Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fatah Troops Enter Gaza With Israeli Assent

Hundreds Were Trained in Egypt Under U.S.-Backed Program to
Counter Hamas

By Scott Wilson

The Washington Post
18 May 2007

JERUSALEM, May 17 -- Israel this week allowed the Palestinian
party Fatah to bring into the Gaza Strip as many as 500 fresh
troops trained under a U.S.-coordinated program to counter
Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that won Palestinian
parliamentary elections last year. Fighting between Hamas and
Fatah has left about 45 Palestinians dead since Sunday.

The forces belong to units loyal to the elected Palestinian
Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Fatah leader
whom the Bush administration and Israel have sought to
strengthen militarily and politically. A spokeswoman for the
European Union Border Assistance Mission at Rafah, where the
fighters crossed into Gaza from Egypt, said their entry
Tuesday was approved by Israel.

The troops' deployment illustrates the increasingly partisan
role that Israel and the Bush administration are taking in the
volatile Palestinian political situation. The effort to
fortify the armed opposition to Hamas, which the United States
and Israel categorize as a terrorist organization, follows
attempts to isolate the radical Islamic movement
internationally and cut off its sources of financial aid.

Israel on Thursday also carried out a series of airstrikes
against Hamas targets across Gaza, killing at least six
gunmen. [Additional airstrikes early Friday killed four
people, doctors in Gaza told the Associated Press.]

Fatah, the movement formerly led by Yasser Arafat, has
recognized Israel, in contrast to Hamas, whose charter calls
for the creation of a future Islamic state across territory
that now includes the Jewish state. The two Palestinian
parties -- one secular, one Islamic -- have been fighting for
control of various security services and, by extension,
political power and patronage since Hamas won democratic
elections in January 2006.

Hamas's militant brand of Islam has given it dominant
political standing in impoverished Gaza, where many of its
leaders were born or arrived as refugees, while Fatah remains
strong in the wealthier and more secular West Bank.

The Bush administration recently approved $40 million to train
the Palestinian Presidential Guard, a force of about 4,000
troops under Abbas's direct control, but both Israel and the
United States, each deeply unpopular among Arabs in the
region, have been trying to avoid the perception of taking
sides in a conflict that this week in Gaza has resembled a
nascent civil war. Many within Fatah are avowed opponents of
Israel, and any alliance with the Jewish state against the
militant movement could damage Fatah's standing among

"We're not the ones giving these forces operational orders.
That will be up to Abbas," said Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy
defense minister, asserting that Hamas's arms smuggling from
the Sinai and military training in Iran have given the
movement a battlefield advantage. "The idea is to change the
balance, which has been in favor of Hamas and against Fatah.
With these well-trained forces, it will help right that

As Palestinian rocket fire into Israel continued Thursday, the
Israeli air force conducted a series of strikes across Gaza,
from which Israel withdrew in 2005 after a nearly four-decade

The airstrikes killed at least six Hamas gunmen that Israeli
officials said were involved in rocket assaults on Israeli
towns near Gaza. Among those killed was Imad Shabanah, a Hamas
military leader who Hamas officials acknowledged had taken
part in manufacturing rockets. His car was hit as it traveled
through Gaza City.

"All options for our response are open," said Fawzi Barhoum, a
Hamas spokesman in Gaza. Some Hamas military leaders said
specifically that "martyrdom operations," or suicide bombings,
could be used in retaliation for the Israeli airstrikes.

Israeli military officials said Palestinian gunmen fired at
least 17 rockets Thursday from Gaza, bringing the three-day
total to more than 80. At least seven fell Thursday in the
border town of Sderot, wounding several Israelis and damaging
a synagogue, a high school and a building inside an industrial
park, military officials said. One Israeli woman was seriously
wounded by rocket fire earlier this week, and dozens of others
have suffered light to moderate injuries or have been treated
for shock.

A small number of Israeli tanks also pushed just inside
northern Gaza, the first ground operation there this year, and
an artillery battery took up position on the border. Israeli
military officials called both deployments defensive measures.

Israel has used shelling and limited ground operations in the
past to stop Palestinian rocket fire. But the results have
never been decisive against a weapon that is cheap, highly
mobile and difficult to detect until it has been fired. The
Israeli tactics have also resulted in many Palestinian
civilian deaths.

"Hamas has essentially gone back to what we always knew they
were -- a terrorist organization acting as a government," said
Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert. "What they are trying to do is drag Israel back into
Gaza after we left every inch of it. We do not want to rule

The factional fighting cooled Thursday in the shadow of
Israel's stepped-up military operations. But Fatah gunmen
ambushed a Hamas funeral procession in Gaza, killing two men
in the crowd.

Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because
they were not authorized to discuss the subject, said the
decision to allow Fatah troops into Gaza this week was based
on trying to help Abbas take control of northern Gaza. That
area is the prime launching ground for the erratic if lethal
rockets known as Qassams.

"If you look at exit scenarios for what's going on there now,
you could have a force loyal to Abbas in northern Gaza that
could be highly useful to Israel," one Israeli official said.
"But within the larger crisis you have to be careful. We don't
want to be a part of this conflict, so this is a balancing

The troops were trained by Egyptian authorities under a
program coordinated by Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, a special
U.S. envoy to the region who has been working to improve
security in Gaza and the West Bank in order to foster
Israeli-Palestinian economic alliances in the short term and
peace prospects over time.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said Dayton had not yet begun his phase of training
Fatah forces because the funding was only recently approved.
He said none of the troops who arrived in Gaza this week were
trained with U.S. funds.

Although it is under Abbas's authority, the Presidential Guard
is run by Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah lawmaker who has worked
closely with several U.S. administrations. Abbas named Dahlan
his national security adviser after Hamas and Fatah agreed in
February to establish a power-sharing government.

The appointment infuriated Hamas leaders, who despise Dahlan
for the crackdown he carried out against them as head of the
Preventive Security branch following the 1993 Oslo accords.
Hamas opposed the agreement, which created the Palestinian

"This is a complex situation, and we clearly hear Abbas say he
wants to stop terrorism," a second Israeli official said. "But
he has not been able to extend his authority over all of

Israeli officials said the forces, whom one Israeli Defense
Ministry official called "Dayton's guys," were trained in
Egypt and numbered between 400 and 500 men.

Although Israel handed the Rafah crossing over to Palestinian
and Egyptian control after evacuating Gaza, it maintains the
ability to deny entry to anyone it does not want to pass
through the terminal. It frequently employs this prerogative
to prevent known members of armed Palestinian groups from
entering the strip.

Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for the E.U. Border Assistance
Mission deployed at Rafah as part of the turnover agreement,
said the men arrived in several buses. "We had been informed
they were arriving," Telleria said. "But this was coordinated
between Israel and the Palestinian government. All we did was
monitor the crossing."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this

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