Friday, May 18, 2007

Eyeless in Gaza

Israel this week allowed the Palestinian party Fatah to bring into the Gaza Strip as many as 500 fresh troops trained under a U.S.-coordinated program to counter Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that won Palestinian parliamentary elections last year. Fighting between Hamas and Fatah has left about 45 Palestinians dead since Sunday.

The forces belong to units loyal to the elected Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate Fatah leader whom the Bush administration and Israel have sought to strengthen militarily and politically. A spokeswoman for the European Union Border Assistance Mission at Rafah, where the fighters crossed into Gaza from Egypt, said their entry Tuesday was approved by Israel.

The troops' deployment illustrates the increasingly partisan role that Israel and the Bush administration are taking in the volatile Palestinian political situation. The effort to fortify the armed opposition to Hamas, which the United States and Israel categorize as a terrorist organization, follows attempts to isolate the radical Islamic movement internationally and cut off its sources of financial aid. ...

The Bush administration recently approved $40 million to train the Palestinian Presidential Guard, a force of about 4,000 troops under Abbas's direct control, but both Israel and the United States, each deeply unpopular among Arabs in the region, have been trying to avoid the perception of taking sides in a conflict that this week in Gaza has resembled a nascent civil war. ...

The troops were trained by Egyptian authorities under a program coordinated by Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, a special U.S. envoy to the region who has been working to improve security in Gaza and the West Bank in order to foster Israeli-Palestinian economic alliances in the short term and peace prospects over time.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dayton had not yet begun his phase of training Fatah forces because the funding was only recently approved. He said none of the troops who arrived in Gaza this week were trained with U.S. funds. ...

Israeli officials said the forces, whom one Israeli Defense Ministry official called "Dayton's guys," were trained in Egypt and numbered between 400 and 500 men.


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