By Adam Entous
Source: Reuters

( Adds Hamas reaction, paragraph 14; U.S. quote, paragraph 8 )

JERUSALEM, Oct 13 (Reuters) – The United States has quietly started a campaign projected to cost up to $42 million to bolster Hamas’s political opponents ahead of possible early Palestinian elections, say officials linked to the programme.

The plan to promote alternatives to Hamas includes funding to help restructure President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group and provide training and strategic advice to politicians and secular parties opposed to Hamas Islamists.

“This project supports (the) objective to create democratic alternatives to authoritarian or radical Islamist political options,” one official U.S. document obtained by Reuters said.

The U.S. campaign coincides with signs that Abbas is considering sacking the government led by Hamas, which defeated Fatah in January elections, in a process that could lead to a new parliamentary vote.

U.S. officials and consultants say the effort is being conducted without fanfare in order to protect the Palestinians who are receiving U.S. help — some already branded by Hamas leaders as collaborators with Washington and Israel.

“We don’t operate with firecrackers and neon signs to attract attention to ourselves,” said one of the contractors working with Fatah on behalf of the U.S. State Department.

U.S. funds will also be used to encourage “watchdog” groups and local journalists to investigate the activities of the Hamas-led government and parliament. Up to $5 million would support private Palestinian schools offering an alternative to the Hamas-controlled public education system.

In a response, U.S. Consul General Jacob Walles said: “There is nothing new here. The U.S. has operated programmes in the West Bank and Gaza for many years to promote the development of political parties and civil society organisations.”

The documents obtained by Reuters repeatedly call these new programmes that began in recent weeks.

“We are not promoting any particular party. In fact, we will work with any party as long as it is not affiliated with a terrorist organisation,” Walles said.

There would be no direct funding of parties, he stressed.

HAMAS ACCUSATIONS

Some Hamas leaders have accused Abbas and Fatah of serving the interests of Israel’s ally, the United States, which has led a Western aid embargo to force Hamas to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past accords with the Jewish state.

Washington is also helping Abbas expand his presidential guard as a possible counterweight to Hamas.

Senior Hamas political leader and lawmaker Fathi Hammad called the U.S. money part of a plot to bring down the Hamas-led government. “It is a challenge that we are aware of and we will confront it,” he told Reuters.

In U.S. budget terms, $42 million is a small amount.

But in the cash-strapped Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, it could go a long way — over three times the total spent by the main parties and candidates in the January election.

Ahead of that election, the United States tried to help the then Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, but critics said the push came too late to assist the long-dominant movement, which was handicapped by infighting and accusations of corruption.

The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) said it recently began talks with the leaders of Fatah and other parties about how they could improve their performance in any election.

Michael Murphy, who runs NDI operations in the West Bank and Gaza, said the focus for now was on internal party reform, but that the programme, in close coordination with the State Department, would also look for ways to help Fatah and others get their message across to voters.

The International Republican Institute, which has also worked in the West Bank and Gaza for years, recently received funds for a new programme to give training and strategic advice to several Palestinian independent parties, though it said politicians would not get direct financial help.

“We’re hammering into them they need to start organising now,” said Scott Mastic, deputy director of the Institute’s Middle East and North Africa division.

“There could be another election. It should be an incentive to them to get moving and get their act together.”

U.S. contractors and Palestinian political analysts say Fatah can learn from Hamas’s electoral strategy by running fewer candidates per district and also by fielding women to campaign door-to-door, since they can enter more conservative households.

One group, the Arab Thought Forum, said it had been approached by Washington to help two months ago, but that it turned down funding for a programme that would have meant excluding Hamas politicians.

“We couldn’t be in a position not to recognise a government elected by the people,” said director general Abdel Rahman Abu Arafeh. “So we are not receiving any U.S. money.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi)