Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Attack on US target could backfire for Palestinians

THE GUARDIAN , GAZA

In the back streets of Gaza's refugee camps they have little doubt about why they believe Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has a free hand to bulldoze their homes, rocket their neighborhoods, and cage the West Bank behind a vast "security fence."

It is because America lets him to do so.

Within the Palestinian political class, a distinction is drawn between Americans. There are those seen as the real villains of the piece -- the neoconservatives in the US security and military establishment, and a Congress in the pocket of the pro-Israel lobby.

And there are those, led by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who are acknowledged to take a more skeptical view of Israel's prime minister.

But the result is the same.

The sheer scale of American influence, its dual and contradictory role as the principal mediator in the conflict while at the same time remaining Israel's strongest ally, make the US an obvious target for the more extreme Palestinian factions. But also a daunting one.

Until Wednesday, there had been no major attacks on Americans or their interests in Israel or the occupied territories (leaving aside an abortive attempt to blow up a US embassy convoy in Gaza three months ago).

"Everybody understands how important the US is in this situation," said Shmuel Sandler, an analyst and professor at Bar-Ilan university.

"Even if the Palestinians think the Americans side with Israelis, they also know the Americans are the only ones who can stop Israel," Sandler said.

"Hamas and Jihad understand that. Certainly the Palestinian Authority understands that. This bombing is suicidal for them," he said.

That truth was reflected in the speed with which the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, now operating underground to escape Israeli attacks, denied responsibility for Wednesday's attack. But a group representing factions of both organizations, in addition to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah, later claimed it engineered the huge explosion.

US diplomatic convoys are a frequent sight in Gaza. Sometimes they carried US President George W. Bush's special envoy, John Wolf between the Palestinians and Israelis, or sometimes CIA agents responsible for monitoring both sides.

Sandler said the attack was all the more mystifying because American monitors on the ground often worked in the Palestinians' favor.

"They monitor settlement activity, they meet Palestinian officials and give them status. The Palestinian Authority will pay the highest political price for this," he said.

That may have been precisely the objective.

Some Hamas and Islamic Jihad cells have been increasingly disturbed by what they saw as the Palestinian Authoritiy's willingness to bow to American demands, with no discernible benefits for the Palestinian population.

Palestinian critics of the US role note that the authority buckled under when the White House demanded political and financial reform, including former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, in the attempt to sideline Arafat.

In return, say the Palestinians, they got little from the Americans, particularly when Abbas engineered a ceasefire and looked to the US to stop Israel wrecking it.

Some more militant factions began to consider whether dealing with the US amounted to collaboration because, the logic went, doing Washington's bidding appeared only to serve Israel's interests.

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