Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Two Faces of Fatah

C. Hart

Palestinian elements of Fatah, linked to terrorist leaders in Damascus, are trying to pave the way for a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. But, as reported on March 13, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) anti-terror units managed to eliminate top terrorist leaders in Bethlehem in order to deter such a takeover.

Mahmoud Shehada, the Commander of Islamic Jihad in Bethlehem and one of the terrorists killed by the IDF raid, was on Israel’s most wanted list for the past eight years. He had reportedly toured Bethlehem a day before his death hoping for greater cooperation between Islamic Jihad and Fatah.

Islamic Jihad continues to work alongside Hamas in Gaza launching rockets against Israel’s border towns and other terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not demonstrated strong enough leadership to control opposing Fatah factions in the West Bank, and it is only the IDF that has prevented Hamas from militarily taking over the area. With the help of certain Fatah terrorists who oppose Palestinian peace negotiations with Israel, Hamas continues to try and use its influence in the territories.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists receive training and direction from Iranian and Syrian operatives. The organizations have their headquarters in Damascus where they receive financing to direct terrorist attacks against Israel. Reports indicate that Iranian weaponry and Al Qaeda affiliates have infiltrated Gaza and the West Bank. Dr. Ely Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at Israel’s Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya. He claims that Farouk al-Kaddoumi, Secretary General of Fatah’s Central Committee, stays in Damascus and never visits the Palestinian territories or Gaza because he doesn’t accept Palestinian Authority agreements with Israel, including the Oslo Accords. In Karmon’s opinion, one faction of Fatah is represented by Kaddoumi in Damascus, while the other faction of Fatah is represented by Abbas in the West Bank. “Abbas is not uniting them as a force against Hamas,” he states.

The IDF continues to pursue Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian gunmen, while also seeking to eliminate Qassam rocket production in the West Bank and Gaza, hoping to weaken the power of the Hamas government. But, without a clear Israeli government strategy on how to deal with terrorism originating from these operatives, Israel cannot effectively stop terror attacks.

According to Karmon, “I think that what will happen in Gaza will be extremely important not only in deterring Hamas and other Palestinians, but also in deterring the Syrians and Iranians.”

Hamas has increased its West Bank operations in Kalkilya and Nablus, based on Israel’s recent intelligence assessments by the Mossad, Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency), the Israeli Police, as well as the Foreign Ministry and Military Intelligence units. Israel’s future actions against Hamas, which now reportedly has an army militia of 15,000 fighters in the Gaza Strip, could escalate into a violent reaction on other fronts.

That kind of potential unrest is a destabilizing factor that the Israeli government must consider at a time when Olmert is trying to figure out how to re-establish a deterrence policy in the south. A major Israeli incursion into Gaza, in which there could be a high Palestinian death toll, is risky, because it could stir Arabs in neighboring countries to carry out violent street protests. A scenario where all border crossings in and out of Gaza remain closed might cause another revolt by Palestinians in Gaza, similar to what happened earlier this month with the breach in the wall at the Gaza-Egyptian border. Hamas has already threatened to attack other border stations, like the Rafah crossing. Any major violent uprising among Palestinians in the south could lead to a threat from Hizbullah on Israel’s northern border, as the terrorist army is looking for a reason to engage in another conflict with Israel.

Yet, at the same time, the current War of Attrition against Israel by Hamas is unacceptable to a majority of Israelis who want it stopped. Israeli citizens want to feel safe and secure within defensible borders.

States Karmon, “We cannot let Hamas become a military power which will influence all other fronts… Syria is the key to the aggressiveness of Hizbullah and Hamas. If the Syrians were deterred by Israel and the international community things could be easier.”

While Israel still needs an effective deterrence policy against Hamas, officials in the Jewish state have privately assessed that Israel has already built up its deterrence against Syria. This happened in the reported Israeli Air Force bombing of a nuclear facility inside Syria on September 6, 2007. But, Israel has not done enough to stop Syria from using its terrorist proxies. Karmon thinks the Israeli government should have announced to the Syrian government before the summer war of 2006, that if it continued to support Hizballah and Hamas, as well as allow the flow of Iranian weapons into Lebanon, Syria would pay a heavy price for those actions. “We don’t hear this kind of message,” Karmon admits.

Despite international pressure, it’s expected that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government will not stop its surgical strikes against the Hamas military machine; and, Israeli elite forces will keep hunting down Palestinian gunmen operating in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, while ordering the IDF to carry out these operations, can be expected to restrain forces from launching a full military incursion into Gaza. U.S. pressure on Israel to get back on the diplomatic track towards a final peace agreement with the Palestinians is forcing Israel’s hand into a temporary cease-fire. This will only result in Hamas building up its military arsenal, while training its men for another round of fighting with Israel in Gaza. It will also give Hamas time to establish a greater presence in the West Bank, gaining more control there through the divided forces of Fatah, some who have greater loyalty to Hamas than to Abbas.

Dan Dyker, current Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs (ICA) in Jerusalem, says, “Israel has made a strategic error in deterrence. We have agreed with the U.S. to engage the Palestinian Authority.” Dyker is referring to U.S. failed hopes that Abbas would be able to unite Fatah factions, stop violence in the West Bank, and show Palestinians that he has the ability to govern with authority.

Many Israelis have given up on Abbas, claiming he refuses or is incapable of effectively controlling Palestinian rebel forces. They are waiting, instead, to see if Olmert will show the kind of leadership necessary to establish a coherent and effective deterrence policy; a policy that thwarts terrorist attacks and stops the rocket launchings that have hit this nation hard in recent weeks.

Without an effective strategy, any temporary period of calm that Israelis may encounter now will be followed by another round of more terror and more pain. This will continue until an Israeli government is in place that will use the force necessary to stop the violence emanating from Gaza and the territories, effectively breaking the power of Israel’s enemies residing there.

[C. Hart writes for ThreatsWatch from Jerusalem, Israel.]

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