By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
JERUSALEM, May 23 -- The head of the Israeli military told a legislative committee Tuesday that economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority following Hamas's parliamentary election victory this year would not topple its government nor diminish support for the radical Islamic movement in the occupied territories.
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the military chief of staff, also said he did not believe recent skirmishing in the Gaza Strip between Hamas gunmen and security forces controlled by the rival Fatah movement would lead to a broader civil conflict.
Halutz made his comments in a closed session of the foreign affairs and defense committee of Israel's parliament on the same day Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was scheduled to meet President Bush and other senior U.S. officials in Washington.
According to parliamentary spokesman Giora Pordes, who attended the committee meeting, Halutz said that "the international community united against the transferring of monies to the Hamas government, and there are signs of this on the ground."
"The fact is that the monies are not being funneled in, but the economic pressure in my view will not accelerate the collapse of the Hamas government," Halutz said, according to Pordes's notes of the meeting. "The economic pressure will not necessarily reduce the public support for the Hamas government. The Palestinian public opinion polls do not indicate a weakening in support for Hamas."
Halutz's assessment is perhaps the most critical yet delivered by a senior security official regarding Israel's policy toward the Palestinian Authority since Hamas's election victory four months ago. But it reflects growing concern inside Israel's security establishment that the nearly 4 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, facing hardships many of them attribute to outside pressure, may be strengthening the Hamas government.
Part of Olmert's agenda in Washington, his first there as prime minister, is to discuss future policy toward the Palestinian Authority with senior members of the Bush administration.
Since Hamas's election win, Israel has stopped transferring roughly $55 million in monthly tax revenue it collects on behalf of the Palestinian government while calling on foreign donors to suspend aid. The Palestinian Authority relies on foreign aid for nearly half of its $2 billion annual budget.
Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, does not recognize Israel's right to exist. The United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- the group of Middle East peace mediators and donors known as the Quartet -- have called on Hamas to recognize the Jewish state, renounce violence and endorse previously signed agreements that advocate a two-state solution to the conflict.
Hamas officials have refused those demands, although some leaders of the party have suggested that it would endorse a long-term cease-fire if Israel withdrew from all territory occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, among other steps.
The economic isolation, bolstered by U.S. threats to use anti-terrorism legislation to punish banks that transfer money to the Palestinian Authority, has drained the Palestinian government of revenue. More than 150,000 civil servants and members of the security forces have not been paid in nearly three months, paralyzing the economy in the West Bank and Gaza.
"We must be able to differentiate between the Palestinian government and the Palestinian people," said a senior Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because Olmert's visit to Washington made the remarks more sensitive. "This is the main point of debate right now inside the Israeli government: How do you free money for humanitarian needs of the Palestinians and make sure they do not go toward terror?"
Hamas's armed wing, the Izzadeen al-Qassam Brigades, was responsible for dozens of suicide attacks inside Israel during the most recent uprising. But it has largely abided by an informal cease-fire brokered by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, more than a year ago.
Israeli military officials on Tuesday announced the capture of Ibrahim Hamed, whom they described as the head of the Hamas armed wing in the West Bank. Hamed, 41, was arrested Tuesday morning during a military operation in Ramallah. Israeli military officials said he was responsible for at least four major attacks inside Israel since 2001 that killed more than 60 Israeli civilians.
In recent weeks, growing Palestinian unrest and medical shortages as a result of the economic squeeze have worried foreign donors, especially in Europe.
Officials with the European Union, the largest direct donor to the Palestinian Authority, are designing ways to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians outside government channels. The Bush administration and Israel accepted the idea this month, and Olmert freed $11 million of the frozen tax revenue to pay for medical supplies before leaving for Washington.
Pordes, reading from notes he took of the meeting, said Halutz testified that "in reality there is no humanitarian crisis in the territories. There is a harsh economic situation, which is bad, because the volume of economic activity has gone down and unemployment has gone up."
Those deteriorating social conditions have exacerbated political tensions between Hamas leaders and Abbas, the leader of Fatah. The two sides disagree over the government's approach to Israel, control of the security services and the shape of a future Palestinian state.
In recent days, the political friction has translated into street fighting and two assassination attempts against Fatah security officials in Gaza. Halutz, who took control of the Israeli military last year, called the sporadic clashes between the Fatah-dominated security services and a new force composed of Hamas gunmen an "armed dialogue" between the two main Palestinian political movements.
"According to my assessment, the internal Palestinian confrontation will not reach a civil war," Halutz told the committee. "In my opinion, no party has an interest in determining the conflict by force."