Civil Strife in Palestine

In June 2002 President Bush gave a long-awaited Rose Garden speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those expecting even a pretense at even-handedness were surprised by its prettification of an Israel then ferociously attacking West Bank cities, and its vilification of Israel’s opponents and victims. Bush denounced anti-Israel “terrorism” as the principle problem in the Middle East, avoiding mention of the historical context of Israeli aggression and occupation of Arab lands. He specifically mentioned Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese Shiite organization Hizbollah, and Syria. He also called for “new leadership” in the Palestinian Authority (led by the Fatah organization), implying that the existing leadership under President Yassir Arafat was—as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom Bush two months earlier had called “a man of peace,” insisted—pro-terrorist.

(The main basis for this accusation was a government report released in May 2006, purportedly based on documents captured during the Israeli occupation of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. These allegedly included papers authorizing funds for the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades signed by Arafat as President of the Palestinian National Authority recognized by U.S. and Israel. The Brigades were included among the groups in the State Department’s terrorism list.)

Bush’s speech, Jerusalem Post reporter David Horowitz told National Public Radio, could have been written by the Likud government in Israel. Arafat was thereafter marginalized, and shunned by the White House, until his death in 2004. (Some might recall that Bush speech writer David Frum, author of the “axis of evil” line, before Arafat’s death suggested maliciously in the neocon National Review that the Palestinian leader must be dying of AIDS. The neocons generally despise and fear Palestinians in general: in his book An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror coauthored with Richard Perle, Frum opposes any Palestinian state in principle and calls for the outright Israeli annexation of the West Bank.)

To satisfy the neocon-led Bush administration, the Palestinian Authority was obliged to produce a Prime Minister in the form of Mahmoud Abbas, a Palestinian refugee raised in Syria, considered a “moderate” by the U.S. He was someone that Bush could talk to. When they met in Egypt in 2003, Bush informed Abbas that “God told me to smite” Osama bin Laden, “and I smote him.” The same with Saddam Hussein. Abbas must have concluded that a religious fundamentalist fanatic suffering from delusions was in charge of the United States. Bush has certainly not made Abbas’ job easy.

An upshot of Washington’s rejection of Arafat, the most popular Palestinian leader, and embrace of the “moderate” Abbas, was the democratic Palestinian election of a Hamas leadership in January 2006. The poll result was generally understood to reflect Palestinian disillusionment with the Fatah-led Palestinian Liberation Organization, widely accused of corruption and inefficiency, and admiration for Hamas’ religious probity and militant stance against the Israeli occupation. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh became Prime Minister, while Abbas remained as President.

The U.S. reaction was to denounce the result of the election, even as many pointed to the irony of the Bush administration public advocacy of “democracy” in the Middle East while rejecting this democratic statement of the Palestinian people. Washington and its European allies cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority, hoping to quickly achieve the Hamas-led regime’s downfall. They sought to widen the political gap between the secular Fatah (that Bush had earlier associated with terrorism) and the Islamists.

The Palestinian factions responded by an effort to create a coalition government, and in February 2007 in talks in Mecca sponsored by the Saudi king reached an accord on a government of national unity. Haniyeh would stay on as prime minister, while Fatah would get the Foreign Affairs Ministry among others. This agreement, favored by Russia among others, facilitated the transfer of some promised foreign funds to the Palestinian Authority. But the agreement didn’t hold as fighting broke out throughout Gaza between Hamas and Fatah. The former has now seized control of the entire Gaza strip, a vast prison camp of 1.4 million Palestinians.

Meanwhile on the West Bank 2.5 Palestinians are for the present governed (to the extent that they can be, under ongoing Israeli occupation) by the regime of Abbas and his newly-appointed prime minister, western-trained economist and political independent Salam Fayyad. So now there are two Palestinian political entities, both under Israeli occupation if accorded some degree of Bantustan-style self-government. The Israelis apparently target the Gaza one for immanent destruction. According to the London Times, senior Israeli military sources say Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak plans for 20,000 troops to invade and cripple Hamas during an operation lasting a few days.

According to the London Guardian’s Jonathan Steele, “Washington’s fingerprints are all over the chaos that has hit Palestinians.” Both Israel and the Bush administration were hostile to the February Mecca agreement because it further legitimated Haniyeh’s position. They made their displeasure known to Abbas, who “was told to scrap Mecca at every subsequent meeting he has had with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert or with US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Abrams.” This refers to Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, one of the highest-placed neocons remaining in the administration, who apparently devised “a plan to arm and train Mahmoud Abbas’ presidential guard in a deliberate effort to confront and defeat Hamas militarily.”

Steele cites a U.S. document dated March 2, 2007 “doing the rounds in the Middle East” that define Washington’s objectives to include keeping Abbas and Fatah “as the centre of gravity on the Palestinian scene,” undermining “Hamas’s political status through providing for Palestinian economic needs,” and strengthening Abbas’ “authority to be able to call and conduct early elections by autumn 2007.”

The document indicates that Washington planned to provide over a billion dollars in assistance to add seven special battalions totaling 4,700 men to Abbas’ 15,000-strong presidential guard and security forces. “The desired outcome,” its states, “will be the transformation of Palestinian security forces and provide for the president of the Palestinian Authority to able to safeguard decisions such as dismissing the cabinet and forming an emergency cabinet.” In other words, to pull off a coup against the elected leadership. Steele pointedly notes, “Arming insurgents against elected governments has a long US pedigree and it is no accident that Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser and apparent architect of the anti-Hamas subversion, was a key player in Ronald Reagan’s supply of weapons to the Contras who fought Nicaragua’s elected government in the 1980s.”

Confronted with efforts to sabotage the Mecca agreement, and particularly the refusal of Fatah’s head of the Preventive Security Forces in Gaza to accept the authority of the Hamas interior minister, Hamas forces staged a preemptive attack on Fatah. This at least is the view of Alastair Crooke, former Middle East adviser to EU foreign minister Javier Solana. “Hamas,” he told Steele, “felt they had little option but to take control of security away from forces which were in fact creating insecurity.”

So Abbas’ forces didn’t overthrow Hamas but vice-versa, at least in Gaza, while on the West Bank Fatah is conducting a campaign of mass arrests of its rivals.

What is the U.S. response to these events, in which it appears to be heavily complicit? U.S. Consul General Jacob Walles, top American diplomat in Jerusalem, says the U.S. will fully support Abbas’ government. Suddenly the floodgates of withheld economic aid are open in America and Europe. They will flow to the West Bank to indicate approval, and perhaps to Gaza as a carrot to encourage regime change alongside the stick of unremitting vilification of Hamas and efforts to isolate it.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert endorses the Abbas-Fayyad regime, declaring that it would have a “genuine partner” in Israel. “[T]here is,” he claimed before a New York audience, “a genuine opportunity that the moderate forces headed by President Abbas will be able to form a solid government administered by the Palestinians.” Israel will free up withheld tax revenues for the good guys.

The irony here is that for Israel today’s bad guys were yesterday’s good guys. Yassir Arafat noted that in an interview in December 2001 with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “Hamas,” he declared, “is a creature of Israel which at the time of Prime Minister Shamir [second term 1986-92], gave them money and more than 700 institutions, among them schools, universities and mosques. Even [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin ended up admitting it, when I charged him with it, in the presence of [Egpytian President Hosni] Mubarak.” Arafat told L’Espresso that “Hamas was constituted with the support of Israel. The aim was to create an organization antagonistic to the PLO. They received financing and training from Israel. They have continued to benefit from permits and authorizations, while we [in the PLO] have been limited, even to build a tomato factory. Rabin himself defined it as a fatal error.”

The problem is that these Hamas members became increasingly impatient with Israeli occupation, increasingly militant and unwilling to do what Fatah has done: formally recognize the Jewish state. Their leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin did indicate a willingness to accept, on a provisional basis, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (as opposed to all of Palestine). But an Israeli helicopter gunship firing Hellfire missiles killed him in his wheelchair after a morning prayer session March 22, 2004, along with two bodyguards and nine bystanders. Still, Hamas maintained a unilateral ceasefire with Israel for 16 months between 2005 and 2006, ending it following the killing of 8 Palestinian civilians, a family picnicking on a Gaza beach, by Israeli artillery shells June 10, 2006.

So now we have the PLO’s Abbas as the darling of the Washington-Israel axis, and Hamas targeted for destruction by the U.S., Israel, and Fatah. Palestine is divided politically and physically between two occupied zones subject at any time to Israeli military actions invariably condoned by the world’s sole superpower. One of the zones is now depicted as a center of Islamic terrorism, the other courted as a “genuine partner” of Olmert’s Israel.

I don’t know that this specific state of affairs was planned by anyone in particular. Hamas’ attacks on Fatah offices in Gaza may have taken Washington by surprise. But now that it’s occurred, I expect that Vice President Cheney and his neocon acolytes will try to make the most of it. They’ve been planning an assault on Iran, and wish before that happens to demolish Iranian allies such as Hamas and Hizbollah that could respond to such aggression with attacks on Israel. (Abbas has blamed Iran for Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, giving the neocons another charge against the Islamic Republic.) I think the civil strife in Palestine should be seen in that broader context.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: