The Washington Postleads, and the Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox, with the announcement that the United States has lifted the ban on providing direct aid to the Palestinian Authority and will resume "normal government-to-government contacts" with the Fatah-led West Bank. The European Union also announced similar plans yesterday. The Los Angeles Timesleads locally but off-leads a look at the hundreds of Gaza Strip residents who have spent days waiting at the closed border with Israel as they try to flee to the West Bank. Most of them fear they will be targeted because they have ties to Fatah. Yesterday, a battle that broke out between Israeli troops and a Palestinian gunman killed a man waiting at the border.
The New York Times leads with, and USA Today reefers, word that the U.S. military has launched a major offensive against Sunni insurgents in Diyala province that involves approximately 10,000 American soldiers. The operation is an unusually ambitious attempt to attack several insurgent strongholds around Baghdad at the same time. It appears to be a recognition that militants have been moving away from Baghdad as U.S. troops have increased their presence in the capital. USAT leads with U.S. commanders in Iraq rejecting a recommendation made by Army health experts that troops receive a one-month break after they spend three months in a combat zone. U.S. troops in Iraq are spending more time in combat than those who fought in Vietnam or World War II, and experts say continuous exposure can lead to more mental-health problems. Commanders say they are trying to give troops two to three days of rest for every eight days in the field.
The NYT notes that the resumption of aid to the Palestinian government officially marks the first major step toward what many have been calling the "West Bank first" strategy, by which the United States and the European Union plan to support the Fatah government, while leaving Hamas to control Gaza. Although the United States has been quick to offer its support for the new emergency government set up by President Mahmoud Abbas, the WP emphasizes there are still serious questions about whether the move was even legal. This isn't a concern that is troubling the administration as it tries to make the best out of the situation. "How do I put this diplomatically? Who cares?" a former Abbas aide tells the Post. "It is the politics of survival now."
The WSJ notes that the United States has tried to spin the developments in Gaza as a positive step but there are still questions about whether the plan can even be effective. The Post says that the quick move to throw their support behind Abbas made some Israeli officials nervous because they still view Abbas as an ineffective leader. The WSJ notes that besides risking the alienation of a large number of Palestinians, leaving Gaza to fend for itself also opens the field for Iran to go in as a savior and increase its popularity in the region. Meanwhile, as food begins to run out in Gaza, "the clock is ticking toward crisis," says the NYT.
Adding fuel to a volatile situation, the WSJ notes on Page One that weapons are plentiful in Gaza, where it sometimes seems like everyone is packing. "If you can afford a mobile, you can probably afford a Kalashnikov," a Gaza resident tells the paper. The NYT also fronts a look at the weapons in Gaza, but focuses on how most of them are smuggled through tunnels that connect to Egypt. Those who risk their lives to smuggle the weapons are mostly impoverished Bedouins who do it for profit, not ideology. Since Hamas took over Gaza, the increased Egyptian presence at the border has forced most of the smugglers to stop their operations for now, but they say that even if the risks increase they will continue smuggling because it's the only way they can make a living.
The U.S. military expects to meet heavy resistance from insurgents as it begins the new offensive in Iraq, which has been dubbed "Operation Arrowhead Ripper." Officers believe there are as many as 2,000 militants in Diyala province. USAT has a late-breaking wire report that says at least 22 suspected insurgents in and around Baquba, the capital of Diyala province, have been killed.
The NYT also mentions, and the WP and LAT go inside with, another operation yesterday in the southern region of Iraq, near the Iranian border, where U.S. and British troops fought against Shiite militias. Many of those fighting U.S. forces in the area were members of the Mahdi army, the militia led by cleric Muqtada Sadr. The Post notes that Iraqi troops did not participate in the operation, which seems to be the biggest confrontation between Sadr's milita and U.S. troops since the beginning of the new security plan in February. The U.S. military said 20 suspected militia fighters were killed, but Iraqi residents said the death toll was higher and included civilians.
The WSJ goes high with, and everyone mentions, that Iraq was ranked as the world's second most unstable country by the 2007 Failed States Index, which is produced by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace. Iraq was fourth last year, but now the only country that ranks worse is Sudan.
The NYT and WP both publish must-read opinion pieces by experts who put the "West Bank first" strategy into context and say that the plan is essentially too simple to work. "There is no way that a normal world could be had in the West Bank while Gaza goes under," writes Fouad Ajami in the NYT. In the Post, Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller enumerate numerous problems with the strategy and point out that Abbas no longer has the support of many Palestinians. "Dividing Palestine geographically is no more a recipe for success than dividing Palestinians politically."