Sep 1 2007

‘I Like This Violence’

Censoring the U.S. role in Gaza’s civil war

The big story from the Middle East last June was the factional fighting in Gaza that ended in a victory for the Hamas party and the routing of forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement. The violence made the front pages of the major papers—the New York Times (6/14/07), Washington Post (6/14/07), the Los Angeles Times (6/15/07)—and the cover of Newsweek (6/25/07). The overall message was simple: As the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson described it (6/15/07), the episode represented “a sharp escalation in intensity, brutality and ambition on the part of Hamas forces.”

As for the events that led up to Hamas’ takeover and the Bush administration’s role in them, these were hardly a secret—at least for the specialists who follow politics in the region closely. But Americans who rely on the mainstream media for their news were left in the dark as reporters did their best to keep any hint of the crucial background out of their coverage.

The facts are no mystery. The previous February, Hamas and Fatah had joined together in a national unity government in an effort to put an end to street fighting and factionalism within the Palestinian administration (Extra!, 9-10/06). The announcement of the power-sharing agreement, forged under Saudi auspices at a summit in Mecca, was greeted with nearly universal relief: “In the streets of Gaza, Palestinians broke out in celebration as the agreement was being announced, with members of Hamas and Fatah firing into the air,” the New York Times reported (2/9/07).

But while Hamas and much of Fatah were strongly supportive of the power-sharing deal, the U.S. and Israel were not. Since Hamas’ 2006 election victory, they had been unwilling to tolerate even Hamas’ presence in the government, much less the leading role the vote entitled it to. Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who largely supports the White House’s policy of isolating Hamas, reacted to news of the Mecca agreement by calling it a “considerable embarrassment” for the Bush administration (Time, 2/9/07): “They were expecting that [Abbas], backed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would be moving into a process of excluding Hamas. . . . They didn’t want him to compromise with Hamas.”

Since the whole idea behind the power-sharing agreement was to avert a potential Palestinian civil war, it may seem as if the Bush administration, by opposing the Mecca deal, was unwittingly making such a conflict more likely. In fact, there was nothing unwitting about it. The Americans had candidly sketched their strategy at a November meeting of the International Quartet (made up of diplomats from the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia), where the American security envoy, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, had argued that Abbas should be supported “by whatever means necessary to help him take on Hamas,” as the Economist put it (11/16/06). The other three Quartet envoys “balked at this idea as ‘tantamount to backing one side in a future civil war,’” according to the magazine’s diplomatic source. But the U.S., in conjunction with a reluctant Israel, went ahead and executed the policy on its own.

Over the months that followed, reports rolled in of weapons being shipped to Fatah forces with an Israeli green light (Ha’aretz, 12/28/06); the arrival in Gaza of hundreds of fighters trained under U.S. auspices in neighboring countries (Washington Post, 5/18/07); and a White House request for $83 million from Congress to finance “non-lethal aid” to Fatah forces (AP, 1/19/07).

In Israel, it was obvious what was going on. Ha’aretz’s chief diplomatic correspondent, Akiva Eldar, noted (4/24/07) that “arming the [pro-Abbas] Palestinian Presidential Guard is part of Elliott Abrams’ plan to bury the Mecca agreement.” (See The Return of Elliott Abrams)

The Israeli paper’s Palestinian affairs reporter, Danny Rubinstein (4/24/07), discussed the “preparations that Fatah is making for renewing the bloody battles between the organizations” and pointed out that Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan was “getting a lot of money from the United States and is training thousands of recruits.” Israeli opposition leader Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo accords, warned (Ha’aretz, 4/17/07) that “arming one element in the PA due to the intention to see Fatah twist Hamas’ arm soon could end up as a terrible boomerang.”

If any proof were needed that the U.S. was trying to foment a civil war, it arrived just as the violence in Gaza was reaching a crescendo—in the form of an internal report by Alvaro De Soto, the U.N. envoy to the Quartet, that was leaked to the London Guardian (6/13/07). In De Soto’s report, the full text of which can be found at the Guardian’s website, the Peruvian diplomat wrote:

The U.S. clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas —so much so that, a week before Mecca, the U.S. envoy [presumably Assistant Secretary of State David Welch] declared twice in an envoys’ meeting in Washington how much “I like this violence,” referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because “it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”

To summarize: At a moment when violence in Gaza was a top story in the world media, it was disclosed by a U.N. diplomat who worked closely with the U.S. that a leading American policymaker in a private meeting had openly rejoiced at the violence and saw it as proof that American policy was working.

One might think that would count as major news. Not for the U.S. media. Although a handful of outlets mentioned the leaked De Soto report, including AP (6/13/07), NPR (6/13/07), CNN (6/13/07) and the L.A. Times (6/14/07), all of these omitted any reference to the anecdote about the U.S official—even though it had been specifically highlighted in the Guardian article that was the source of the story.

The McClatchy News Service did report the quote in a July 4 dispatch, but the story ran in only two papers found in the Nexis database, and both of them removed the line about the American envoy’s remarks (San Jose Mercury News, 7/5/07; Newsday, 7/8/07). Only Newsweek (in a June 25 story about the flight of the Gazan middle class) and the Washington Post (near the end of a brief June 14 story on the inside pages) reported the comment in passing.

The events in Gaza represented a failure of U.S. policy, of course, but only because of the way they ended. Washing-ton officials had sought to foment a civil war in hopes that Fatah would prevail. In the end, they succeeded in bringing on the conflict—but the wrong side won. Hamas had essentially carried out a preemptive counter-coup against elements of Fatah that the U.S. had been helping to prepare for a civil war. The former director of the Mossad, Efraim Halevy, put it very simply (New Republic Online, 7/3/07): “An American plan to create a viable Fatah force in the Gaza Strip to crush Hamas backfired.”

This was the simple truth that virtually no American journalist was willing to disclose. In the wave of reporting and commentary that followed the Gaza fighting, journalists felt free to describe Hamas’ victory as “a massive setback for the United States, which backs Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas” (CNN, 6/14/07), but they scrupulously avoided any allusion to the fact that the U.S. had sought the Palestinian confrontation in the first place.

In a typical article analyzing how the Hamas victory illustrated the “failure of Bush’s Middle East vision,” the Washington Post (6/15/07) rehearsed the recent history of U.S. policy while carefully airbrushing out the Bush administration’s barely concealed machinations for a coup d’etat: Following Hamas’ 2006 election victory, the article explained, Washington “organized a financial boycott” in an “effort to showcase Abbas as a moderate.” But then Abbas “agreed to a unity government” with Hamas. Just as the U.S. had “begun delivering nonlethal aid” to bolster Abbas’ forces, “Hamas decided to strike and seize Gaza.”

Wait: If the parties had reconciled, why was the U.S. aiding one side’s fighters? The Post article tactfully declined to explain.

In a news analysis the day after the Gaza takeover (6/14/07), New York Times reporter Helene Cooper wrote without irony that “America’s options are limited in part because its role has been limited, with the Bush administration pursuing what for the most part has been a hands-off policy toward the Palestinians.” As evidence of the hands-off policy, Cooper pointed to a statement from White House spokesperson Tony Snow, who with a straight face had “said that the hope of averting a wider civil war remained largely in the Palestinians’ hands.”

The specialists who did not have to rely on the mainstream U.S. media for their information knew better. “Everybody knew a force was being trained in the Gaza Strip to confront Hamas,” a former senior Israeli government official told McClatchy (7/4/07) in the story that was run by only two papers. “To assume that Hamas would sit idly by and wait for this to culminate in success was very short-sighted.” Reading the coverage of the Gaza takeover, however, what “everybody knew” seemed to be one of Washington’s most closely guarded secrets.