Tuesday, March 6, 2007

TEL AVIV — The international community’s decision to cut off financial aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government has helped drive Hamas into the embrace of Iran, the chief of Israel’s domestic spy agency said yesterday.

“One of the bad fruits of the international siege on Hamas is that once all the doors were closed, the only window open was to Iran,” said Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet security agency.

Mr. Diskin’s analysis of the Palestinian political and military scene painted a bleak prognosis for peace negotiations with Israel and included a warning about a possible Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Yesterday’s press briefing came amid renewed fighting between Palestinian factions on the streets of Gaza City and another day of failed negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on the makeup of a unity government.

In the eyes of the Shin Bet, Hamas emerged as “the great winner” from a power-sharing deal with the rival Fatah party, Mr. Diskin said. He was referring to a unity agreement signed in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, last month.

The Mecca agreement on a Palestinian unity government could help the Islamic militants break the international aid boycott without requiring it to concede its ideological rejection of the Jewish state, Mr. Diskin said.

At the same time, Hamas would retain control over key ministries to deepen the hold of militant Islam in Palestinian society.

Mr. Diskin said that the bad blood between Hamas and Fatah after weeks of gunbattles in Gaza leaves the probability at 1 in 3 that the Mecca agreement will collapse before a unity government is formed.

He said Mr. Abbas has failed to rebuild his Fatah party into a cohesive political or military force capable of challenging Hamas or providing the backing Mr. Abbas needs for peace negotiations with Israel.

Fatah has become a political party without a clear leader, divided between ex-security chief Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza and Marwan Barghouti, the legislator serving five life sentences in Israeli prison.

“I don’t think Abbas knows where he is headed,” Mr. Diskin said. “Abbas is a good negotiator, but he doesn’t know how to deal with the internal affairs of his political party.”

Mr. Diskin, who dressed in a knit black pullover shirt with jeans, heads the security branch responsible for locating and interrogating Palestinian as well as Jewish militants.

When questioned by reporters about the impact of the international aid boycott on the Hamas government’s ties to Iran, Mr. Diskin declined to criticize the aid embargo. Hamas’ ties to Iran existed independently of the boycott, he said.

At the same time, it was the economic pressure and instability from the boycott that convinced Hamas leaders that the party was incapable of ruling alone.

Strengthened ties with Iran have reportedly produced tens of millions of dollars in financial aid for the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Diskin also said that Hamas militants have left Gaza for training in Iran. Though Israeli officials have consistently sounded alarm bells that Hamas is exploiting the Gaza Sinai border to smuggle in weapons, Mr. Diskin said the training activity worries him more.

The intelligence chief said the Sinai Peninsula has moved from being a haven for tourists to a terrorist haven for global jihadists, who are likely in the future to link up with Palestinian militants inside of Gaza.

“If the Egyptians stop the smuggling activity in the Sinai desert,” Israel will not need another major operation in Gaza, he said.

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