As the Palestinian internecine violence in Gaza becomes increasingly severe, alarm in Israel and the US about what is going to happen there grows apace. The prevailing wisdom, promoted for some time now, is that the most constructive approach involves fortifying Fatah so that it might defeat Hamas, which currently has the upper hand.
This thinking recently fostered a US allocation of $56 million to strengthen “forces loyal to [PA president and head of Fatah] Mahmoud Abbas.” Now this very same thinking has led to a request by the US that Israel permit the transfer of arms, ammunition and military equipment from Jordan or Egypt, once again to “forces loyal to Abbas.”
According to the Jerusalem Post, “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been saying recently in closed-door meetings that with all their corruption and other problems, Fatah at least says it is interested in dialogue and wants a two-state solution. Hamas, he has pointed out, is less corrupt, but does not hide its desire to annihilate Israel.” (emphasis added)
One would be hard put to advance a more tentative argument for supporting Abbas. Olmert – along with President Bush and several other heads of state – is following the “Abbas is the best we’ve got, so we have no choice but to go with him” school of thought. It is blatantly obvious that Olmert has no confidence that Fatah means what it says; what is more, implicit in his position is the uneasy knowledge that Fatah is not without a desire to annihilate Israel, but that, unlike Hamas, it is hiding it.
Those who promote the expectation that Abbas and his Fatah will turn out to be a force for moderation are living in a bubble of their own construction. The Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh recently punched a large hole in that bubble. To that end, Abu Toameh shared some basic information: Fatah has between 20,000 and 30,000 militiamen in the Gaza Strip; additionally, there are some 40,000 police and security officers belonging to various security forces that are almost all loyal to Abbas and Fatah. Hamas, in total, has some 15,000 militiamen in Gaza, belonging either to Hamas’s military wing, Izaddin Kassam, or to its paramilitary Executive Force. Not only are Hamas’s militia outnumbered by the Fatah militia, but they are not as well trained.
In spite of the apparent disparity in numbers, however, Fatah forces have not roundly defeated Hamas because not all of Fatah is committed to the battle. In fact, some of its groups are very clearly opposed, expressing considerable reluctance to taking on their fellow Palestinians. An infusion of arms, ammunition and military equipment will not change this situation. Yet the Bush administration proceeds on the ignorant presumption that it will.
That is not the only problem. As it turns out, Fatah’s reluctance to do battle with Hamas is not even the greatest stumbling block to a victory for forces of moderation within the Palestinian Authority. There is also the small matter of a Fatah connection with Iran.
Iran’s direct connection to Hamas is openly discussed and widely acknowledged. Where Fatah is concerned, the issues are more complex; but the link has been established. In March, Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, a Senior Research Scholar with the Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, wrote an Issue Brief for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in which he noted: “There is a growing strategic alliance between Iran and the radical Palestinian forces in the territories. Iran is involved in supporting both the Islamic factions and Fatah, as well. Today, at least 40 percent of Fatah’s different fighting groups are also paid by Hezbollah and Iran.”
Corroborating Harari’s analysis, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, head of the IDF Southern Command, wrote an Issue Brief for the JCPA one month later in which he observed: “A few years ago, Fatah's Al Aqsa Brigade in Judea and Samaria was bought out by Iran.” Checks with various security and intelligence sources have provided additional confirmation of this information. Iranian funding of Fatah is not direct, but comes through the conduit of Hezbollah and goes in the main to Al Aqsa Brigades.
The government of Israel, living in that aforementioned bubble, maintains that Al Aqsa, although originally a spin-off from Fatah, is no longer part of Fatah and no longer answers to Abbas. This spin makes it possible to continue to promote Fatah as potentially moderate, in spite of Al Aqsa’s very radical connections. Experts refute this scenario, however. Said one security source who provided background information: “Abbas is formally the commander of Al Aqsa…he has little to do with them to ensure deniability…but privately supports Al Aqsa. US money to PA security agencies go to Al Aqsa people as well. Indeed, Abbas has ensured that most of the Al Aqsa people are on the payroll.”
Col.(Ret) Jonathan Fighel, who was previously with IDF Intelligence and now serves as a Senior Research Scholar for the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, expressed regret that the Israeli government was maintaining its current position: “In order to justify the on-going dialogue with [Mahmoud Abbas]…this misleading information is presented,” he said. “As far as I know Al Aqsa Brigades are part of Fatah. The claim that they are an undisciplined faction is true. But still they belong to Fatah and are loyal to its agenda. Their violence can be used also by [Abbas] himself for political reason.” The bottom line: “One should be very careful with the Palestinian claim that Al Aqsa Brigades are completely separate, which is not true.”
It would be naïve in the extreme to assume that Abbas is unaware of the Iranian support provided to a militia loyal to him, or that he would fail to utilize that support for his purposes. The implications are enormous and counter all notions of his being a “moderate.” In the face of the evidence, the decision to uncritically bolster Fatah looks like a very bad idea, indeed.