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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Saudis buying influence in Gaza

GAZA CITY Saudi Arabia is bidding to become a major player in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian sources said Saudi Arabia is financing militia chiefs in the Gaza Strip, notably exiled PA security chief Mohammed Dahlan, in an attempt to expand the kingdom's influence. The sources said Riyad maintains contacts with militia commanders and members of major clans in the Gaza Strip.

"The Saudis want to take over the Egyptian role and become the leading influence in Gaza," a Palestinian security source said.

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[On Wednesday, Israel assassinated an Islamic Jihad commander said to have been responsible for weapons development and missile strikes on the Jewish state, Middle East Newsline reported. Raid Fanouna, who survived four Israeli previous assassination attempts, was said to have been killed by an air-to-ground missile as he was driving through Gaza City. Another five people were reported to have been killed in the strike, which accompanied a ground incursion in the Gaza Strip.]

The sources cited Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the kingdom's national security adviser and the son of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan. Bandar, a former ambassador to the United States, has been working with several leading Palestinians, including Dahlan.

"Bandar and Dahlan have been in close contact, and one can assume that Dahlan has been getting significant Saudi funding," the source said.

The sources said the Saudi effort was launched in February 2007 during the talks between Fatah and Hamas in Mecca. Senior Saudi officials, including Bandar, concluded arrangements with Abbas's aides as well as Hamas representatives, and the flow of Saudi money began in wake of a militia ceasefire and a national unity government in March.

The Saudi effort has bypassed PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the sources said. They said Abbas has sought to stop his security commanders and aides from direct contacts with Saudi and other foreign elements.

But the sources said Abbas has been ignored by Fatah as well as PA security chiefs. They said Saudi influence in the Gaza Strip could eclipse Egypt, the source of weapons for Palestinian militias in the area.

The sources said Dahlan has sought Saudi funding to finance a new militia meant to regain the Gaza Strip. Dahlan's standing in the PA has been damaged by Hamas's takeover of the region and the quiet support provided to the Islamic movement by Egypt.

"Dahlan lost much of his power when he fled Gaza," another PA source said. "This might hurt his new relationship to the Saudis."

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