By Scott Wilson Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, May 18, 2007; A01
JERUSALEM, May 17 -- 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.
Israel on Thursday also carried out a series of airstrikes against Hamas targets across Gaza, killing at least six gunmen. [Additional airstrikes early Friday killed four people, doctors in Gaza told the Associated Press.]
Fatah, the movement formerly led by Yasser Arafat, has recognized Israel, in contrast to Hamas, whose charter calls for the creation of a future Islamic state across territory that now includes the Jewish state. The two Palestinian parties -- one secular, one Islamic -- have been fighting for control of various security services and, by extension, political power and patronage since Hamas won democratic elections in January 2006.
Hamas's militant brand of Islam has given it dominant political standing in impoverished Gaza, where many of its leaders were born or arrived as refugees, while Fatah remains strong in the wealthier and more secular West Bank.
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. Many within Fatah are avowed opponents of Israel, and any alliance with the Jewish state against the militant movement could damage Fatah's standing among Palestinians.
"We're not the ones giving these forces operational orders. That will be up to Abbas," said Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, asserting that Hamas's arms smuggling from the Sinai and military training in Iran have given the movement a battlefield advantage. "The idea is to change the balance, which has been in favor of Hamas and against Fatah. With these well-trained forces, it will help right that imbalance."
As Palestinian rocket fire into Israel continued Thursday, the Israeli air force conducted a series of strikes across Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005 after a nearly four-decade presence.
The airstrikes killed at least six Hamas gunmen that Israeli officials said were involved in rocket assaults on Israeli towns near Gaza. Among those killed was Imad Shabanah, a Hamas military leader who Hamas officials acknowledged had taken part in manufacturing rockets. His car was hit as it traveled through Gaza City.
"All options for our response are open," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. Some Hamas military leaders said specifically that "martyrdom operations," or suicide bombings, could be used in retaliation for the Israeli airstrikes.
Israeli military officials said Palestinian gunmen fired at least 17 rockets Thursday from Gaza, bringing the three-day total to more than 80. At least seven fell Thursday in the border town of Sderot, wounding several Israelis and damaging a synagogue, a high school and a building inside an industrial park, military officials said. One Israeli woman was seriously wounded by rocket fire earlier this week, and dozens of others have suffered light to moderate injuries or have been treated for shock.
A small number of Israeli tanks also pushed just inside northern Gaza, the first ground operation there this year, and an artillery battery took up position on the border. Israeli military officials called both deployments defensive measures.
Israel has used shelling and limited ground operations in the past to stop Palestinian rocket fire. But the results have never been decisive against a weapon that is cheap, highly mobile and difficult to detect until it has been fired. The Israeli tactics have also resulted in many Palestinian civilian deaths.
"Hamas has essentially gone back to what we always knew they were -- a terrorist organization acting as a government," said Miri Eisin, spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "What they are trying to do is drag Israel back into Gaza after we left every inch of it. We do not want to rule Gaza."
The factional fighting cooled Thursday in the shadow of Israel's stepped-up military operations. But Fatah gunmen ambushed a Hamas funeral procession in Gaza, killing two men in the crowd.
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the subject, said the decision to allow Fatah troops into Gaza this week was based on trying to help Abbas take control of northern Gaza. That area is the prime launching ground for the erratic if lethal rockets known as Qassams.
"If you look at exit scenarios for what's going on there now, you could have a force loyal to Abbas in northern Gaza that could be highly useful to Israel," one Israeli official said. "But within the larger crisis you have to be careful. We don't want to be a part of this conflict, so this is a balancing act."
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.
Although it is under Abbas's authority, the Presidential Guard is run by Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah lawmaker who has worked closely with several U.S. administrations. Abbas named Dahlan his national security adviser after Hamas and Fatah agreed in February to establish a power-sharing government.
The appointment infuriated Hamas leaders, who despise Dahlan for the crackdown he carried out against them as head of the Preventive Security branch following the 1993 Oslo accords. Hamas opposed the agreement, which created the Palestinian Authority.
"This is a complex situation, and we clearly hear Abbas say he wants to stop terrorism," a second Israeli official said. "But he has not been able to extend his authority over all of Gaza."
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.
Although Israel handed the Rafah crossing over to Palestinian and Egyptian control after evacuating Gaza, it maintains the ability to deny entry to anyone it does not want to pass through the terminal. It frequently employs this prerogative to prevent known members of armed Palestinian groups from entering the strip.
Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for the E.U. Border Assistance Mission deployed at Rafah as part of the turnover agreement, said the men arrived in several buses. "We had been informed they were arriving," Telleria said. "But this was coordinated between Israel and the Palestinian government. All we did was monitor the crossing."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.