Copyrighted material


by Peter Hirschberg

to 2006 coverage of Hamas election in Palestine

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- It was an anguished enteraty from a veteran politician watching his own people tear themselves apart, but helpless to do anything about it.

"What is happening in Gaza endangers not only the unity government, but the Palestinian social fabric, the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian strategy as a whole," lamented Saeb Erekat, a close associate of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and long-time negotiator with Israel.

Erekat was referring to the factional violence between Hamas and Fatah that has again engulfed the Gaza Strip, claiming close to 50 lives over the last week and leaving frightened residents cowering in their homes as street battles raged outside.

The entry of Israel into the fray -- in the form of targeting Hamas militants in reaction to the firing of dozens of rockets from the coastal strip into southern Israel -- threatens to further complicate the situation.

In one of the bloodiest incidents this week, five Fatah guards were gunned down when Hamas militants stormed the home of Abbas's top security chief in Gaza. Rashid Abu Shbak and his family were not at home at the time of the attack. A few hours later, Hamas militants fired mortar shells at the compound housing Abbas's office in Gaza.

In another attack, Hamas gunmen ambushed a vehicle belonging to an arm of the Palestinian security services loyal to Abbas, riddling it with bullets and killing the driver and six other passengers. It soon emerged, however, that five of the dead were Hamas militants who had been arrested and were being taken to jail.

On the streets, gunmen from the rival factions, clad in black ski masks and touting semi- automatic rifles, took up positions at intersections. Residents who ventured out did so at their own peril. Eight people were injured when militants opened fire on a group of 200 protestors who gathered to demonstrate their anger over the internecine warfare.

The Hamas-Fatah bloodletting is the worst since over 100 Palestinians were killed when battles erupted between the two sides in Gaza earlier this year. That round of violence ended after an agreement was brokered in Mecca by the Saudis, who convinced Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006, and Fatah to share power.

But the unity government arrangement was flawed from the outset, leaving the cardinal issue of who would exert control over the Palestinian security forces unresolved, and so planted the seeds for the latest surge of violence.

"The basic problem of control of the security services was left open," Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, just north of Tel- Aviv, told IPS. "Hamas continues to smuggle weapons into Gaza and to train a big force to act as a counterweight to the security forces of Fatah."

Central authority in Gaza, which is home to over one million Palestinians, has all but eroded. Abbas was forced to cancel a visit to the strip this week aimed at stopping the factional feuding, but was forced to relent because his personal safety could not be guaranteed.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was no more effective -- even as he called for calm, militants from the Islamic organization were engaging in firefighting on the streets of Gaza.

Karmon points to the weakness of the Palestinian political leadership and splits within Fatah and Hamas in explaining the ineffectual efforts to end the violence. "There is a split in both organizations," he says. "Abu Mazen (Abbas) has failed to unite Fatah, which is divided between the old guard and the younger generation."

But there is also a split in Hamas, he says, recalling that it was the group's Damascus- based leader Khaled Meshal who negotiated the Mecca agreement, not Prime Minister Haniyeh. Since the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June last year -- he is still being held captive in Gaza by Hamas militants -- "Haniyeh has not had control over the Hamas armed wing," says Karmon.

The chaos in Gaza, though, cannot be explained simply as a Hamas-Fatah showdown. With the crumbling of the institutions of the Palestinian Authority -- accelerated by crippling international sanctions imposed over Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence -- clans and small factions have taken control of different pieces of Gaza turf. "Often this is driven by economic interests," says Karmon.

The kidnapping of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was abducted weeks ago in Gaza, says Karmon, is instructive. One assessment, he says, "is that he is being held by a clan that isn't prepared to listen to Fatah or Hamas."

In the latest violence, the better-armed Hamas militants have held the upper hand, with Fatah forces suffering most of the casualties. There were reports Friday in the daily Haaretz newspaper that "Western security officials have asked Israel to give Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas the tools he needs to fight Hamas -- first and foremost, the ability to pay his security services' salaries."

But Israeli intervention on the side of Fatah could serve to further weaken Abbas, who would be perceived as a lackey of Israel and the West. Already, this week, after there were reports that Fatah had asked for military reinforcements, Hamas spokesman accused the group of being western stooges.

Similar accusations were levelled after Israel, in response to Hamas rocket attacks, began striking at members of the Islamic group in Gaza. At least 10 Hamas militants had been killed by Friday in these attacks.

The only way out of the Gaza morass, says Karmon, is if the more pragmatic wing of Hamas unites with Fatah. "Maybe then there will be a chance."

But this seems an improbable scenario, especially with moderate voices all but drowned out by the din of gunfire and the crash of Israeli missiles on the streets of Gaza.

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Albion Monitor   May 17, 2007   (

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