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Israel's agreement to the transfer of 2,000 assault rifles to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's personal forces in Gaza has been greeted with the expected knee-jerk reactions from politicians on the right-wing.
Likud MK Yuval Steinitz predicted that "a lot of IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians will be killed with these weapons." However, Steinitz knows full well that the arms shipment will make little difference to a Gaza already awash with arms.
Neither is gunfire the main danger from Palestinian terrorists; though there have been many ambushes and drive-by shootings over the years, the great majority of Israeli casualties over decades of terror, especially during the years of the second intifada, have been caused by explosive devices.
Fatah's new AK-47s represent, at the most, a slight shift in the inner power balance within the Palestinian Authority and make virtually no difference to the confrontation with Israel.
But Israel's cooperation in a move directly assisting Abbas and Fatah in their armed and often violent rivalry with Hamas has more serious ramifications than more Kalashnikovs circulating in Gaza. Eleven months ago, Hamas won the Palestinian elections and Israel broke off all ties with the PA government, holding sporadic talks with Abbas.
Despite this, Israel, until now, has been very careful not to be seen to be siding with any one faction. Officially, Israel is on the sidelines, even though it's clear that the government prefers to deal with Abbas.
There are two main reasons for keeping out. First, it would harm Abbas and Fatah if they were to be seen by the Palestinian public as Israel's allies. And second, Hamas could well win both the impending civil war and the next elections and Israel might have no choice but to deal with the movement. Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres admitted as much this week in Spain when he said that Hamas would have to play a major part in any peace process.
By opening its borders to the arms convoy from Egypt, Israel has all but announced that it was backing Abbas against Hamas. The rhetoric from various Israeli and US sources over the last few weeks is equally clear: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush are out to get Hamas and lend a helping hand to their new Palestinian friend.
The next step is allowing the Badr Brigade, a thousand-strong Palestinian unit loyal to Abbas and based in Jordan, to redeploy to Gaza. US advisers have already begun assessing the unit's needs. While Israel is still refusing to allow them entrance until they agree to leave their families behind in Jordan, an agreement is expected very soon.
These actions on behalf of Abbas are taking place apparently without the government having even discussed this policy, let alone decided officially that Israel is on his side. Allying with Fatah against Hamas is the most significant policy that the Olmert government has embarked upon - it will have a huge effect on the future relationship with the Palestinians and is also putting Israel in a delicate position with its other Arab neighbors. Surely there should have been some kind of discussion before Israel embarked on this course. If there was one, the public has not been informed.
The US is not the only country to have tried over the last decades to intervene in the affairs of other countries by arming one side in a local conflict. Israel also tried to create its own alliances within the region, especially with non-Arab groups, such as the Kurds in Iraq, the Persians and the Christian Maronites in Lebanon. The results ranged from failure to tragedy.
This time, the stakes are even higher. The Palestinians are our immediate neighbors and getting embroiled in their inner wars will automatically spill over into Israeli towns. Sitting on the sidelines while Hamas and Fatah slaughter each other might not be a good policy either, and Israel might have no choice but to intervene in some way, but there is time for a serious debate before that decision.
The Bush Administration has added Abbas to its list of good guys and Hamas is on its hit-list and Israel is not going to go up against its biggest ally. But since Israelis are the ones who have to live next to the Palestinians, whichever side emerges victorious, it is surprising that more care is not being taken here about openly choosing sides.
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