An inside story of how the US magnified Palestinian suffering - Norman H. Olsen and Matthew N. Olsen

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Jan 12, 2009
An inside story of how the US magnified Palestinian suffering
The covert push to empower Fatah failed. And isolating Hamas just made things worse. But it's not too late to change course.
By Norman H. Olsen and Matthew N. Olsen

Cherryfield, Maine; and Washington - A million and a half Palestinians are learning the hard way that democracy isn't so good if you vote the wrong way. In 2006, they elected Hamas when the US and Israel wanted them to support the more-moderate Fatah. As a result, having long ago lost their homes and property, Gazans have endured three years of embargo, crippling shortages of food and basic necessities, and total economic collapse.

We spoke again Saturday with three of our longtime Gazan contacts. They and their families, all Fatah supporters, were in their eleventh day without electricity, running water, or heat. They are cowering in cold basements trying to protect their children from the storm of explosions that is filling Shifa hospital with amputees and the dead. Our friends in Israel are likewise living in fear.

The 850-plus dead Gazans, more than a dozen dead Israelis, and some 3,000 injured have since the end of the cease-fire become part of what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called the birth pains of a new Middle East.

It didn't have to be this way. We could have talked instead of fought.

Hamas never called for the elections that put them in power. That was the brainstorm of Secretary Rice and her staff, who had apparently decided they could steer Palestinians into supporting the more-compliant Mahmoud Abbas (the current president of the Palestinian authority) and his Fatah Party through a marketing campaign that was to counter Hamas's growing popularity – all while ignoring continued Israeli settlement construction, land confiscation, and cantonization of the West Bank.

State Department staffers helped finance and supervise the Fatah campaign, down to the choice of backdrop color for the podium where Mr. Abbas was to proclaim victory. An adviser working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) explained to incredulous staffers at the Embassy in Tel Aviv how he would finance and direct elements of the campaign, leaving no US fingerprints. USAID teams, meanwhile, struggled to implement projects for which Abbas could claim credit. Once the covert political program cemented Fatah in place, the militia Washington was building for Fatah warlord-wannabee Mohammed Dahlan would destroy Hamas militarily.

Their collective confidence was unbounded. But the Palestinians didn't get the memo. Rice was reportedly blindsided when she heard the news of Hamas's victory during her 5 a.m. treadmill workout. But that did not prevent a swift response.

She immediately insisted that the Quartet (the US, European Union, United Nations, and Russia) ban all contact with Hamas and support Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. The results of her request were mixed, but Palestinian suffering manifestly intensified. The isolation was supposed to turn angry Palestinians against an ineffective Hamas. As if such blockades had not been tried before.

Simultaneously, the US military team expanded its efforts to build the Mohammed Dahlan-led militia. President Bush considered Dahlan "our guy." But Dahlan's thugs moved too soon. They roamed Gaza, demanding protection money from businesses and individuals, erecting checkpoints to extort bribes, terrorizing Dahlan's opponents within Fatah, and attacking Hamas members.

Finally, in mid-2007, faced with increasing chaos and the widely known implementation of a US-backed militia, Hamas – the lawfully elected government – struck first. They routed the Fatah gangs, securing control of the entire Gaza Strip, and established civil order.

Its efforts stymied, the US has for more than a year inflexibly backed Israel's embargo of Gaza and its collective punishment of the Strip's 1.5 million residents. The recent six-month cease-fire saw a near cessation of rocket fire into Israel and calm along the border, yet the economic siege was further tightened.

Gaza's economy has collapsed, and the population, displaced for decades from their farms and villages, relies ever more on food aid from Hamas and the UN. The US expresses shock that Gazans resort to using smuggling tunnels for survival rather than passively accepting the suffering inflicted by the embargo. What would we expect Americans to do in the same circumstances? With no easing of the blockade, the missile launches have increased in range and frequency, yielding massive Israeli response.

Our "good," US-supported Palestinians did not vanquish the "bad" Palestinians any more than Washington's Lebanese clients turned on Hezbollah, despite the suffering and death of the 2006 war with Israel. Abbas sits emasculated in Ramallah. The Israelis continue to build settlements while blaming Iran for their troubles, as though the Palestinians have no grievances of their own. And we are further than ever from peace.

Cultural differences aside, Gazans, like Americans, unite in adversity. Neither punishment, nor a cease-fire that extends the embargo will make them accept the loss of their property, 60 years of displacement, or life in squalid refugee camps.

Nor, as decades of experience have proved, will too-clever US manipulation make Palestinians pliable to US and Israeli wishes. US financial and military support for Israel can maintain the status quo indefinitely, if that's what we want, but it cannot resolve fundamental issues or bring peace. For that, we need to talk, even if at arm's length initially, and not leave the hard issues to the end. That only leaves the radicals on both sides the opportunity to undermine peace efforts and extend the senseless loss of life. Until we talk about real issues, both Palestinians and Israelis will be cowering in cellars.

Such dialogue won't be easy, but with concerted US-led effort, it is within reach. A significant portion of the provisions that will constitute a comprehensive agreement, even on the most difficult issues, have already been put together by discreet, experienced Track2 negotiators.

The difficulty lies in the politics of giving concessions and selling them to the public. Only the US has the influence to move the parties past their weaknesses with a comprehensive regional initiative, thereby defusing those who argue against concessions for any bilateral peace agreement while other enemies remain.

That's why President-elect Obama must reconsider his plan to appoint a traditional Washington-based Middle East envoy, reportedly former envoy Dennis Ross, and instead pursue a course that signals change. He should:

•Declare his determination to pursue from his first day in office, not the final six months, full peace between Israel and all its neighbors. Only by doing so can he win support among Israelis, Palestinians, the Congress, and the international partners we'll need to support this historic effort.

•Name an outstanding peace envoy to be resident full time in the region with authority over our missions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He or she must have the presidential backing and stamina to withstand the pressures and pitfalls of a comprehensive peace process over the long haul. In addition, this envoy must have authority over all US interactions with the Palestinians and Israelis and later, with other parties, reporting directly to the president in collaboration with the National Security Adviser and secretary of State. Assisted with staff comprising the US government's foremost experts, this envoy would be the single US voice on this issue.

•Empower the envoy to engage with all parties to the conflict, regardless of current prohibitions, on all issues, overturning long-established policy.

•Fund a political and economic development process second only to those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only by an "all out" effort can we hope to convince all the parties, and a skeptical international community, that the US is determined to achieve peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the region.

• Norman H. Olsen served for 26 years as a member of the US Foreign Service, including four years working in the Gaza Strip and four years as counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. He was most recently associate coordinator for counterterrorism at the Department of State. His son, Matthew N. Olsen, is the director of Explore Corps, a nascent NGO that uses outdoor education and youth programming to facilitate peace-building among young adults, with several current projects in the Gaza Strip.