The brilliant, hard-working investigative journalist David Rose has a lengthy article in the April 2008 edition of Vanity Fair that gives many new details– including some from internal State Department documents– about how President Bush and Condi Rice conspired with Abu Mazen, thuggish Fateh security boss Muhammad Dahlan, and others to organize the violent overthrow of the government democratically elected by the Palestinians of the occupied territories in January 2006. (Hat-tip to Badger for this.)
Rose has certainly worn out a lot of foot leather in reporting the piece. He has material from interviews he conducted in Gaza in December 2007– including with a number of survivors of the torture rooms that Dahlan’s people maintained in Gaza prior to being ousted from the Strip in June 2007. He has quite a lot of material from an interview he conducted with Dahlan himself, in Egypt. And this:
- Vanity Fair has obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the U.S. and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by Dahlan, and armed with new weapons supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power. (The State Department declined to comment.)
But the secret plan backfired, resulting in a further setback for American foreign policy under Bush. Instead of driving its enemies out of power, the U.S.-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza.
Rose also gives this intriguing detail: That one of the main opponents of the anti-Hamas coup plan was Cheney’s extremely pro-Likud, former Middle East aide David Wurmser. Rose writes,
- Wurmser accuses the Bush administration of “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory.” He believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand. “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen,” Wurmser says.
The botched plan has rendered the dream of Middle East peace more remote than ever, but what really galls neocons such as Wurmser is the hypocrisy it exposed. “There is a stunning disconnect between the president’s call for Middle East democracy and this policy,” he says. “It directly contradicts it.”
Now, I wish I could believe that what motivated Wurmser in his opposition to the “Palestinian Contras” plot was truly his adherence to the ideas of democracy– though other explanations are certainly possible. But maybe it really was the anti-democratic aspect that bothered him? If so, chapeau to him! (And if so, then surely, we should also be hearing him talk about the need to restore the elected Palestinian government to power.)
Rose writes this about the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006, and their aftermath:
- Dahlan says he warned his friends in the Bush administration that Fatah still wasn’t ready for elections in January. Decades of self-preservationist rule by Arafat had turned the party into a symbol of corruption and inefficiency—a perception Hamas found it easy to exploit. Splits within Fatah weakened its position further: in many places, a single Hamas candidate ran against several from Fatah.
“Everyone was against the elections,” Dahlan says. Everyone except Bush. “Bush decided, ‘I need an election. I want elections in the Palestinian Authority.’ Everyone is following him in the American administration, and everyone is nagging Abbas, telling him, ‘The president wants elections.’ Fine. For what purpose?”
The elections went forward as scheduled. On January 25, Hamas won 56 percent of the seats in the Legislative Council.
Few inside the U.S. administration had predicted the result, and there was no contingency plan to deal with it. “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming,” Condoleezza Rice told reporters. “I don’t know anyone who wasn’t caught off guard by Hamas’s strong showing.”
“Everyone blamed everyone else,” says an official with the Department of Defense. “We sat there in the Pentagon and said, ‘Who the fuck recommended this?’ ”
… Some analysts argued that Hamas had a substantial moderate wing that could be strengthened if America coaxed it into the peace process. Notable Israelis—such as Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad intelligence agency—shared this view. But if America paused to consider giving Hamas the benefit of the doubt, the moment was “milliseconds long,” says a senior State Department official. “The administration spoke with one voice: ‘We have to squeeze these guys.’ With Hamas’s election victory, the freedom agenda was dead.”
Well, they started squeezing Hamas almost immediately. Originally, in the weeks right after the late-January election, Hamas wanted to form a relatively moderate government that would include a large number of political “independents” under the leadership of Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh as Prime Minister. But as I know– because I was the conduit of one of these threats– threats of lethal violence were sent by the Israelis to any Palestinian “independents” who might be even considering joining a Haniyeh-led government. As a result, none of them did; and the government that Haniyeh ended up forming was 100% Hamas.
The Israeli and US government then worked together to tighten the economic siege that the OPTs had already been under for several years. And they vowed they would not lift this siege or deal in any political way with the PA government until Haniyeh had agreed to jump through the three political hoops they insisted on– that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and accept the terms of all previous agreements.
These conditions were, you will note, considerably more onerous than those imposed on the ANC by the South African apartheid regime. Back at that time, Pretoria said only that the ANC had to agree to a (mutual) ceasefire and be ready to prove its support at the polls if it wanted to enter peace talks. But Israel and the Bushists were still (are still) in a very triumphalist mode, where they thought they could simply dictate terms to everyone involved in the Middle East. (And sadly, they have thus far been able to persuade not only the EU, but also the UN and Russia to go along with their bullying approach, since those three parties all for some reason want to hang onto their status as very junior members of this strange animal called the US-led “Quartet”.)
Rose’s story continues:
- Washington reacted with dismay when Abbas began holding talks with Hamas in the hope of establishing a “unity government.” On October 4, 2006, Rice traveled to Ramallah to see Abbas. They met at the Muqata, the new presidential headquarters that rose from the ruins of Arafat’s compound, which Israel had destroyed in 2002.
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.
Abbas, one official says, agreed to take action within two weeks. It happened to be Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast during daylight hours…
“Maybe not two weeks. Give me a month. Let’s wait until after the Eid,” he said, referring to the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. (Abbas’s spokesman said via e-mail: “According to our records, this is incorrect.”)
… 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, is a career foreign-service officer with many years’ experience in the Middle East. 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. The document has been authenticated by U.S. and Palestinian officials.
“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 U.S. 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’ 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.”
Walles and Abbas both knew what to expect from Hamas if these instructions were followed: rebellion and bloodshed. For that reason, the memo states, the U.S. was already working to strengthen Fatah’s security forces. “If you act along these lines, we will support you both materially and politically,” the script said. “We will be there to support you.”
Abbas was also encouraged to “strengthen [his] team” to include “credible figures of strong standing in the international community.” Among those the U.S. wanted brought in, says an official who knew of the policy, was Muhammad Dahlan.
Rose explains Dahlan agreed to take on the job. Fateh’s “security” forces were considerably more numerous than Hamas’s– but they were ill-paid, ill-disciplined, and were divided into 14 or so different and cross-cutting bodies:
- Fatah’s vulnerability was a source of grave concern to Dahlan. “I made a lot of activities to give Hamas the impression that we were still strong and we had the capacity to face them,” he says. “But I knew in my heart it wasn’t true.” He had no official security position at the time, but he belonged to parliament and retained the loyalty of Fatah members in Gaza. “I used my image, my power.” Dahlan says he told Abbas that “Gaza needs only a decision for Hamas to take over.” To prevent that from happening, Dahlan waged “very clever warfare” for many months.
According to several alleged victims, one of the tactics this “warfare” entailed was to kidnap and torture members of Hamas’s Executive Force. (Dahlan denies Fatah used such tactics, but admits “mistakes” were made.) Abdul Karim al-Jasser, a strapping man of 25, says he was the first such victim. “It was on October 16 , still Ramadan,” he says. “I was on my way to my sister’s house for iftar. Four guys stopped me, two of them with guns. They forced me to accompany them to the home of Aman abu Jidyan,” a Fatah leader close to Dahlan. (Abu Jidyan would be killed in the June uprising.)
The first phase of torture was straightforward enough, al-Jasser says: he was stripped naked, bound, blindfolded, and beaten with wooden poles and plastic pipes. “They put a piece of cloth in my mouth to stop me screaming.” His interrogators forced him to answer contradictory accusations: one minute they said that he had collaborated with Israel, the next that he had fired Qassam rockets against it.
But the worst was yet to come. “They brought an iron bar,” al-Jasser says, his voice suddenly hesitant. We are speaking inside his home in Gaza, which is experiencing one of its frequent power outages. He points to the propane-gas lamp that lights the room. “They put the bar in the flame of a lamp like this. When it was red, they took the covering off my eyes. Then they pressed it against my skin. That was the last thing I remember.”
When he came to, he was still in the room where he had been tortured. A few hours later, the Fatah men handed him over to Hamas, and he was taken to the hospital. “I could see the shock in the eyes of the doctors who entered the room,” he says. He shows me photos of purple third-degree burns wrapped like towels around his thighs and much of his lower torso. “The doctors told me that if I had been thin, not chubby, I would have died. But I wasn’t alone. That same night that I was released, abu Jidyan’s men fired five bullets into the legs of one of my relatives. We were in the same ward in the hospital.”
Dahlan says he did not order al-Jasser’s torture: “The only order I gave was to defend ourselves. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t torture, some things that went wrong, but I did not know about this.”
… Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who had been appointed the U.S. security coordinator for the Palestinians in November 2005, was in no position to question [President Bush’s very favorable] judgment of Dahlan. His only prior experience with the Middle East was as director of the Iraq Survey Group, the body that looked for Saddam Hussein’s elusive weapons of mass destruction.
In November 2006, Dayton met Dahlan for the first of a long series of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Both men were accompanied by aides. From the outset, says an official who took notes at the meeting, Dayton was pushing two overlapping agendas.
“We need to reform the Palestinian security apparatus,” Dayton said, according to the notes. “But we also need to build up your forces in order to take on Hamas.”
… As part of the reform program, according to the official who was present at the meetings, Dayton said he wanted to disband the Preventive Security Service, which was widely known to be engaged in kidnapping and torture. At a meeting in Dayton’s Jerusalem office in early December, Dahlan ridiculed the idea. “The only institution now protecting Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza is the one you want removed,” he said.
Dayton softened a little. “We want to help you,” he said. “What do you need?”
Rose then recounts how, though Bush wanted to provide a “security”-aid package to Fateh/Dahlan that totaled $86.4 million, that proposal ran into problems on Capitol Hill, with US lawmakers reluctant to provide money or arms to a Palestinian organization that might then turn their sights against Israel. The administration tried to fashion a smaller aid request that would involve only funding for non-lethal items– but Rose tells us that administration officials were already looking for alternative sources of funding. And that was where the precedent of the Iran-Contra era, that has been so ably represented in the presence of Elliott Abrams himself now at the heart of Washington’s Middle East policymaking, cast its shadow once again.
In late 2006– as back in 1983-85– when the Republican administration couldn’t get funding for the anti-democratic project it was planning from the US Congress, then it went to the coffers of various repressive Arab governments, instead.
- According to State Department officials, beginning in the latter part of 2006, Rice initiated several rounds of phone calls and personal meetings with leaders of four Arab nations—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. She asked them to bolster Fatah by providing military training and by pledging funds to buy its forces lethal weapons. The money was to be paid directly into accounts controlled by President Abbas.
…[A]rms 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. News of the shipment leaked, and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, an Israeli Cabinet member, said on Israeli radio that the guns and ammunition would give Abbas “the ability to cope with those organizations which are trying to ruin everything”—namely, Hamas.
… [One U.S.] official estimates that the program raised “a few payments of $30 million”—most of it, as other sources agree, from the United Arab Emirates. Dahlan himself says the total was only $20 million, and confirms that “the Arabs made many more pledges than they ever paid.” Whatever the exact amount, it was not enough.
On February 1, 2007, Dahlan took his “very clever warfare” to a new level when Fatah forces under his control stormed the Islamic University of Gaza, a Hamas stronghold, and set several buildings on fire. Hamas retaliated the next day with a wave of attacks on police stations.
Unwilling to preside over a Palestinian civil war, Abbas blinked. For weeks, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had been trying to persuade him to meet with Hamas in Mecca and formally establish a national unity government. On February 6, Abbas went, taking Dahlan with him. Two days later, with Hamas no closer to recognizing Israel, a deal was struck.
That was the deal for the National Unity Government, as enshrined in the “Mecca Agreement.” Rose confirms that, just as I surmised at the time, the Bush administration was taken completely by surprise:
- Once again, the Bush administration had been taken by surprise. According to a State Department official, “Condi was apoplectic.” A remarkable documentary record, revealed here for the first time, shows that the U.S. responded by redoubling the pressure on its Palestinian allies.
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 toward Israel. From there, Abbas could call early elections or impose an emergency government. It is unclear whether, as president, Abbas had the constitutional authority to dissolve an elected government led by a rival party, but the Americans swept that concern aside.
Security considerations were paramount, and Plan B had explicit prescriptions for dealing with them. For as long as the unity government remained in office, it was essential for Abbas to maintain “independent control of key security forces.” He must “avoid Hamas integration with these services, while eliminating the Executive Force or mitigating the challenges posed by its continued existence.”
In a clear reference to the covert aid expected from the Arabs, the memo made this recommendation for the next six to nine months: “Dahlan oversees effort in coordination with General Dayton and Arab [nations] to train and equip 15,000-man force under President Abbas’s control to establish internal law and order, stop terrorism and deter extralegal forces.”
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 U.S., the Palestinians, and the government of Jordan. Sources agree, however, that it originated in the State Department.
As it happened, a copy of the final text of the “Action Plan” was leaked to a Jordanian weekly called Al-Majd, which in late April 2007 put it up on its website. (It is still there today. Badger of “Missing Links” did a good job of translating much of it, here.)
Rose writes that though the State Department originated the first draft of the document and controlled all the subsequent revisions in it, then version that was finally “agreed” between Abu Mazen and the American envoys was written to make it look as if the plan had been the Palestinians’ idea.
- The formation of the unity government had brought a measure of calm to the Palestinian territories, but violence erupted anew after Al-Majd published its story on the Action Plan. The timing was unkind to Fatah, which, to add to its usual disadvantages, was without its security chief. Ten days earlier, Dahlan had left Gaza for Berlin, where he’d had surgery on both knees. He was due to spend the next eight weeks convalescing.
In mid-May, with Dahlan still absent, a new element was added to Gaza’s toxic mix when 500 Fatah National Security Forces recruits arrived, fresh from training in Egypt and equipped with new weapons and vehicles. “They had been on a crash course for 45 days,” Dahlan says. “The idea was that we needed them to go in dressed well, equipped well, and that might create the impression of new authority.” Their presence was immediately noticed, not only by Hamas but by staff from Western aid agencies. “They had new rifles with telescopic sights, and they were wearing black flak jackets,” says a frequent visitor from Northern Europe. “They were quite a contrast to the usual scruffy lot.”
On May 23, none other than Lieutenant General Dayton discussed the new unit in testimony before the House Middle East subcommittee. Hamas had attacked the troops as they crossed into Gaza from Egypt, Dayton said, but “these 500 young people, fresh out of basic training, were organized. They knew how to work in a coordinated fashion. Training does pay off. And the Hamas attack in the area was, likewise, repulsed.”
The troops’ arrival, Dayton said, was one of several “hopeful signs” in Gaza. Another was Dahlan’s appointment as national-security adviser. Meanwhile, he said, Hamas’s Executive Force was becoming “extremely unpopular I would say that we are kind of late in the ball game here, and we are behind, there’s two out, but we have our best clutch hitter at the plate, and the pitcher is beginning to tire on the opposing team.”
(As a fully paid-up US citizen, I have to note that I have not one clue what all that laddish sports jargon means. Why can’t the guy talk plain English?)
But anyway, once again, the US side had completely miscalculated. Rose again:
- On June 7, there was another damaging leak, when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Abbas and Dayton had asked Israel to authorize the biggest Egyptian arms shipment yet—to include dozens of armored cars, hundreds of armor-piercing rockets, thousands of hand grenades, and millions of rounds of ammunition. A few days later, just before the next batch of Fatah recruits was due to leave for training in Egypt, the coup began in earnest.
The Hamas leadership in Gaza is adamant that the coup would not have happened if Fatah had not provoked it. Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas’s chief spokesman, says the leak in Al-Majd convinced the party that “there was a plan, approved by America, to destroy the political choice.” The arrival of the first Egyptian-trained fighters, he adds, was the “reason for the timing.” About 250 Hamas members had been killed in the first six months of 2007, Barhoum tells me. “Finally we decided to put an end to it. If we had let them stay loose in Gaza, there would have been more violence.”
“Everyone here recognizes that Dahlan was trying with American help to undermine the results of the elections,” says Mahmoud Zahar, the former foreign minister for the Haniyeh government, who now leads Hamas’s militant wing in Gaza. “He was the one planning a coup.”
… The fighting was over in less than five days. It began with attacks on Fatah security buildings, in and around Gaza City and in the southern town of Rafah. Fatah attempted to shell Prime Minister Haniyeh’s house, but by dusk on June 13 its forces were being routed.
Years of oppression by Dahlan and his forces were avenged as Hamas chased down stray Fatah fighters and subjected them to summary execution. At least one victim was reportedly thrown from the roof of a high-rise building. By June 16, Hamas had captured every Fatah building, as well as Abbas’s official Gaza residence. Much of Dahlan’s house, which doubled as his office, was reduced to rubble.
And then this intriguing coda:
- With few good options left, the administration now appears to be rethinking its blanket refusal to engage with Hamas. Staffers at the National Security Council and the Pentagon recently put out discreet feelers to academic experts, asking them for papers describing Hamas and its principal protagonists. “They say they won’t talk to Hamas,” says one such expert, “but in the end they’re going to have to. It’s inevitable.”
It is impossible to say for sure whether the outcome in Gaza would have been any better—for the Palestinian people, for the Israelis, and for America’s allies in Fatah—if the Bush administration had pursued a different policy. One thing, however, seems certain: it could not be any worse.
Altogether a superb job of investigative reporting. Rose (whose most notable earlier work was his book on Guantanamo) has done us all another great service by getting all these interviews and pulling together all this material.