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World moves to support West Bank

By Paul Reynolds, BBC News, 19.06.07

The sudden split in Palestinian ranks between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank has seen the outside world piling in to isolate Gaza and to support the West Bank leadership.
President Bush, meeting the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Washington on Tuesday, said: "Our hope is that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction."
Mr Bush said that he and Mr Olmert were promoting a "common strategy" to fight off "extremists".
This crisis is seen in the West as part of the wider struggle between moderation and extremism in the Arab and Muslim world.
In a sign of things to come, the Quartet of the US, the EU, the UN and Russia issued an almost immediate statement after the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Hamas-led and elected government. "The Quartet recognized the necessity and legitimacy of [his] decisions, taken under Palestinian law", it said.
Since then, the US has announced that aid is to be resumed to the new Palestinian government. The EU has signalled its intention of re-channelling some at least of its aid (totalling some $522m over the last two years) through the new authority rather than giving it directly, the way in which it bypassed Hamas.
Hamas was and is boycotted because it does not accept the Quartet's conditions for engagement - recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous peace agreements.
The aim is to revive the fortunes of President Abbas and Fatah (the main element in the PLO and once the arch-enemy of Israel but now seen as its negotiating partner) in the hope that he will be able to show that moderation is a better way forward for the Palestinians than extremism.
Past efforts
The problem with this scenario is that it has been tried so often before and has failed because it has not delivered the state the Palestinians desire.
The Israelis used to predict that moderate pro-Jordanian factions on the West Bank, the old families that prospered under King Hussein's rule there, would see off the radicals of Fatah.
Now Fatah, rejected by Palestinian voters in January 2006 as corrupt and inefficient, is seen as the moderate grouping and the effort is on to push Hamas into a corner.
The possibility now is that the West Bank will be favoured and Gaza be left to wither. At some stage, though, there will have to be new elections. These should show if the Western approach bears fruit.
Which 'Palestine'?
The new three-way dispute is already producing semantic confusion. One British official referred to the future of "Palestine" before realising that there are, at the moment, two contenders for the title.
Mouin Rabbani, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Reuters: "My suspicion is that Gaza is going to come under an even stronger siege than before.
"What the international community will try and do now is turn Gaza into hell while helping the West Bank, to show what you get when you elect people we like."
"We cannot have a dialogue with a party dedicated to the destruction of its neighbour," said a British Foreign Office official.
Israel itself has nearly $600m it owes the Palestinians from tax revenues and Prime Minister Olmert says this will be released. Israel would "empower the moderates", he said.
The moderates will want more than direct cash aid. Mr Abbas wants greater freedom of movement on the West Bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners, especially the leading Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti, and beyond that, a new effort to get peace talks going.
How far Israel goes in that direction remains to be seen.
Possible divergence
Internationally there might be a policy divergence between the EU and the US. Washington might see in this the chance of trying to crush Hamas, and through that, to diminish one of its supporters, Iran.
This is also noted by Palestinian commentators, one of whom, Hanna Siniora of the Israel/Palestine Center in Jerusalem, said: "The impatience of its radical elements and its alliance with extremist regional partners might bring about the possible demise of the first Arab Islamic party that came to power through the ballot box."
But an EU official said: "The question is whether it is positive to distinguish between the good guys on one side, and the bad guys on the other. We want to avoid partition." Russia takes the same view.
There has been a note of dissent at the "West Bank first" policy from the former US President Jimmy Carter. He said that Washington's refusal to accept the Hamas election win last year was "criminal" and that favouring Fatah was an "effort to divide Palestinians into two peoples."