Where do you stand?

With scores of Gazans killed by Israel, the position of President Abbas and the PA comes into focus, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah

With Gazans being killed and maimed in the thousands, and with Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai threatening them a "bigger holocaust", Palestinians -- intellectuals and ordinary people -- are wondering if the present calamity won't unite them, whatever will?

The question is not rhetorical. Israel is taking advantage of the enduring national rift between Hamas and Fatah to wreak as much death and havoc on the Palestinians as the international community -- i.e. the West -- can tolerate, which to say get away with tolerating.

Shamelessly, Israel is telling the world that the killing of children, women and innocent civilians is for the sake of peace and in order to "strengthen" Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas's response to such statements, which only serve to degrade the Palestinian Authority (PA) further in the eyes of the Palestinian people, was an offer to "mediate" between Hamas and Israel.

Akin to Abbas, Information Minister Riyadh Al-Maliki also shirked the burden of national unity in times of necessity, sounding in some measure callous in his response. "We condemn the firing of these futile rockets as much as we condemn the Israeli massacres," Al-Maliki told reporters in Ramallah this week.

Al-Maliki, a former Communist-turned-"realist", further claimed that Hamas was "enabling Al-Qaeda to consolidate a presence in Gaza". President Abbas himself made the same accusation -- which is unfounded -- a few days earlier. These statements have been widely condemned by Hamas as well as by non-Islamist sectors of Palestinian society, with some columnists opining that blaming Hamas amounts to "exonerating Israel" and "inviting an Israeli genocide".

"Al-Maliki is effectively supporting the view that what Israel is doing in Gaza is part and parcel of the worldwide war on terror, and this helps Israel explain its case to the world," wrote one columnist in the Ramallah-based daily Al-Ayam. Veteran Fatah leader Jebril Rajoub reacted as strongly, calling Al-Maliki's remarks " really stupid".

Stupid or not, such remarks undoubtedly undermine further whatever modicum of respect remains for the PA government in Ramallah. Despite Abbas's symbolic suspension of manifestly futile peace talks with Israel, he seems yet unwilling to swallow his pride and reach out to Hamas.

Al-Ahram Weekly asked veteran Palestinian politician Hassan Khreishe why Abbas is still reluctant to reach a rapprochement with Hamas. "Because these people [PA leaders] care more about their own parochial interests than they do about the people's interests," the independent lawmaker said. Khreishe pointed out that the "carnages in Gaza have united the street against Israel". Unfortunately, he added, "the leaders, the politicians, have their own calculations, and it seems that they are awaiting a greater holocaust to realise that they should say 'No' to Israel and the United States."

According to Palestinian columnist Hani Al-Masri, the PA is reluctant to enter into any new partnership with Hamas for two main reasons. First, a new partnership with Hamas would raise the "ceiling of Palestinian demands", especially with regard to Jerusalem and the right of return, which would be unacceptable to Israel. "Israel would then argue that it could not negotiate with a government that includes in its ranks a terrorist organisation that doesn't recognise Israel's right to exist," Al-Masri said.

Second, a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement would likely lead to the reinstitution of American-led international sanctions on the Palestinian Authority as well as the possible cancellation of most or all of the financial assistance pledged by international donors at the Paris conference three months ago.

But even these rationales, which may have some superficial logic, are in the final analysis mere excuses and pretexts, especially in the absence of any meaningful progress towards ending the Israeli occupation. Indeed, Israeli leaders themselves are making no secret of the fact that in addition to trying to topple the Hamas government in Gaza, the main strategic motive behind Israel's atrocities is to clear opposition to a "compromise solution" or "realistic peace deal", which of course means "peace" on Israel's terms.

Israel's terms entail the final liquidation of the Palestinian problem. Of this, despite all supporting evidence, Abbas appears ignorant. Two weeks ago, one Palestinian writer asked Abbas in a private conversation about what alternatives the Palestinian leadership was considering in case peace talks with Israel failed. Baffled, Abbas reportedly admitted that this was "a confusing, embarrassing and frustrating question for which I have no answer".

Perhaps the reason Abbas has no answer relates to the hundreds of millions of dollars the Bush administration has invested in building-up and maintaining the PA regime. This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Cairo Tuesday, is expected to hold talks with Abbas in Ramallah where reportedly she will warn him against "rebuilding bridges with Hamas", pressing instead for the peace process to resume.

Adding to the woes of Abbas, American magazine Vanity Fair published a meticulously researched exposé of PA coordination with the Bush administration in the months leading up to the countercoup that Hamas staged in Gaza in June 2007. The lengthy article alleges that Abbas and his aide Mohamed Dahlan actively conspired with the US administration to provoke civil war in order to bring down the Hamas government.

The following are excerpts from the article:

"Dahlan worked closely with the FBI and the CIA... Dahlan says he warned his friends in the Bush administration that Fatah still wasn't ready for elections in January [2006]... 'Everyone was against the elections,' Dahlan says. Everyone except Bush... The elections went forward as scheduled. On 25 January, Hamas won 56 per cent of the seats in the Legislative Council.

"Few inside the US administration had predicted the result, and there was no contingency plan to deal with it. Washington reacted with dismay when Abbas began holding talks with Hamas in the hope of establishing a 'unity government'. On 4 October 2006, Rice travelled to Ramallah to see Abbas... America's leverage in Palestinian affairs was much stronger than it had been in Arafat's time. Abbas had never had a strong, independent base, and he desperately needed to restore the flow of foreign aid -- and, with it, his power of patronage. He also knew that he could not stand up to Hamas without Washington's help.

"At their joint press conference, Rice smiled as she expressed her nation's 'great admiration' for Abbas's leadership. Behind closed doors, however, Rice's tone was sharper, say officials who witnessed their meeting. Isolating Hamas just wasn't working, she reportedly told Abbas, and America expected him to dissolve the Haniyeh government as soon as possible and hold fresh elections.

"Weeks passed with no sign that Abbas was ready to do America's bidding. Finally, another official was sent to Ramallah. Jake Walles, the consul- general in Jerusalem... His purpose was to deliver a barely varnished ultimatum to the Palestinian president. We know what Walles said because a copy was left behind, apparently by accident, of the 'talking points' memo prepared for him by the State Department.

"'We need to understand your plans regarding a new [Palestinian Authority] government,' Walles's script said. 'You told Secretary Rice you would be prepared to move ahead within two to four weeks of your meeting. We believe that the time has come for you to move forward quickly and decisively.'

"The memo left no doubt as to what kind of action the US was seeking: 'Hamas should be given a clear choice, with a clear deadline: ... they either accept a new government that meets the Quartet principles, or they reject it. The consequences of Hamas's decision should also be clear: If Hamas does not agree within the prescribed time, you should make clear your intention to declare a state of emergency and form an emergency government explicitly committed to that platform.'

"'If you act along these lines, we will support you both materially and politically," the script said. Abbas was also encouraged to 'strengthen' his team to include 'credible figures of strong standing in the international community'. Among those the US wanted brought in, says an official who knew of the policy, was Mohamed Dahlan.

"'[US Assistant Secretary] David Welch didn't fundamentally care about Fatah,' one of his colleagues says. 'He cared about results, and [he supported] whatever son of a bitch you had to support. Dahlan was the son of a bitch we happened to know best. He was a can-do kind of person. Dahlan was our guy.'

"Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who had been appointed the US security coordinator for the Palestinians in November 2005, was in no position to question the president's judgement of Dahlan. In November 2006, Dayton met Dahlan for the first of a long series of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

"The two men agreed that they would work towards a new Palestinian security plan. The idea was to simplify the confusing web of Palestinian security forces and have Dahlan assume responsibility for all of them in the newly created role of Palestinian national security adviser. The Americans would help supply weapons and training.

"'We want to help you,' Dayton said. 'What do you need?'

"A State Department official adds, 'Those in charge of implementing the policy were saying, "Do whatever it takes. We have to be in a position for Fatah to defeat Hamas militarily, and only Mohamed Dahlan has the guile and the muscle to do this." The expectation was that this was where it would end up -- with a military showdown.' There were, this official says, two 'parallel programmes' -- the overt one, which the administration took to Congress, 'and a covert one, not only to buy arms but to pay the salaries of security personnel.'

"Legal or not, arms shipments soon began to take place. In late December 2006, four Egyptian trucks passed through an Israeli-controlled crossing into Gaza, where their contents were handed over to Fatah. These included 2,000 Egyptian-made automatic rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips, and two million bullets.

"The State Department quickly drew up an alternative to the new unity government. Known as 'Plan B', its objective, according to a State Department memo that has been authenticated by an official who knew of it at the time, was to 'enable [Abbas] and his supporters to reach a defined endgame by the end of 2007. The endgame should produce a [Palestinian Authority] government through democratic means that accepts Quartet principles.'

"Like the Walles ultimatum of late 2006, Plan B called for Abbas to 'collapse the government' if Hamas refused to alter its attitude towards Israel. The Bush administration's goals for Plan B were elaborated in a document titled An Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency. This action plan went through several drafts and was developed by the US, the Palestinians, and the government of Jordan. Sources agree, however, that it originated in the State Department.

"The drafts called for increasing the 'level and capacity' of 15,000 of Fatah's existing security personnel while adding 4,700 troops in seven new 'highly trained battalions on strong policing'. The plan also promised to arrange 'specialised training abroad', in Jordan and Egypt, and pledged to 'provide the security personnel with the necessary equipment and arms to carry out their missions'.

"The final draft of the Action Plan was drawn up in Ramallah by officials of the Palestinian Authority. This version was identical to the earlier drafts in all meaningful ways but one: it presented the plan as if it had been the Palestinians' idea. It also said the security proposals had been 'approved by President Mahmoud Abbas after being discussed and agreed [to] by General Dayton's team'.

"On 30 April 2007, a portion of one early draft was leaked to a Jordanian newspaper, Al-Majd. The secret was out. From Hamas's perspective, the Action Plan could amount to only one thing: a blueprint for a US-backed Fatah coup."

The Weekly sought responses from PA officials in Ramallah to the Vanity Fair article. All officials contacted refused to comment.