Thursday, February 01, 2007
Iranians in the Gaza Strip?
The Israeli government has long maintained that Iran is directly involved in funding and training Hamas's military wing. Debka has frequently made sensationalist claims about the presence of Iranian agents in the Gaza Strip. Today, it was Fatah's turn.
According to members of the Presidential Guard or National Security Force, Fatah succeeded in apprehending 7 Iranians and in seizing large quantities of light and heavy weapons after storming the Islamic University in Gaza this Thursday night. Even if this claim, reported by Ha'aretz and the BBC, turns out to be wrong, and I have a strong feeling that it's a Fatah propaganda campaign, one could well regard tonight as another watershed moment. Both Hamas and Fatah appear to be getting large supplies of weapons - Hamas from Iran, and Fatah from the United States with the consent and passive assistance of Israel and Egypt. Perhaps tonight a "preventive battle" is being fought by one side or the other - Hamas could end up depicting its attacks on the Presidential Guard and the alleged arms convoy as a counter-strike against a planned coup. Fatah, for its part, may be raising the specter of Iranian involvement to galvanize Arab and Palestinian support for itself.
What is clear is that this conflict has intensified greatly in past months, surprising many veteran observers. The details of the clashes that broke out between Hamas and Fatah followers last month in the Gaza Strip were not widely reported. Ha'aretz, with its veteran Gaza reporters, Amos Har'el and Avi Issascaroff, was one of the few news sources to describe the viciousness of the unfolding civil war in detail. They described several cases of Hamas fighters surrounding the houses of Fatah-affiliated people, of executions and of torture (one teenager reported having acid thrown in his face after he was taken prisoner).
One of those targeted was Sufian Abu Zaide, a leading Fatah moderate from Gaza, whom I once had the pleasure of hearing, along with Issascaroff, at a conference organized by the Herzog Center at Ben-Gurion University in 2005. Abu Zaide is a member of Muhammad Dahlan's generation: he spent the first intifada in an Israeli prison in Beer Sheva, learned Hebrew, returned to Gaza in the early years of Oslo and maintained close ties to Israelis. As soon as the second intifada broke out in 2000, Abu Zaide left for the UK to begin studying for a Ph.D., which he eventually completed. Last month, Abu Zaide was kidnapped by Hamas, but was later released. What was supposed to be his future home was also leveled by Hamas members. Since then, he returned to Ben-Gurion another time to speak at another Herzog Center conference.
The latest events, and Hamas's role in breaking off the truce that was supposed to be brokered, first by Damascus, then by Riyadh, serves as yet more proof of the futility of negotiating with the movement at this stage. Contrary to the expectations of a number of supercilious observers, Hamas has not turned into the Turkish Welfare Party to which many compared it. Being allowed to participate in politics did not convince Hamas to disband its militia, just as political participation has failed to convince Hizbullah to disarm. Instead, Hamas has ended up using the weapons of its "resistance" against its political rivals. Contrary to what some British legislators have claimed recently, this development is not a response to the isolation of Hamas by western governments. Hamas is flexing its muscles - perhaps, in its view, pre-emptively - because it can. Even before Hamas came to power, the military balance of power in Gaza was in its favour. If Hamas had wanted to break out of the isolation supposedly imposed on it, it could have done so by renouncing its commitment to the destruction of Israel.