Monday, September 25, 2006

Next on the agenda: Palestine

Fresh from her diplomatic triumphs in Lebanon and elsewhere, US Secretary of State Rice will next turn her attention to Palestine, having announced a visit to the region soon. Already the market prices for Kalashnikov rifles in the West Bank have doubled to around $4500, and M19s tripled to around $9000 (according to Al-Quds al-Arabi on Monday September 25), as Hamas and Fatah militants prepare to battle one another over how best to deal with the situation.

The newspaper says Hamas has been concentrating its weapons-buying in the West Bank, where rival Fatah is strongest, adding there has been noticeable smuggling from arms dealers in Israel drawn by the attractive profits. Fatah, for its part, is said to have benefited from a wholesale deal arranged by one of its parliamentary members, involving smuggling from Egypt of some 2500 "units" (guns) along with 100,000 rounds of ammunition for the Kalashinkovs and a quantity of ammunition for for the nine millimeter as well (readers are expected to know what that is). The Hamas buying in the West Bank started in back in April, the Fatah deal is described as having been concluded around two months ago. The newspaper's intelligence source says the purpose behind all of this buying and stockpiling is the prospect of Hamas-Fatah fighting.

Naturally, to a lot of Western readers, this won't compute. Why would the two main political umbrella groups be preparing to fight one another, rather than a common enemy?

Good question. But I think this is also a good illustration why the standard narrative about enlightenment and good intentions by the West in the Middle East isn't necessarily the best-suited for understanding these events. According to the point of view represented by Al-Quds al-Arabi, for instance, Fatah has become functionally part of the corrupt Arab-regime establishment, manipulable either directly by Washington, or indirectly via Egypt. The recent Hamas electoral victory was primarily a case of throwing out the corrupt old guard, and installing clean government.

The Israeli blockade and the Western aid-cutoff have stymied the Hamas government, making it impossible to pay state employees or alleviate hunger. A practical solution seemed to be for the two sides (Hamas and Fatah) to dial down their differences, forming a coalition government that could somehow find a formula at least for the resumption of Western aid and the alleviation of suffering.

Palestinians awoke Monday to newspaper headlines about the resumption of Hamas-Fatah talks to this end. But by afternoon Abbas was refusing to meet with the Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh over the issue of "recognition of Israel". There is speculation that instead of forming a unity government, Abbas, bolstered by his meeting with President Bush late last week, might be looking to "dismiss" the Hamas government. Views differ on what would take its place. Meanwhile a Hamas minister accuses the office of president Abbas of hoarding large sums of money that could be paid out to alleviate suffering; this is indignantly denied as another example of Hamas perfidy and provocation. Another Hamas official accuses Fatah of deliberately trying to sink the government. Four paramilitary groups have said they would treat any government that recognizes Israel "as an extension of the occupation" and a "legitimate object of attacks". And so it goes.

While Hamas-Fatah fighting might seem unexplainable for a lot of Western readers, it is less so to those accustomed to interpret events through the lens of spreading corruption and subservience to the West.


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