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The Persian 'Elephant in the Room' Helped Dissolve Fatah-Hamas Talks

March 26, 2009 By:
Jonathan Schanzer
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Palestinian spokesmen announced last week that talks between the warring Hamas and Fatah factions broke down in Cairo, and failed to produce a national unity government. With heads hung low, Egyptian mediators told the factions' representatives to return to their respective fiefdoms in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip until a new round of diplomacy is announced.

Hamas has been offered everything from open Gaza borders, access to hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid and the release of its jailed fighters. In return, the Islamist group that controls Gaza was asked to join an interim government made up of both rival factions until new elections are held.

The problem for Hamas was that a unity government would lump the Islamist group into a broader coalition of Palestinian factions, and thereby force it to dilute its intractable position of seeking the destruction of the State of Israel. Moreover, if Hamas agreed to these terms, it would mean turning its back on its primary patron, Iran.

Tehran, for its part, lavishes Hamas with millions of dollars each year to ensure that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict never subsides. Ignoring this immutable fact was what ultimately led to the failure of the Hamas-Fatah dialogue in Cairo. Indeed, until the Iranian role in the internecine Palestinian conflict is addressed in a substantive way, an agreement between the warring Palestinian factions will always remain elusive.

Hamas' intransigent approach to Palestinian peace talks with Israel has always appealed to the Mullahs, while Fatah's on-again/off-again flirtations with Israel have elicited Iranian condemnations. As early as 1992, Iran began providing some $10 million per year to Hamas. The Mullahs also ensured that Hamas fighters were well-trained and armed. Meanwhile, the regime cut support to Fatah for "collaborating" with Israel and the United States.

It was with Iranian assistance and financing that Hamas carried out a deadly wave of suicide bombings in Israel beginning in 1994. These Iranian-sponsored acts revealed that Iran was committed to thwarting Palestinian peace talks with Israel by any means. More importantly, they revealed that Iran was willing to sponsor them, even it they pitted one Palestinian faction against another.

For a brief time -- after the launch of the second intifada in the fall of 2000 -- it appeared that Iran had succeeded in bringing Fatah into the fold. Iran even financed and armed the newly formed Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, an Islamist terror organization under the Fatah Party's control.

But this did not mean that Fatah grew stronger. The Israelis launched punishing operations against the Palestinian Authority amid continued terrorist acts inside Israel. Within a few months, the Fatah-led government could no longer provide public services. Meanwhile, thanks to Tehran's largesse, Hamas continued to provide food, education and other vital services through its network of mosques, schools and charities.

When Yasser Arafat died in November 2004, Hamas penetrated territory once dominated by Fatah. Tribes, families and clans loyal to Hamas clashed with those loyal to Fatah, which could do little to counter Hamas' advances.

For the next two years, Iranian funding for Hamas poured in. When the Palestinians held parliamentary elections in January 2006, the Iranian-backed Hamas stunned Fatah with a clear victory. When Washington and other Western capitals indicated that they would block the rise of a Hamas government through political and financial sanctions, a Hamas spokesman confirmed that Iran would cover its "entire deficit." During a 2006 visit to Tehran by Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh, Iran pledged $250 million in aid.

The following year, after a 15-month standoff, Hamas launched a brutal military offensive in June 2007 that toppled Fatah in Gaza. Full-scale war erupted between the factions, leading to the current state of Palestinian disarray whereby Hamas controls Gaza, Fatah controls the West Bank, and violence between the factions continues.

According to one Fatah figure, the June 2007 coup was a "joint program with Iran." And Iran has since reaped the benefits of its investment. Its control of the Gaza Strip is paid for. Hamas is now a full-fledged Iranian proxy, just like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Iran's role in the destabilization of the Palestinian territories was the Persian "elephant in the room" during the recent round of talks that dissolved in Cairo. Failure to acknowledge this during future attempts at reconciliation will only ensure that the Mullahs continue to foment Palestinian internecine violence, not to mention violence in the form of Iranian-sponsored rocket attacks into Israel.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former U.S. Treasury intelligence analyst, is deputy executive director of the Jewish Policy Center, affiliated with the Republican Jewish Coalition. Author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, Schanzer will speak March 29 at 4 p.m. at an RJC event at Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn.


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