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The Times November 18, 2006

Diplomats fear US wants to arm Fatah for 'war on Hamas'

AMERICAN proposals to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian security forces with additional guns and fighters have alarmed other Western nations, who argue that it is tantamount to supporting one faction in a potential civil war.

Fearing the strength of Hamas in Gaza, some US officials have urged that the moderate President Abbas should be given “deterrent capability” so that his Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority forces can confront the Islamist group if talks on a national unity government fail.

The divisions have led to a stand-off over the past month, with US officials saying that the unity government proposal had “no legs”. Other members of the “quartet” of international mediators — made up of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — say that it should be given a chance instead of arming one of the Palestinian factions.

Proposals raised at meetings in London and Cairo include doubling the size of Mr Abbas’s presidential guard and persuading Israel to allow thousands of rifles into Gaza to alleviate its chronic shortage of weapons relative to Hamas.

Fatah officials have asked for more than 1,000 reinforcements from the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Badr Brigades, in exile in Jordan.

One Western official said that non-American quartet members emerged from one meeting convinced that the US wanted President Abbas to dismiss the Hamas Government, and to use his security forces to “confront Hamas politically and militarily, having confronted it economically”.

“There was effectively a stand-off. As far as we are concerned, what the Americans are proposing to do is back one side in an emerging civil war,” said a western official familiar with the discussions.

Opponents argued that the international community had accepted the participation of Hamas in elections and should therefore look to support a national unity government. Hamas won elections last January but instantly became international pariahs. Sanctions and an aid freeze have left the Palestinian Government broke and unable to pay 160,000 civil servant salaries.

The Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, announced a new Middle East peace initiative with France and Italy yesterday. Central to the plan were an immediate ceasefire, a prisoner exchange, talks between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President, international ceasefire monitors and a national unity government. Israeli officials dismissed the overture.

Some in Washington are sceptical about a new Palestinian coalition, believing that it will be too close to Hamas and will refuse three international demands — to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements.

“Everybody wants to support Abbas, but there is a difference of opinion on how best you do it — or how much you are supporting him against Hamas against how much you are supporting him as President, which are not necessarily the same things,” said one international observer.

“A lot of what the Americans were saying was, ‘If there is going to be a fight, we might as well make sure the right person wins’. We would have a difference of opinion there. You really don’t want to be encouraging a civil war.”

The US insists that it has a good relationship with its partners. “We are continuing discussions and working things out. I think it is a little premature to be talking about a civil war as talks about a national unity government are still ongoing,” said a spokeswoman at the US Consulate in Jerusalem yesterday.

Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, confirmed that senior US diplomats travelled this week to Jordan to meet neighbouring Arab leaders, some of whom are hostile to Hamas.

Mr McCormack said that Washington was doing what it could to try to make sure that if the Palestinians produced a government that met the standards of the quartet statement, He said that Hamas had had failed in its attempt to govern.

The quartet has survived previous differences, notably the European insistence on alleviating Palestinian suffering with a temporary international mechanism that channelled salaries directly to some health workers when it became apparent that the international embargo on Hamas left Palestinian institutions near to collapse.

Alvaro de Soto, the UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said: “The need to get a grip on law and order is one of the key reasons for pushing ahead with an agreed new national unity government. Only this could bring about what has been desperately missing until now, which is the security bodies under the authority of the President and those controlled by the Government, instead of facing each other off on the streets and even shooting at each other, working cohesively not only to fight crime and ensure stability but also to act against those who fire rockets into Israel.”

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