U.S. Backing for Fatah Stirs New Conflict

Palestinians carry the body of Hamas commander Hassan al-Shorbasi, killed by gunmen on Tuesday, during his funeral in the southern Gaza Strip, 31 January 2007. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)

GAZA CITY, Feb 2 (IPS) - Explosions, fierce gunfights and ambulance sirens ripped through the Gaza Strip again Thursday, only two days after a ceasefire ended a bloody week of factional fighting that left more than 30 Palestinians dead.

As night fell on Gaza, the death toll was at six, with more than 60 wounded. Fighters loyal to the elected Hamas government — the Interior Ministry’s Executive Force and the Islamist Movement’s militia, the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades — battled the Fatah security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The fighting began in the afternoon when four truckloads of supplies entering from Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing were intercepted by Hamas fighters, who claimed that they had commandeered an arms shipment to the Presidential Guard, a U.S.-backed security force loyal to Abbas.

Fatah officially denied it was an arms shipment. Spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said the convoy contained only tents, generators and medical supplies.

In late December, an Israeli-approved arms shipment of 2,000 rifles, 20,000 magazines and two million rounds of ammunition from Egypt passed through the same Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza strip.

The resumption of violence comes as Washington announced plans to deliver a further 86.4 million dollars to back President Abbas.

Hamas officials have denounced Washington’s involvement in training and financing Fatah security forces. Spokesman Ismayil Radwan said in a public speech that it was Washington’s intention to “fuel a civil war in the Palestinian arena.”

Mouin Rabbani, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that the United States is seeking to build Abbas’s Presidential Guard into the leading Palestinian security force.

“It was developed to take on the Executive Force of Hamas,” he told IPS. Rabbani said that the United States is preparing for the long haul, rather than trying to spark the clashes that Gaza is immediately experiencing.

“This is not a direct instigation by the Americans, because they are not yet convinced that Fatah are ready to take on Hamas,” Rabbani said. “But they are beginning to pump significant amounts of weapons, training and funds in the hope that Fatah will prevail in the eventual conflict.”

For its part, Washington has acknowledged that it is training Abbas’s Presidential Guard in urban warfare tactics in the West Bank city Jericho under the guidance of Lt. General Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In an interview in December, Dayton told the Israeli daily Yehidot Ahronot, “We are involved in building up the Presidential Guard, instructing it, assisting it to build itself up, and giving them ideas.” Dayton denied the Force was being groomed to confront Hamas.

In December 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which explicitly denounced the elected Hamas leadership. The Act seeks to bolster the Palestinian National Authority under Fatah’s partnership.

Under the law, Hamas is sanctioned by the United States until “the Hamas-controlled PA (Palestinian Authority) has made demonstrable progress toward purging from its security services individuals with ties to terrorism, dismantling all terrorist infrastructure, and cooperating with Israel’s security services, halting anti-American and anti-Israel incitement, and ensuring democracy and financial transparency.”

The Islamist movement Hamas ended Fatah’s 40-year rule of the Palestinian political scene when it won parliamentary elections in January 2006. A strict U.S.-led sanctions regime was imposed when Hamas formed a government in March.

This is, according to the United Nations, the first sanctions regime of its kind imposed on an occupied population. The sanctions regime has worsened the situation in Gaza that was already being described as a humanitarian crisis by UN agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP).

At least three-quarters of Gaza’s 1.5 million people live in poverty, and are threatened with food insecurity. Additionally, more than 220,000 people are absolutely dependent on WFP food assistance.

Yet, according to polls, one thing that the sanctions have apparently failed to do is noticeably erode Hamas’s popularity.

For Palestinians, the internal struggle is a crisis added to that already imposed by Israel’s 40 year-long occupation. “I took my daughter to kindergarten this morning and couldn’t pass because of the roadblocks. All the shops are closed and the streets are empty. Every house in Gaza is listening only to the news reports and the gunfire,” Nabil Diab, a public relations official at the Palestinian Red Crescent Society told IPS in Gaza City.

“The kids used to play ‘Palestinians versus Israelis’; now they play ‘Fatah versus Hamas’,” said the father of two young children.

The Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza documented the killing of 63 Palestinians and the wounding of more than 300 in internal fighting that erupted between Hamas and Fatah in December.

The fighting, which takes place on the streets of one of the most densely-populated areas in the world, has claimed scores of civilian casualties as well, including eight children killed and more than 30 wounded last month alone.

The people of Gaza have experienced seven years of grinding war with the Israelis and 60 years of displacement. But one Palestinian mother was unequivocal about what this internal violence means to the Palestinian struggle. As she rushed home with her groceries, Um Mustafa breathlessly told IPS, “If this fighting continues, we will destroy ourselves.”

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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