careful to hold back some material.

There do not appear to be any other records of the Quadripartite Forum. Is this because the meetings ceased or because no more minutes were leaked? Is it because amid the disarray Dahlan and Abu Shbak fled from Gaza to the West Bank and were discredited?

As revealing as the Palestine Papers are, clearly there is still much we don’t know. But one thing is certain: the divide and rule tactics used by outside powers, and the willingness of some Palestinians to go along with them, have been debilitating to the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and is a contributor to The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict (Nation Books). Ali Abunimah was given special access to the Palestine Papers and has helped analyze them for Al Jazeera.

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