Reese Erlich / Mother Jones & Jonathan Steele / The Guardian – 2007-06-23 22:45:10
(June 15, 2007) — The brutal fighting inside Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which has claimed 140 lives so far, seems incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in the intricacies of Palestinian politics. But behind the killing lurks an urgent question: Is Fatah al Islam—the organization responsible for much of the fighting—a pawn of Syria, as charged by the US and some Lebanese? Or is it an unintended outgrowth of a US-backed plan to develop a Sunni counterweight to Hezbollah?
During a recent trip to the Middle East, I conducted exclusive interviews with Palestinian and Syrian government and intelligence officials as well as independent sources. All of them insisted that while some leaders of Fatah al Islam did indeed live in Syria, those leaders broke from a Syrian-supported group in 2006, well before the current Lebanese turmoil.
The groups fighting in Lebanon hold to a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, which stands strongly at odds with Syria’s secular, pan-Arab ideology. “These groups hate Syria,” a top Syrian intelligence source told me in an exclusive interview. “We are a secular country.”
Yet Syrian officials still have some explaining to do.
Understanding this complex story requires a flashback to 1983, when Syria backed a rebellion within the Palestine Liberation Organization against Yasser Arafat. Two leaders of Fatah, the main group within the PLO, broke with Arafat and formed a rival organization, Fatah al Intifada. Arafat ultimately triumphed and Fatah al Intifada has little popular support today. It has a modest headquarters in Damascus and until recently had an armed presence in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp near Tripoli, Lebanon. (For nearly 40 years, the Lebanese government has agreed not to send its police and army into the camps; Palestinians are responsible for their own security, and different groups control different camps.)
But by 2006 Syrian intelligence officials had begun to suspect Fatah al Intifada might have become a jihadist group. They had been extensively recruiting Saudi, Jordanian and other non-Palestinians to their ranks. Officials learned that meetings and leaflets in Lebanese refugee camps were calling for an independent Islamic state in northern Lebanon and Syria.
Two key events furthered the suspicions. Syrian authorities stopped at least one convoy of small arms being transported from the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq, through Syria, on its way to Lebanon. Non-Palestinians were also using Fatah al Intifada ID cards to smuggle weapons into Lebanon.
Under a long-standing agreement between the two countries, according to a second Syrian intelligence source, “people with Fatah al Intifada ID cards can easily cross the border and carry weapons for use in the Lebanese refugee camps.”
In December 2006, Syrian authorities arrested Fatah al Intifada co-founder Abu Khalid Omla, whom they had sheltered for years in Damascus. The second intelligence source told me Omla had squirreled away $20 million in Damascus real estate and foreign bank accounts.
Fatah al Intifada formally expelled Omla in December 2006, just a few weeks after a jihadist website announced that a new group, Fatah al Islam, had split off from Fatah al Intifada; Omla had been secretly backing Fatah al Islam, according to Syrian intelligence sources. Soon, Fatah al Islam fighters took over Fatah al Intifada’s military role in the Nahr al Bared camp.
Another of the splinter group’s leaders was a former air force pilot trained in Libya, Shaker al Abssi. He had been a leader of Fatah al Intifada. In 2001 he fled Jordan for Syria, where he was arrested, though it’s not clear on what charges. Then in 2002, jihadists assassinated US diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. Abssi was tried and convicted in absentia in Jordan for plotting the murder. Yet Palestinian leaders in Syria managed to secure his release from prison, and in 2004 he was allowed to move back to Lebanon—where, it seems, he began organizing jihadists.
“We didn’t know they were takfiri [jihadists],” Abu Hazem, a top Fatah al Intifada leader who lives in Damascus, told me. “They told us they were training these guys to fight Israel. Suddenly, we found out they were being trained to fight Shiites in Lebanon.”
Syrian officials blamed Lebanese conservatives and the United States for the rise of the Lebanese jihadists. Fatah al Intifada and other Syrian sources told me that Fatah al Islam’s funds came from the powerful Lebanese Hariri family, which aimed to create a Sunni counterbalance to the Shia-based Hezbollah. Syrian intelligence sources say the US and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan also financed Fatah al Islam, though they produced no proof of these allegations despite repeated requests.
Their analysis does echo the accounts of the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, who has reported that according to US intelligence sources, the Bush administration, Prince Bandar, and Lebanese member of Parliament Saad Hariri were trying to develop a Sunni alternative to Shiite-dominated Hezbollah. Writing before the current fighting began, Hersh named Fatah al Islam as one of those groups.
Lebanese newspaper accounts also confirmed that the Hariri family had paid money to Jund al Sham, another Jihadist group, which is fighting in a Palestinian camp in southern Lebanon.
Washington has a long history of supporting Sunni fundamentalists for reasons of political expediency, from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to fundamentalist Mujahideen factions in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. In Lebanon, it appears, the US began to sour on the jihadists earlier this year, realizing that they were neither reliable nor capable of becoming much of a force against Hezbollah. Unnamed US intelligence sources were a key source for a New York Times article about Fatah al Islam and similar groups in March. The article suggested that these groups were part of a new generation of al Qaeda fundamentalists with no ties to the US
The current fighting appears to have begun when Fatah al Islam demanded a raise from Hariri’s minions, along with a permanent base in the Nahr al-Bared camp. Hariri’s men, according to a Syrian intelligence official, cut off the group’s funds in retaliation. According to one account, Fatah al Islam militants went to get their pay at a Hariri-owned bank and were refused, whereupon they robbed the bank.
Freelance journalist and Lebanon expert Franklin Lamb managed to sneak into the Nahr al Bared refugee camp during the first few days of the fighting; he reports on the alleged Hariri financing and the bank robbery here.
After the bank robbery, Hariri-aligned security forces killed some Fatah al Islam members, Fatah al Islam fighters attacked unsuspecting Lebanese army soldiers—and the war was on. The fighting escalated beyond the plans of anyone involved, a stark reminder that those who hope to use Sunni fundamentalists as a counter-weight to Hezbollah and Iran risk the weight swinging back to hit them.
Reese Erlich’s article on Kurdish guerrillas appeared in the March-April issue of Mother Jones. His new book, The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US Policy and the Middle East Crisis, comes out in October.
Hamas Acted on a Very Real Fear of a US-sponsored Coup
Jonathan Steele / The Guardian
(June 22, 2007) — Did they jump or were they pushed? Was Hamas’s seizure of Fatah security offices in Gaza unprovoked, or a pre-emptive strike to forestall a coup by Fatah? After last week’s turmoil, it becomes increasingly important to uncover its origins. The fundamental cause is, of course, well known. Israel, aided by the US, was not prepared to accept Hamas’s victory in last year’s Palestinian elections.
Backed by a supine EU, the two governments decided to boycott their new Palestinian counterparts politically and punish Palestinian voters by blocking economic aid. Their policies had a dramatic effect, turning Gaza even more starkly into an open prison and creating human misery on a massive scale. The aim was to turn voters against Hamas – a strategy of stupidity as well as cynicism, since outside pressure usually produces resistance rather than surrender.
The policy shocked even moderate western officials like James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank chief, whom the Americans had appointed to help Gaza’s economy before the Hamas election victory. “The result was not to build more economic activity but to build more barriers,” he said this week while explaining why he resigned in disagreement with US and Israeli strategy.
It is also well known that Hamas was as surprised by its election victory as everyone else and that it offered its rival, Fatah, a coalition government of national unity. The offer was refused. If this was done initially out of wounded pride, Fatah’s rejection of Hamas’s regularly repeated overtures increasingly appeared to be coordinated with Washington as part of the boycott strategy.
Reports have been circulating for months of a more sinister side to the boycott. According to them, the US decided last year on a plan to arm and train Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guard in a deliberate effort to confront and defeat Hamas militarily. Israel has already locked up several dozen Hamas legislators and mayors from the West Bank. The next stage was to do the same in Gaza but have Palestinians, rather than Israelis, run the crackdown.
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.
Documents doing the rounds in the Middle East purport to have evidence for Abrams’s “hard coup” strategy. One text recounts Washington’s objectives as expressed in US officials’ conversations with an Arab government. These are, among others, “to maintain President Abbas and Fatah as the centre of gravity on the Palestinian scene”, “avoid wasting time in accommodating Hamas’s ideological conditions”, “undermine Hamas’s political status through providing for Palestinian economic needs”, and “strengthen the Palestinian president’s authority to be able to call and conduct early elections by autumn 2007”.
The document is dated March 2, less than a month after Saudi Arabia brokered the Mecca agreement under which Abbas finally agreed with Hamas on a unity government. The deal upset the Israelis and Washington because it left Hamas’s prime minister Ismail Haniyeh in charge.
The document suggests the US wanted to sabotage it. Certainly, according to Hamas officials whom a depressed Abbas later briefed, Abbas 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.
Most ominously, the document of US objectives outlined a $1.27bn programme that would add seven special battalions, totalling 4,700 men, to the 15,000 Abbas already has in his presidential guard and other security forces, which were also to be given extra training and arms. “The desired outcome 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,” the document says.
Alastair Crooke, a former Middle East adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and current head of a research institute in Beirut, points out that Israel blocked some arms deliveries. It was wary of sending too many into Gaza for fear Fatah might lose them, as indeed has happened. In this sense, only part of the plan went ahead. (Britain has played a small part in helping Abbas’s security forces. It has provided about £350,000 of “non-lethal” equipment this year for protecting the Karni freight crossing between Gaza and Israel.)
But Crooke says Hamas was irritated that the Mecca deal was being sabotaged, notably by the refusal of Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s long-time Gaza strongman and head of the Preventive Security Forces, to accept the authority of the independent interior minister appointed to the unity government. “Dahlan refused to deal with him, and put his troops on the streets in defiance of the interior minister. Hamas felt they had little option but to take control of security away from forces which were in fact creating insecurity,” Crooke says.
Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas spokesman, confirms the movement thought it had to move fast. In his words, last week’s events were “precipitated by the American and Israeli policy of arming elements of the Fatah opposition who want to attack Hamas and force us from office”.
While Hamas has successfully blocked the US-Fatah plans for Gaza, Abbas is trying to implement them in the West Bank by forming an emergency government. The policy is doomed since the constitution says such a government can only last 30 days. Parliament has to renew it by a two-thirds majority, and parliament is controlled by Hamas. The only sensible policy for Abbas must be to end the effort to marginalise Hamas. He should go back to the Mecca agreement and support a unity government. Even now, Hamas says it is willing to do so.
Where does all this leave the White House idea to involve Tony Blair as a Middle Eastern envoy? It creates a “coalition of the discredited” – Bush, Olmert and Blair – and sounds like something from a satire since Blair has no credibility with Hamas or most other Palestinians. Better to leave it to the Saudis to revive the Mecca deal, or wait until Abbas realises he has fallen into a trap. Neither common sense nor democratic principles, let alone time, are on Fatah’s side.
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