So it’s official. Britain is no longer simply boycotting a democratically elected Palestinian government. Following Tony Blair’s visit, it is committing millions of pounds to Fatah militias that wish to overthrow it. Naturally enough, Blair’s foreign policy initiative came two weeks after the US reportedly did the same thing, sending a shipment of 6,000 assault rifles to Fatah’s elite Force 17 unit.
In Israel, the far right is already working itself into a predictable lather about the Jihadist blowback that could follow the CIA’s training of Force 17. Gazan civilians could be forgiven for assuming that the US and UK were preparing a proxy war for their neighbourhood.
Blair started banging his drum back in August when, before a Los Angeles audience, he bizarrely warned that Iran’s explicit purpose was to prevent a two state solution in Israel/Palestine. ‘If you export terrorism around the region,’ he warned Tehran, ‘we will confront you’.
Now Iran is certainly giving money to the Hamas-led government but it is far from proven that this is being earmarked for procuring arms. Hungry public servants in Gaza need wages. And after leading an effective world financial boycott preventing the Palestinian government from paying them, Downing St is not best positioned to complain about it seeking alternative funding. Iran, Saudi Arabia and several other regional players have anyway provided aid to Hamas (and perhaps Fatah) for years without provoking such dire bellicosity.
The truth is that outside of Hamas, no one can be entirely sure what the monies they raise are spent on. But whatever they buy, ‘we’ will not be confronting anyone. In the worst case scenario, the British taxpayer will be arming and priming one section of a beleaguered people to fight a civil war aimed at removing a government the other half elected. This may take place beneath the fig leaf of new elections but it still has consequences.
One is that the Basic Law which lies at the heart of the Palestinian Authority’s constitution may be ripped to shreds. Another is that the idea of representative democracy itself will be degraded if polls are seen to be repeated until the West gets its desired result.
More mundanely, in trying to do so, the US, UK and Israel risk painting their man, Mahmoud Abbas, into a Chief Buthelezi-style corner. The persistent reports that Tel Aviv is about to allow Fatah’s Badr brigades entry from Jordan (so that they can fight Hamas) underline the point. The Fatah presidency appears to depend for survival on the occupation it was elected to resist.
Critics of Oslo often claimed that the endgame of the accord was a Palestinian civil war that would divide resistance groups and make statehood impossible. What they didn’t say so loudly is that such a scenario would not benefit Israeli Jews either. Civil wars destabilise regions. They create well-trained fighters, military economies and desperate populations who are prey to extreme ideologies.
In my book, Occupied Minds, one of Israel’s most senior intelligence officers confirmed that in the 1980s, the country had mistakenly tried to weaken the PLO by backing Hamas. The policy, he said, ‘exploded in our faces and Palestinian society was radicalised in a process that we failed to interpret accurately.’
When Israel sowed division rather than talk to the PLO they eventually got a Hamas government. Many fear that repeating the process now will lead to an Al Qaida-style Palestinian Jihadist opposition in the years to come. Blair may be hoping that the poodle food for his obeisance to Washington will be a retirement made in Hebron. The question his backbenchers should be asking is: What price a Middle East envoyship?
ARTHUR NESLEN is a journalist working in Tel Aviv. The first Jewish employee of Aljazeera.net and a four-year veteran of the BBC, Neslen has contributed to numerous periodicals over the years, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and Red Pepper. His first book, Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli psyche, was recently published by Pluto Press.