Hamas takeover in Gaza expected to short-circuit US plans

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — A Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip would deal a blow to a US peace push founded on the premise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be capable of reining in fighters and Israel would embrace him as a partner.Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other senior officials said a Hamas victory in factional fighting against Abbas’ secular Fateh movement would cast doubt on Abbas’ ability to deliver on any agreements over a Palestinian state.

While warning of the risk of allowing Hamas to establish its own Iranian-backed mini-state on Israel’s southern border, some Israeli officials said the deteriorating situation could be used by the Jewish state as leverage to get major European and Arab powers to intervene with a large international force in Gaza.

By backing calls for an international deployment that he knows few countries are clamouring to join, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may merely be laying the ground work for Israel to act unilaterally against Hamas fighters in an enclave from which Israel withdrew occupying troops in 2005, the officials said.

A Hamas victory would also seem to dash Bush administration hopes that Abbas and his forces would be able to exercise security control over Gaza, a key Israeli condition for resuming serious peace negotiations.

Some Israeli and Western officials saw the Hamas-led assault as a preemptive strike against US plans to bolster Abbas’ forces for a planned crackdown on cross-border rocket attacks into Israel and smuggling of weaponry to groups.

US President George W. Bush, who hopes for progress in his last year and half in office, will meet Olmert in Washington next week.

“If Hamas takes control of Gaza, this will be significant, not only for what happens in Gaza, but for the ability to reach agreements with [Abbas] and whether it would be possible to implement them in Gaza,” Livni said in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Considered a “terrorist” organisation by the United States, the European Union and Israel, Hamas’ founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state but its leaders have offered a long-term truce with Israel in return for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The territories are only about 45km apart, with Israel in between, but the fighting has highlighted just how different they are. “There is almost a complete separation between Gaza and the West Bank,” Livni said.

The Islamist fighters of Hamas increasingly hold sway in Gaza, while the larger West Bank is dominated by Fatah, whose leaders favour a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. Critics say a Western economic embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas came to power in March 2006, on top of the US military assistance for Abbas, exacerbated tensions and fuelled Islamist resistance. “If you have two brothers put into a cage and deprive them of basic essential needs for life, they will fight,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr said on Wednesday.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said in Washington: “Palestinians are going to have to sort out their politics and figure out which pathway they want to pursue — the pathway toward two states living peaceably side by side or whether this sort of chaos is going to become a problem.” Israeli leaders have mixed feelings about the Bush administration’s push to strengthen Abbas, a leader they long dismissed as powerless. Livni once called him “irrelevant”. Establishing Abbas’ security control over Gaza was a linchpin of US efforts to revive the peace process. Washington has long held that negotiations will go nowhere if Israel cannot be assured that Abbas can curb cross-border attacks. Washington had just launched a nearly $60 million programme to bolster Abbas’ Presidential Guard with advanced training and non-lethal equipment. At Washington’s urging, Israel has allowed Arab states to send arms and ammunition.

But Israel has not been as forthcoming with timely assistance as some of Abbas’ aides and Western officials had hoped, and Olmert has resisted taking other confidence-building steps, angering Washington. Some Israeli officials say Fateh is hopelessly outgunned in Gaza and that any weapons that might be sent to the group now would fall into the hands of Hamas and be used against Israelis. “We want to strengthen the moderates,” Livni said. “But I think the last thing we want to do is to express ourselves in a way that makes it seems we are working together.”

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