Israel continues to nurture the quisling Palestinian government with a carrot in one hand and a big stick in the other, reports Khaled Amayreh in East Jerusalem
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Members of Hamas imprisoned in a PA cell, with a poster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on its wall
Two weeks after Hamas militiamen defeated and ousted forces loyal to former Fatah strongman Mohamed Dahlan from the Gaza Strip, the two estranged Palestinian governments in Ramallah and Gaza are consolidating themselves, each on its respective home-turf.
This week, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who last week angrily fired the national unity government headed by erstwhile Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, issued a plethora of decrees and "executive orders" aimed primarily at hounding and punishing Hamas in the West Bank.
The decrees, most of which are unlawful and inconsistent with human rights and civil liberties, include the suspension of key clauses of Palestinian legislation as well as marginalising the Palestinian Legislative Council.
One of the most controversial decrees issued by Abbas was an order requiring all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the West Bank (and also supposedly in the Gaza Strip) to obtain new licences from the new government in Ramallah.
This unreasonable demand appears to target Hamas-affiliated or Islamic religious institutions which the United States and Israel believe contribute to the popularity of Hamas.
In reality, however, these charitable institutions, clinics and several hospitals are answerable to the Palestinian government and their operations are meticulously monitored by certified public accountants and relevant government ministries.
This suggests that Abbas and his regime are acting out of desperation and not as a result of carefully-considered decisions.
This is the reason why many non-Hamas and non-Islamic organisations have strongly criticised PA decisions as undermining the foundations of civil society.
Similarly, the PA has been rounding up hundreds of Hamas sympathisers throughout the West Bank, claiming that its actions are aimed at forestalling another possible "coup" by Hamas in the West Bank.
This claim is ridiculous since Hamas maintains no security apparatus in the West Bank, given the fact that the limited number of Hamas guerrillas there are constantly hounded and often assassinated by the Israeli occupation army.
Indeed in the last several weeks Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, not Hamas, have carried out a campaign of destruction and intimidation in much of the West Bank, prompting some PA officials, such as Intelligence Chief Tawfiq Tirawi, to demand the dissolution of the group.
Hamas, too, has been busy trying to consolidate its hold on Gaza by quickly re-establishing law and order and restoring calm to a region long tormented by lawlessness and violence.
This week, Hamas permitted foreign journalists to come to Gaza to "see for themselves" how it has been transformed from a state of chaos to one of calm, only periodically disturbed by Israeli attacks and assassinations, such as the assassination of an Islamic Jihad activist earlier this week.
Some Fatah officials have sought to discredit this success, arguing that all "tyrannical regimes" normally succeed in maintaining law and order by way of intimidation and coercion.
Last Sunday, Haniyeh gave a long, impassioned speech in Gaza, explaining in detail the reasons behind the events on 14 June.
He argued that Hamas had no choice in taking the action it had in order to forestall a coup by "the treasonous faction" within Fatah, a clear allusion to the Dahlan group, which he said aimed at overthrowing his government and establishing a contra government at Israel's beck and call.
"Large arms caches were sent to Gaza, overtly and covertly, millions of dollars were provided, clandestine meetings were held, all under the nose of this government, in an attempt to carry out this coup."
Haniyeh said Hamas had no conflict with the Fatah organisation as a whole but only with a minority, a "treasonous faction" within Fatah which had succeeded in controlling the movement as well as the PA itself, with the help of American money and arms.
Haniyeh spoke extensively about the "Dayton plan", saying that $80 million was allocated to overthrow the Hamas-led government and later on, the national unity government. Haniyeh also strongly denied accusations by Fatah that Hamas had planned to assassinate Abbas, calling such accusations "devoid of an iota of truth".
He also strongly denied that the Hamas takeover in Gaza was a coup against "Palestinian legitimacy", saying "we are an integral and important part of this legitimacy. We were elected by the people. How can we revolt against ourselves, how can we turn against ourselves?"
Haniyeh also warned Abbas and other Arab leaders that "Israel and America won't give you anything, and that our usurped rights won't return via summit conferences but only through steadfastness, perseverance and resistance."
Furthermore, Hamas accused Abbas of seeking to strengthen himself and his government vis-à-vis Hamas by way of mobilising American and Israeli backing, saying that this reflected "bankruptcy and a cheapness of character" on the part of the Palestinian leader.
Israel said it would unfreeze and transfer to Abbas nearly $250 million of Palestinian customs revenue that was frozen following Hamas's victory during the 2006 Palestinian general elections. However, it was unclear if the money would be transferred to the PA in one or several instalments. Notwithstanding, the Israeli government refused to remove a substantial number of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, indicating that claims about "bolstering" Abbas against Hamas are largely rhetorical.
The Israeli attitude, including a speech by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit last Monday, suggested that Israel was only interested in strengthening Abbas to a very limited extent, e.g. allowing him to be in a stronger position vis-à-vis Hamas especially from an economic perspective.
Otherwise, Israel appears to be unwilling to participate in a genuine peace process which would end Israel's 40-year- occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and to a large degree the Gaza Strip.
Needless to say, without real progress on the political front and without giving the Palestinians genuine hope for a better future, Abbas will remain in an inherently weak position vis-à- vis Hamas, no matter how many millions of dollars he is given and how many Arab and Western leaders declare their support for him. Indeed, from a certain perspective, the enthusiastic backing Abbas is receiving from Olmert, the Bush administration and certain Arab leaders represents a liability rather than an asset for him and his regime.
After all, many Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank want freedom from the Israeli occupation, and no amount of economic and financial inducements can cajole them into ignoring the occupation and turning against Hamas.
This week, the Israeli army arrested Hamas political leader Sheikh Saleh Aruri, who was released three months ago from an Israeli prison, after serving 15 years, including six without being charged or tried.
The reason for the arrest is believed to be connected with his contacts with Fatah leaders in the West Bank for the purpose of reconciling differences between the two movements.
This week, Israel warned Abbas and his government not to renew contacts with Hamas as this would force it to re-adopt the same draconian measures now imposed on the Hamas-led government. The brazenness of the Israeli warning shows Israel's vested interest in ensuring Abbas's dependence on the Jewish state both financially and politically. Needless to say, this is the most efficient way of undermining the Palestinian leader in the eyes of his people, in which case Hamas will be the ultimate winner.
And the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian areas continues. On Monday Israeli police destroyed a Bedouin village in the northern Negev for the purpose of building a Jewish town. Eyewitnesses decried the brutality with which Israeli troops treated the villagers, including bulldozing shacks without allowing occupants to retrieve their belongings.
In Jerusalem to the north, the Israeli Interior Ministry revoked the residency rights of a large number of East Jerusalem Arabs on the pretext they had obtained foreign passports or were living outside the city's municipal boundaries.
As this manifestly racist practice continues, the US and European governments look the other way, as if Israel is above the rules and laws governing the rest of humanity.