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Turning Sunni and Shia against each other.

The surreal appointment as special 'peace envoy' to the Middle East of a man who shares responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East, was announced as the Israeli military launched its biggest single attack on Gaza since the electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006. Thirteen civilians were killed, but the news was overshadowed by greater events--the release of Paris Hilton from prison and, of course, the replacement of Tony Blair as Britain's Prime Minister by Gordon Brown. As special envoy for the Quartet (1)--which Alvaro de Soto (Kofi Annan's own special envoy to an invisible peace process) described in his confidential end-of-mission report as no more than a club of friends of the United States--who could be a better choice?

The 'road map', launched by the United States in 2003, was 'PR' from the beginning. Conditions were laid down that Israel had no intention of meeting and the United States no intention of enforcing. Unilateral 'disengagement' from Gaza was Israel's means of putting the road map in 'formaldehyde', as a spokesman for Ariel Sharon put it, allowing his government to be portrayed as taking peace seriously while getting on with the job of expanding settlements and constructing its 'security wall' on the West Bank. In the words of Alvaro de Soto again (his report was leaked to the media in June 2007), Israel's non-compliance with the road map, which required it to freeze settlement activity and allow the opening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, has been 'total'. It is not even so that Israel has disengaged from Gaza. The settlers have gone, but the strip is fenced off, surrounded by military posts, closely monitored from land, sea and air, and subject to air strikes and targetted assassinations. Israel also decides when Palestinians can leave Gaza and when they can return, when its goods can be exported and when its fishermen can go out to sea. The chokehold has been tightened since the election of the Hamas government in January 2006, creating one of the most desperate places on earth.

Ahead of the Palestinian elections in 2006, the Quartet called on all parties to respect the democratic choice of the people. The people did make their democratic choice. They voted Fatah out and Hamas in, not just because of the corruption, cronyism and gangsterism bequeathed to Fatah by Arafat, but because they had completely lost faith in the 'peace process' and the 'international community'. The United States and the European Union showed their respect for democracy by ganging up on Gaza. All financial aid was stopped--with destructive humanitarian consequences intended to disable the Hamas administration. Mahmud Abbas watched in silence from the West Bank, allowing himself to be used for photo opportunities by Ehud Olmert and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy spokesman. When the Hamas government was still standing after a year, the Saudis were brought into the picture to set in motion a different plan.

The Mecca Agreement (February 2007), which led to the establishment of a Palestinian government of national unity, is now seen by Hamas as the ploy that it was. It was a Trojan horse, which put Fatah inside the government and allowed Abbas to claim that the government was illegal when Fatah withdrew. Ahead of the Mecca negotiations, the United States, Israel and Egypt had already been building up a force of Fatah loyalists strong enough to defeat Hamas if the confrontation between the rivals reached the stage of street fighting. Abbas was provided with weapons and millions of dollars in 'aid' for the strengthening of the presidential guard. Fatah cadres were sent to Egypt for paramilitary training and sent back to Gaza. At the centre of anti-Hamas activities there was the

Preventive Security Force, whose former head, Muhammad Dahlan--a man who is despised by many Palestinians even inside Fatah--remained Abbas' security chief.

When fighting finally broke out in June amidst the collapse of the unity government, it was Dahlan's people who were routed. The Preventive Security Force compound was stormed and Abbas' Gaza office ransacked. Posters of Arafat were thrown to the floor or ripped up, such is the contempt he now arouses as the man who led the Palestinians into the worst disaster they have suffered since 1948: the Oslo 'peace process'. From Ramallah, Abbas accused Hamas of launching a coup, when it was his actions over a long period of time that reeked of treachery. Under the Palestinian constitution the President has the power to declare an emergency only with the approval of the Prime Minister and in consultation with the Speaker of the Parliament (Article 129). Emergency measures can be continued for more than thirty days only, with the approval of two-thirds of all of the members of the House of Representatives. The state of emergency was declared and continued without Abbas meeting any of these requirements. But having received recognition from the United States, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and the European Union's Javier Solana, Abbas went to Sharm al Sheikh to kiss cheeks with Egypt's President Mubarak, Abdullah of Jordan and Olmert.

In the short term, the separation of Gaza from the West Bank looks good for Israel. The Palestinians have now been split right down the middle: openly, geographically and politically. But it might also be said that the decks have been cleared by bringing to an end a bogus peace process. It will be continued by Israel in the hope that Abbas will put his signature to a treaty while insisting that the core issues (Jerusalem, borders, refugees) be postponed. Olmert must think the Palestinians have forgotten that this is precisely what Israel did at the start of the Oslo process. In the meantime, the task ahead for Israel is to keep Hamas out of the negotiating process and prevent it from gaining ground on the West Bank. There is only so much it can do through Abbas. The Fatah militias have already refused to obey his orders to put down their weapons, and the more Israel tries to do the job for him, the worse he is going to look.

US policy in the Middle East is now buckling under the weight of its own contradictions. These were symbolized by the recent announcement of the US military command in Iraq that it would be distributing weapons to Sunni insurgents as long as they promised to use them against Al Qaida and not American troops. As the Iraqi Prime Minister is a Shia the US command can hardly say that it would like the Sunnis to use their weapons against Shia groups, especially the Mahdi Army of Muqtadr al Sadr, but they would seem to be the real target of this tactical alliance with Sunni insurgents. Aligned with Iran, and armed by Iran, according to the US and British governments it is Shia who represent the most serious challenge to the occupation and not marginalized groups inspired by an ideology alien to most Iraqis. While quietly fomenting sectarian division (between Sunni and Shia, and between the Kurds and the rest), (2) the United States is using Iraq as a springboard for special operations inside Iran aimed at identifying possible targets for a military attack and destabilization of the regime through acts of sabotage. Iran has been further goaded by the 'arrest' of hundreds of Iranians inside Iraq and the accusation that it is providing insurgents with some of the sophisticated weapons being used to kill US and British troops. War preparations naturally include satellite surveillance. In June, Israel launched the Ofek 7 spy satellite, which defence officials said gives Israel 'unprecededented operational capabilities'. (3) It is described as being far more advanced than the Ofek 5 satellite, whose orbit is reported to take it over Syria, Iraq and Iran every ninety minutes, or the Eros B satellite, launched last year, whose telescopic camera can pick up objects on the ground as small as seventy centimetres long.

In their struggle to contain the lengthening, widening and deepening 'Shia crescent' across the Middle East, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have realized they could have no more effective tools on the ground than the Al Qaida-type groups they keep telling the rest of the world they want to destroy. The rise of Hizbullah has turned Lebanon into a focal point of a plan to contain 'radical' Shi'ism and destroy the strategic alliance between Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. Its ability to stand up to Israel not once (1982-2000) but twice (2006) has turned Hasan Nasrallah into one of the most popular figures in the Middle East, among Sunnis as well as Shia.

In May 2007, fighting erupted between the Lebanese army and a radical Islamic group called Fath al Islam, which had based itself inside the Nahr al Barid Palestinian refugee camp in the hills close to the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli. The immediate cause of the conflict remains obscure. As the story unfolded it turned out that many of the Fath al Islam fighters were not Palestinians but rather Saudis or Yemenis. This was curious in itself. What were they doing in a Palestinian refugee camp? Syria was immediately accused in the western media of setting up Fath al Islam as a weapon to be used against the beleaguered and unconstitutional (since the withdrawal of all Shia elements) Siniora government. However, the evidence collected by Seymour Hersh and other reliable journalists indicates that Fath al Islam's backers are the Bush Administration, the Saudis and the Siniora government itself. Hersh set the context in an article published just before the fighting broke out at Nahr al Barid. (4) The article describes a sea change in US policy across the Middle East, a 'redirection', as Hersh calls it. The prime targets are the same as before--Iran, Syria and Hizbullah--but the tactics have changed. Just as Al Qaida was initially the outgrowth of collaboration between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, so the United States and the Saudis are now funding Al Qaida-type groups like Fath al Islam, according to Hersh, in the hope that their hatred of Shi'ism will be greater than their hatred of the United States and Israel. Fath al Islam seems to be an operation that went off the rails, for reasons not yet clear, underlining the risky nature of what the United States and the Saudis are doing. The names involved in the planning of the 'redirection' are all familiar: Dick Cheney; Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser and a central figure in the funnelling of weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s; Zalmay Khalilzad, until recently 'ambassador' to the fiction known as the Iraqi government, and the central co-ordinator of the writing of a constitution that puts a legal gloss on the destruction of the country; and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi national security adviser and ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years. (5)

Another key player is David Welch, US representative inside the Quartet and a central figure in the planning of anti-Hizbullah activities in Lebanon (hence the name the 'Welch club'). The 'redirection' brings Saudi Arabia back in from the post-September 11 chill and aligns Israel and the Saudis against Iran. The United States sets the lead and the rest follow. That seems to be how the 'redirection' is working, with the lesser players (Fuad Siniora, Saad Hariri, Amin Gemayel and Walid Jumblatt among them) falling into line as required.

Just as the United States, France and the European Union are now propping up a Palestinian rump government in Ramallah, so they have committed themselves to the survival of a government of equally dubious legality in Beirut. Since the withdrawal of Hizbullah, and the other main Shia movement (Amal) in December last year, the Siniora government has been in crisis. (6) In the past year its foreign backers have committed themselves to providing it with $10 billion in aid, including hundreds of millions of dollars worth of US weaponry, some of which was flown into Beirut during the confrontation at Nahr al Barid. (7) The United States is aware of the risk that, in the process of arming Sunni groups against the Shia, 'we're financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don't have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don't like. It's a very high risk venture'. (8) The dangers are also clear to high-ranking Saudis, one of whom told Hersh that while the salafis--Muslims seeking a return to a 7th-century Islamic order through armed struggle--hated the Shia, 'they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them they will outsmart us'. (9) The way Fath al Islam has richocheted seems proof that the doubters are right.

The names cropping up beside Fath al Islam include those of Jund al Sham and Asbat al Ansar, who are both entrenched inside the Ain al Helweh refugee camp behind Sidon. The International Crisis Group reported in 2005 that Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, had spent $48,000 (less than a trifle for a man who is worth billions) on bail for four members of a militant Sunni group based in northern Lebanon. He used his parliamentary majority to secure an amnesty for a number of others, including seven accused of plotting to bomb the Ukrainian and Italian embassies in Beirut. Hariri also pushed through an amnesty for Samir Geagea, 'Dr Sami', the leader of the Maronite ultras (the Lebanese Forces) and one of the most notorious killers of the 1980s, whose victims included the Sunni former prime minister Rashid Karami and members of his own movement. Geagea is a hard man, a natural ally for anyone planning dirty tricks inside Lebanon.

The notion that Syria is behind Fath al Islam is risible. It is an offshoot of Fath al Intifada, which is Syrian-backed, but according to Alastair Crooke, a former British spy now based in Beirut, 'I was told that within twenty-four hours [of the breakaway] they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representative of the Lebanese government's interests--presumably to take on Hizbullah'. (10) The anti-Syrian campaign in Lebanon has been strikingly successful. The investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 has slowed down significantly since being kicked off by the German detective Detlev Mehlis on the basis that, as Syria had agents everywhere in Lebanon, it must have known and therefore was most likely to have been responsible. Entirely absent from the Mehlis reports is any reference to the presence of other agents in Lebanon, most notably American and Israeli, who have been bombing, assassinating and kidnapping for the past three decades. The closest precedent to the method used to kill Hariri was the attempt by the CIA in 1985 to murder the senior Shia cleric Sayyid Husain Fadlallah, by exploding a massive car bomb in the impoverished Beirut suburb of Bir al Abid. Fadlallah escaped because he was not in the cars being targeted, but eighty-one people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The explosion was heard 'miles away in the Chouf mountains and well out into the Mediterranean'. (11) Mehlis' successor, Serge Brammertz, has been given another year to continue his inquiries, the outcome of which the United States has pre-empted by setting up an international court just for this case. The assassination of Hariri, and the murder of several other 'anti-Syrian' politicians and journalists since, has done Syria huge damage. Lebanon has been destabilized and the argument for removing the last vestiges of Syrian influence in the government strengthened. The clear beneficiaries of all these actions are the United States, Israel and anti-Syrian Maronite ultras.

The Arab world is now in the process of being destroyed as any kind of coherent entity. The process has been continuing in stages since the British and French invasions in the 19th century. The destruction of the Ottoman Empire after 1918 removed the one unifying element across the region. Syria was split up for reasons of imperial convenience. A country called Iraq was created out of the need to connect the oil of the north to the outlet to the sea in the south. Now it is being pulled apart again. By nurturing a Kurdish state in the north, the United States has acquired privileged access to Iraqi oil and created a new strategic base of operations. The oil agreement, which was being prepared for presentation to parliament in July, will reverse the nationalization of the industry. The terms being negotiated will return the 'western' multinationals to the profits they enjoyed before the revolution of 1958. Iraq has been dismantled as an Arab state.

At the epicentre of this grand plan for fragmentation stands Israel. Disorder and chaos elsewhere give it the time needed to complete the absorption of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer were savaged last year for daring to suggest that US national interests must take precedence over the relationship with Israel, but many Americans are reaching the same conclusion following the debacle in Iraq. The Israeli government and its boosters in Washington had campaigned long and hard for an attack on Iraq. The removal of Saddam Hussein and the fragmentation of Iraq seemed to benefit its long-term strategic interests, but perceived advantages have been rapidly outweighed by the disadvantages of a war the United States seems to be losing and by the gradual empowerment of Iran. Israel has repeatedly dismissed or ignored Arab offers of recognition and peace in return for a withdrawal from the territories seized in 1967 and a reasonable solution of the refugee problem. Hamas has said it is ready to sign a 'reciprocal, global and simultaneous truce with Israel' upon the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Syria has sent out numerous signals of readiness to negotiate a peace based on Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Saudi Arabia made a fresh general peace offer only recently, and in July Egypt and Jordan sent their envoys to Israel to try again.

Even now, Olmert is insisting that he will go into negotiations with Abbas only if consideration of the core issues is put off for the foreseeable future. The outline of a 'viable' Palestinian state that Tony Blair is again talking about can be put together from what Israel is doing on the ground. The western border will be defined by the wall. In the east the whole of the Jordan Valley has been closed off in the name of 'security'. Non-Jordan Valley Palestinian residents were until recently forbidden from entry. Now they can proceed beyond the checkpoints as long as they are on foot. The northern West Bank will be separated from the southern by settlements, and joined by Palestinian-only roads or tunnels. In the same way, settlers presently travel on roads built only for them. The Palestinians will be given their capital in Abu Dis, which Ehud Barak placed inside the boundaries of 'greater Jerusalem' during his prime ministership so that the world could be fooled into thinking that the city would now be a 'shared capital'. The alienation of Palestinian East Jerusalem has continued apace with the application of pseudo-laws that have one purpose: the slow elimination of the Palestinian presence.

Hebron is a story in itself. The centre of the city is dead. The Israelis have evicted hundreds of Palestinian families from their homes in the name of security. Many homes have been damaged beyond repair by Jewish settlers. The central market is now a maze of empty lanes and shuttered shops patrolled by Israeli soldiers. On the hill above stands the settler building for the sake of whose security all of this has been found to be necessary. The Tal Rumeidah district has been ethnically cleansed of all but a few Palestinian families. Their homes are surrounded by wire cages, constructed to protect them from settler violence and abuse. The Palestinians fear leaving their homes empty in case settlers try to take them over, and when they do leave, they run the risk of being kicked, slapped or stoned. Soldiers do not intervene, because they are acting on the orders of an Israeli government that tries to tell the world it wants peace, but has no partner for peace. What Gideon Levy of Haaretz has described as a 'pogrom' continues with the support of tax-free 'philanthropic' donations from the United States raised by supporters of the Hebron Fund and other organizations. (12)

The United States will eventually leave Iraq. It will go home and leave someone else to clean up the mess. Bush apparently plans to stay on course with the 'surge', or what might come after it until he leaves office. Then Iraq will be his Democratic successor's problem. It is also possible that the Democrats will be stuck with the consequences of an attack on Iran. The 'contingency plans', American and Israeli, are all ready. Intimidation is showing no sign of working, and sanctions are not likely to work because Iran has strategic allies in the Security Council who will water them down and use their veto to prevent resolutions from being set up as the prelude to military action. Muhammad Baradei, the head of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), perhaps realizing that he should have spoken up against the war on Iraq more strongly before it was launched, has said that an attack on Iran would be 'madness', but to people who have already done massive damage to their country's national interests, why wouldn't it seem logical?

Patrick Seale is in a class of his own as an observer of the Middle East. He has picked up what many have not noticed, which is that Israel's strategic position has been steadily weakening for many years. The process started in 1973 when the Egyptian and Syrian armies destroyed the myth of the invincibility of Israel's armed forces; a second blow was struck with the poor performance of the Israeli army in Lebanon in 1982; a third with the rise of Hizbullah and its liberation of the occupied areas; and a fourth with Hizbullah's strategic defeat of Israel in the summer of 2006. This was triply damaging because for the first time since 1948, Israeli cities and towns came under sustained aerial attack from another country, and because Israel was diminished in US eyes.

Israel is more isolated than ever. It has missed its own 'window of opportunity' for peace, which opened with the accession of Anwar al Safat and closed with the failure of Camp David II by the beginning of 2000. Its 'cruel, aggressive and expansionist policies' have created enemies on numerous fronts: 'Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, large numbers of dispossessed, brutalized and radicalized Palestinians eking out a living in refugee camps, Syria to the north, Iran not much further away and radical groups such as Al Qaida in many other places reflecting the angry mood of much of the Arab and Muslim worlds'. (13) In Europe, Israel's stocks have been sinking for decades, among people who are not anti-Semitic but are disgusted by the way Israel is behaving. The story is the same in the United States, with the exception of the Christian evangelists who 'support' Israel for all the wrong reasons, as the Israelis well know.

Israel shows no signs of reading the danger signals the right way, which would be to defuse Palestinian, Arab and Iranian hostility by getting out of the occupied territories. The road to peace runs not through a quisling leader propped up in his Palestinian Vichy--Ramallah--but through an intelligent response to the spirit of resistance which Hamas represents. Israel stays afloat with its enemies or it must sink with them. As Seale was told by someone whose opinion he respects: 'The Middle East today is like Europe on the eve of the Great War of 1914-18. It needs only a spark to set the whole region on fire'.

(1.) The Quartet is composed of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

(2.) One of the worst acts of sectarian provocation was the destruction, in February 2006, of the golden dome of the Askariyya mosque in Samarra. In June 2007, the work was completed with the destruction of the mosque's two minarets. Built in the 9th century, the mosque compound encloses the tombs of the tenth and eleventh Shia imams. Although Sunni mosques were bombed in retaliation, many Shia regard the destruction of the Askariyya mosque as the work of outside hands. The arrest in September 2005 of two undercover agents in Basra, wearing Arab headdress and driving a car packed with weapons and surveillance equipment, was more definite evidence of dirty tricks. The British government was so alarmed at what they might reveal under interrogation that it sent a convoy of tanks to get them out. The prison was destroyed in the process, the tanks driving over cars and through walls.

(3.) Y. Katz, 'Israel Successfully Launches Ofek 7 Spy Satellite Overnight', Jerusalem Post online edition, 11 June 2007, <http://www.jpost.com>.

(4.) S. M. Hersh, 'Annals of National Security. The Redirection. Is the Administration's new policy benefiting our enemies in the war on terrorism?', The New Yorker, 5 March 2007.

(5.) In June 2007, it was revealed that in 1985, with the knowledge of the Thatcher government, the British arms consortium BAE Systems agreed to pay Prince Bandar more than 1 billion [pounds sterling] as 'commission' for his role in securing the contract for the supply of 43 billion [pounds sterling] worth of weapons to the kingdom. With the approval of the Blair government, the money has been paid to him ever since in instalments of 30 million [pounds sterling] every three months. The British establishment media, The Times and The Telegraph, buried the scandal as quickly as possible, but not before BAE shares plunged on the stock market. Prince Bandar was also given a passenger jet painted in the colours of his favorite football team (the Dallas Cowboys) and special landing rights at a military base whenever the plane brings him to Britain.

(6.) Hizbullah has formed an odd but workable alliance with the Maronite former general Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement.

(7.) See among other reports BBC News, 'US military aid lands in Beirut', 25 May, 2007, <http://news.bbc.co,uk>.

(8.) Hersh, 'The Redirection'.

(9.) Hersh, 'The Redirection'.

(10.) Hersh, 'The Redirection', but for background see also A. Crooke, 'Our Second Biggest Mistake in the Middle East', London Review of Books, vol. 29, no. 13, 5 July 2007.

(11.) These details came to light after a 15-year struggle under the Freedom of Information Act to force the CIA to publish the 702-page collection of documents known as the 'family jewels'. See M. Schwartz, 'CIA Terror Bombings, Bob Gates and the Rise of Hezbollah', Information Clearing House, 28 June 2007, <http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/

(12.) G. Levy, 'The Real Uprooting is Taking Place in Hebron', Haaretz, 11 September 2005.

(13.) P. Seale, 'Israel Seems Determined to Dig its Own Grave', Al Hayat, English language edn, 22 June 2007.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Salt, Jeremy
Publication:Arena Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:4553
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