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Intensified bombing adds to the misery
Israel's hidden war on Gaza

August 11, 2006 | Page 9

ISRAEL'S WAR against the 1.4 million Palestinians of Gaza has intensified while the world's attention has been dominated by the Israeli assault on Lebanon.

Bombings of power stations and key infrastructure have intensified the misery already caused by U.S.-Israeli sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority (PA) following the victory of the Islamist Hamas party in elections held last January. Meanwhile, Israeli assassinations, constant artillery fire and raids claimed the lives of 163 Palestinians in Gaza in July, the most of any month since 2002. And 36 of the victims were minors.

The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that Israel has fired 12,000 artillery shells into Gaza since late June, when Palestinian guerillas captured an Israeli soldier. According to the United Nations Children Fund, 838,000 Palestinian children in Gaza are "bearing the brunt of disproportionate shelling and attacks."

TOUFIC HADDAD is a Palestinian activist and co-author of a forthcoming book on social movements in the Occupied Territories. He spoke with LEE SUSTAR on the background to Israel's war on Gaza.

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HAS ISRAEL'S military attack on Gaza expanded as a result of the Lebanon war?

THE FORMAL pretext for what is taking place is the capture of the Israeli soldier that took place in June near Gaza. But as is the case in the Lebanon campaign, Israel used a pretext to carry out prior plans.

What they did was bomb the electricity plant that supplies 80 percent of Gaza. Then there was the mass arrest of elected officials from Hamas, all in the West Bank. That is an indication in itself that Israel saw an opportunity to collapse the government--to make it impossible for it to operate. All that took place before the Lebanon campaign.

So, basically, you are in a situation now where one-third of the government is in jail, one-third is in hiding, supposedly, and the remaining one-third aren't doing much, according to officials. That is by design.

The plan for this predates not just the Lebanon campaign, but also the capture of the Israeli soldier in Gaza. We need to look at this in context of Israel's historical policy, particularly ratcheted up in 2000 following the failed Camp David negotiations and the beginning of the second Intifada.

Since then, Israel has worked consistently to erode and weaken the centralized national Palestinian movement. What it is doing today to the elected government of Hamas it did earlier to elected government of Yasser Arafat's Fatah.

It is a policy of force. The intention is to get rid of the national leadership structures--either to force a more submissive government, or take away the opportunity for Palestinians to self-govern and self-organize.

IS ISRAEL trying to prop up Fatah and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) against Hamas, and foment civil war between them?

ISRAEL DOES not even have any pretensions that if Abbas--or Abu Mazen--were to come to power, he would be willing or able to do what they want. All of Israel's policies are directed toward making life hell for Palestinians in Gaza.

This assumption that they could resuscitate Abu Mazen at some stage when they get rid of the Hamas government, and that he or some other strongman would do their work, is dead wrong.

Israel had the opportunity to prop up Abu Mazen if it had wanted to--after Yasser Arafat died and before Hamas was elected. But it opted not to do so. It carried out a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, not even coordinating this with the PA in any manner--even though there was some indication that the PA wanted to do so, and perhaps make it look like the PA's own achievement.

But [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon was against that. This was Israel's issue, and Israel would do what it wanted. Israel arrived at this conclusion and modus operandi because it understands--and I think this is accurate--that by this stage, power in the Occupied Territories has been too decentralized and relegated to forces on the ground.

In addition, Israeli policies throughout the Intifada made it impossible for the PA to govern, whether under Fatah or Hamas--by destroying the structures of the PA. It went after all the PA government ministries in Ramallah in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. And today, it is imposing a financial and political siege that is making it impossible for the Hamas government to operate.

That is part of Israel's historical policies--but it is also a reflection that they understand that Palestinian power rests with the movements on the ground. So Israel's efforts are focused on making sure that these movements gain no traction. That's why they carry out targeted assassinations.

In this context, it's important to Israel to smash the Hamas government, because Israel understood that the Hamas government was interested in a more efficient national project--in terms of organization, administration and resistance. So they wanted to nip it in the bud.

At the same time, the Fatah strongmen still exist. They still maintain open channels with the Americans, the Europeans and even the Israelis. They are used here and there to undermine the Palestinian national project and the popular movement.

For that reason, you see the Americans, the Saudis and the Europeans look for ways to funnel money to Abu Mazen. They have even tried to supply Abu Mazen with extra weaponry. They want to protect Abu Mazen and those in the national movement who have retreated from confronting and resisting Israel. They want to preserve this stream in the Palestinian national movement. They don't want it to be bypassed by new movements that are coming up.

At the same time, they don't have any illusions that they can accomplish this goal at this stage. So they want to foment internal distrust among the Palestinians--and before this operation in Gaza, they were becoming successful at it, because sections of the old elite were interested in subverting the Hamas government.

The most important character in this regard is Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of the PA's Preventive Security Service in Gaza under Fatah.

He still has some of the business monopolies he was able to establish in the period after Oslo. He still controls significant sections of the Gaza economy. He is looked upon as someone who can still employ you, and there is a small army of people loyal to him there.

Before the current Israeli military operation began, it was clear that the skirmishes between Hamas and Fatah were instigated by Dahlan himself. In fact, he was secretly recorded saying that after Hamas took office, these skirmishes would take place--because when Hamas took power, it didn't get control of the security services.

One of the things Hamas was interested in doing was restoring law and order, for lack of better words. This wasn't to discipline and punish the people of Gaza. Rather, there is a serious situation developing as a result of the collapse of civil society--family disputes, theft, extortion, kidnappings. This was a result of poverty and the lack of an organized system with the legitimacy to deal with these problems.

Hamas didn't go in and try to do this with their military wing. They tried to recruit elements of Fatah in the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). That's when we saw elements of Fatah from the old elite try to stop Hamas from being able to govern, and Israel moved to impose a financial siege of Hamas, saying with the U.S. and European Union that it would find ways to get money and resources to Abu Mazen.

Israel tried to promote the idea that if the Palestinians are ever going to get anything internationally or through Israel, it would be through Fatah and people like Abu Mazen and Dahlan, and not Hamas.

In addition, Israel began assassinating the leaders of the PRC, the vanguard faction of Fatah that had developed after Oslo. These were the people who carried the flag, so to speak, of the Palestinian national movement and had a sense of where it needs to go.

For example, in June, Israel used a rocket attack to assassinate Jalal Abu Samhadana, a member of Fatah who had led the PRC and had recently been named by the Hamas government as director general of the Palestinian interior ministry, in charge of security services.

WHAT DOES the PRC represent?

IN MANY ways, they are the conscience of the national movement--people who have been in the struggle for a long time and who have in many ways led this Intifada, both in terms of resistance and politically, although their political side is not developed.

The PRCs were formed by elements of the security services out of the need to defend the Palestinian population at the beginning of the second Intifada. These people had been given jobs by the PA after Oslo out of fear of what they would do. From the beginning, there were elements in Fatah who were against Oslo and were very suspicious of the security arrangements that were set up.

The PRCs are more concentrated in Gaza. Mainly, they are Fatah, but they work cross-factionally. There are Islamists on one side and independent leftists on the other. They exist for the most part in Gaza, where the Israelis cannot conduct raids or arrest people, because they are scared to come down to the ground.

HOW DOES the recent Palestinian prisoners' letter on national unity fit into this picture?

THE PRCs are the political leadership of a cross-factional, anti-Oslo, pro-reform, pro-resistance stream, and those in prison represent the same elements.

The prisoners do come together in certain situations to come up with documents, and act as the conscience of Palestinian society. It's the same thing in a different context.

WHAT IS happening in the West Bank?

AFTER ARAFAT died, the West Bank in many ways become peripheral to Palestinian politics.

Although the West Bank is much bigger than Gaza, the concentration of population is much smaller. The biggest cities, Nablus and Hebron, have populations of 200,000 each, which is the size of a small town in Gaza.

And it is being carved up by Israel to facilitate control--with the "security wall," bypass roads and settlements. There is a regime of several dozen quadrants that Palestinians are forced to live in. Whenever Israel wants to do something to a person or organization in one quadrant, they rush the place with 30 or 40 armored personnel carries, kill or arrest someone, and get out.

We see on a daily basis an effort to assassinate or arrest key activists. They want to make sure that what is happening in Gaza doesn't happen in the West Bank. In Gaza, the resistance is more sophisticated--there is a full-blown weapons production system.

WHAT ARE the politics of social movements in the Occupied Territories?

PEOPLE TEND to look at the situation in Palestinian politics as just Fatah and Hamas. But in reality, the situation on the ground is very different.

Even today, Hamas, which has its own project and ideas, is only an intermediary body, in the sense that there are more radical social movements which are organizing people on the ground and have local legitimacy. For instance, the entire south of Gaza is organized and controlled by local groupings. Some people have connections to Hamas, some to Fatah, but their commitment is to a national cause and their constituency.

Even the talk of a "Hamas government" isn't quite right. It's important to say that it's an elected Palestinian government that has Hamas in it right now. And even if the Hamas government were to collapse, or all of its leaders imprisoned or killed, you have below it a movement.

When Hamas took office, it had to negotiate both the arrangements that Fatah had made, as well as a much more radical base. At this stage, power really rests below, on the ground.

The reality, however, is that all the forces are quite weak. You can't recreate structures of sustaining a national movement and providing jobs for people overnight. That's why the Hamas government was looked upon favorably--they were seen as having the capacity to do this.

A lot of the energy and sacrifice has been used to get rid of, or marginalize, elements of the national movement that were taking it in a direction of losing its national rights. Although the Intifada was directed against the Israelis--and that's what it's about--an aspect of it is that it has worked to marginalize the stream of Fatah that had led to Oslo.

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