Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Palestinian Authority Going the Israeli Way

Mel Frykberg

RAMALLAH, Jun 3 2009 (IPS) - A surge in confidence, following unprecedented U.S. political support, led to the Palestinian Authority’s bloody crackdown on a Hamas cell in the northern West Bank on Sunday which left six Palestinians dead.

However, reports of questionable Palestinian Authority (PA) tactics, including the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, has brought the operation into question and left many Palestinians angry.

In the early hours of Sunday morning PA intelligence officers and security forces cornered a group of Hamas gunmen in a building in the northern West Bank city Qalqilia.

Following a long and drawn-out gun battle, two Hamas gunmen, three PA officers and one civilian lost their lives.

Eyewitness reports suggest that in addition to the PA cooperating with Israel on an intelligence level, it also resorted to using some of Israel’s arrest techniques.

One of Al-Jazeera’s correspondents in the area was placed under arrest and taken for interrogation by PA intelligence officers after the network aired controversial footage.

The sequence of events, and who initiated the fight, have been contested by PA and Hamas spokesmen.

According to the PA version of events, the Hamas gunmen shot at them first, and two civilians, including a woman, threw hand grenades at them. Only then did they return fire.

But witnesses allege that the owner of the building and his wife, both elderly cancer patients, were used as human shields by the PA men, leading to the death of the man and serious injury to the woman.

They further accuse PA forces of obstructing an ambulance trying to evacuate the wounded.

The woman remains in hospital with her hand amputated. She is surrounded by PA security men who have refused to allow her family or friends to visit her.

Israeli soldiers have been videoed and documented regularly using Palestinian civilians as human shields and holding up ambulances trying to evacuate and help the wounded.

The Israeli High Court of Justice outlawed the use of civilians as human shields after a local rights group petitioned the court.

Strong U.S. support for the PA underlined during PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, practically coincided with the timing of the bloody gun battle in the north.

While U.S. pressure has to some degree forced Abbas to take a tough line with Hamas, Israeli threats to go into PA territory and take out Hamas cells themselves forced Abbas’s hand.

Hamas responded to the bloodiest clash between the two mainstream Palestinian political factions since the Gaza coup of 2007 by ordering its people to fight against the PA’s security forces as if they were part of the Israeli occupation.

This has led analysts to believe that Hamas might once again resort to suicide bombing against Israeli as well as PA targets. PA intelligence has long feared that the Islamic group will try to assassinate its leaders.

The PA warned in response to Hamas’s statement that anybody who harmed Palestinian security forces would get the death penalty.

Some reports have alleged that the PA has warned the families of wanted Hamas activists that unless they gave themselves up, the PA would hunt the men down and kill them, something the Israelis have done on a regular basis when pursuing wanted fugitives.

Up until now Hamas has laid low, not wanting to fight the PA in the West Bank, and instead focusing on consolidating its military and political wings there.

This situation changed dramatically last Thursday when Israel assassinated Abed Al-Majid Dudin, 45, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Hebron.

Hamas accused the PA of helping supply the Israelis with intelligence, and told its followers that they were now free to take any retaliatory action.

The bigger picture suggests that an escalating and bloodier Palestinian showdown might just be what a cornered Israeli government needs to take the heat off it.

The U.S. appears to be serious about laying down the law with Israel in regard to a two-state solution and the freezing of settlement building and expansion.

Israel has tried to argue that it is unreasonable not to take “natural” settler growth into consideration when addressing the illegal settlement issue in the West Bank. But Israel, it would appear, is deliberately obfuscating the facts.

Colonel Shaul Arieli who served as deputy military secretary to defence minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak in the late 1990s, says a third of Israelis living in the occupied territories (excluding East Jerusalem) settled there during the years of the 1994 Oslo peace accords, according to a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Another third settled in the West Bank after the peace process was suspended. Forty-five percent of Israelis living illegally in East Jerusalem settled there between 2001-2009.

Even a record 3.4 percent annual growth rate (twice the rate in Israel proper) cannot explain the 100 percent increase in the settler population during these years.

This supports the theory that the Israeli government has deliberately accelerated the settlements in order to establish facts on the ground, making it harder for Palestinians to establish a contiguous state.

The West Bank is practically divided into three cantons resembling an apartheid Bantustan for the convenience of settlers.

Obama has laid out a long-term visionary goal and set himself a two-year period during which to try and resolve the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He is moving cautiously with full Congress support by committing himself to Israel’s security while simultaneously prepared to challenge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recalcitrance.

But the danger remains. Unless Obama can force some kind of breakthrough in the near future, the unpopular and marginalised Abbas could see his fractured, western-backed government collapse completely.

Israel and the U.S. would then be left to deal with a strengthened and reinvigorated Hamas, which at the moment shows no signs of backing down.

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