October 24, 2008
Number 10/08 #06
This Update features pieces on the state of play between Hamas and Fatah in Palestinian society, as the two movements prepare both for an Egyptian-sponsored summit proposed for Nov. 9, and for a possible new round of confrontation.
First up is a good backgrounder from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) detailing the state of the relationship between the two groups in the lead-up to the proposed summit. It finds little hope for reconciliation, given that the two movements agree about very little other than supporting the broad idea of “unity”. It also covers additional splits in Palestinian society beyond those between Fatah and Hamas. For this full piece, CLICK HERE.
Next up, veteran Israeli reporter Leslie Susser has a long piece from the Jerusalem Report on the extent of Fatah preparations for a new round of violent confrontation with Hamas in the West Bank. The piece discusses successes that have been achieved in enforcing a measure of law and order in some West Bank towns by American-trained Fatah troops, and their more-or-less open appeals for Israeli support against Hamas. It also discusses some of the policy dilemmas Israel faces and several Israeli experts, from diverse perspectives, are quoted giving advice in this respect. For the complete story, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Karin Laub of Associated Press reports on the situation in Gaza, where Hamas appears to have cemented complete control. She analyses a series of measures Hamas has taken to destroy or marginalise Fatah and its allies in the strip, and how Hamas are coping with the international embargo on most trade. She also discusses some findings by the International Crisis Group which suggest that re-unifying Gaza and the West Bank now looks all but impossible. For the complete details, CLICK HERE. Some additional information on recent Hamas-Fatah incidents are here and here. Meanwhile, some more details about Hamas’ domination and exploitation of the smuggling tunnels from Egypt are here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Some different ideas about the way forward between Israel and the Palestinians are presented by former Soviet dissident turned Israeli intellectual Natan Sharansky, and Israeli academic Guy Bechor.
- Barry Rubin on why the Middle East is sick.
- Israel allows more Palestinian police into Hebron in an effort to extend law and order there.
- Israeli pundits discuss the causes and lessons of the financial crisis, here, here and here.
- Noted Israeli-American historian Michael Oren explores “the fork in the road” for Israeli-American relations represented by the current US presidential election. Other varied comment in the Israeli press on the election is here, here, here, here and here .
- Hamas supports as a “natural response” the stabbing of two people in Jerusalem yesterday, including the murder of an 86-year-old man. Meanwhile the first rocket in a while successfully hit Israel’s south earlier this week. And there have been increasing efforts to use firebombs in the West Bank in recent days.
- Iran threatens to attack Israel pre-emptively, but experts dismiss this as unlikely given Iran’s capabilities at the moment.
- How petroleum price falls are affecting Iran, along with Russia and Venezuela.
- An interview with Pilar Rahola, a Spanish socialist politician and writer and tireless defender of Israel.
- Some comment on the establishment of official Syrian-Lebanese ties from Israeli academic Jonathan Spyer. Plus, Lebanese expert Hassan Mneimneh reminds Syria’s interlocutors of Damascus’ continuing employment of radical Islamic terrorist groups as tools of policy.
BICOM ANALYSIS, 20/10/2008
- Cairo is attempting to host a ‘comprehensive national dialogue’ aimed at reconciling rival Palestinian factions, including the two main parties, Fatah and Hamas.
- The summit, now proposed for 9 November, would try to tackle key political and security issues, in order to try to form a transitional government.
- There is very little about which the rival factions agree beyond the general principle of re-establishing geopolitical unity. Nonetheless, a process of national reconciliation may still be launched because the main players have vested interests in doing so at this time.
- Ultimately, deep rifts are entrenched in the Palestinian polity, both within the movements themselves and between factional adversaries. As long as Hamas remains in control in Gaza and threatens West Bank security, there will be an elevated risk of confrontation.
New diplomatic energy is being used in efforts to reconcile Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah party and the radical Islamist terror movement, Hamas. Abbas raised the issue of a comprehensive national dialogue in June, but sporadic violence and a clash of interests have thwarted mainly Egyptian attempts to bring the parties together. Notably, Abbas visited Damascus last week for the second time since the summer for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This followed a meeting between Hamas leaders and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has hosted a series of contacts with the various Palestinian factions – and Israeli defence officials – in recent months. A summit set to include at least a dozen factions under the PLO umbrella is tentatively scheduled to take place on 9 November.[i] Cairo is keen to host talks aimed at forming a Palestinian transitional government acceptable to the rival Palestinian groups.
This brief outlines the primary motives for the Cairo talks – as well as the constraints upon them – in light of deep rifts which are entrenched in the Palestinian political echelon. In reality, the prospects of their success seem uncertain at best. The possibility of renewed violence between Hamas and Fatah or Israel, will remain a cause for ongoing local and international concern.
The road to Cairo
Current efforts to open a ‘comprehensive national dialogue’ are not the first time Palestinian leaders have sought to reconcile their differences. Saudi King Abdullah brokered the Mecca deal of February 2007, which lasted just a few months before factional bitterness once again spilled over into deadly bloodshed. The President of Yemen hosted meetings earlier this year which bore no fruit.
A new round of formal talks between the main Palestinian factions is far from guaranteed. Whilst unauthorized conversations reportedly took place between senior Fatah officials and Hamas leaders earlier this month, there are deep mutual suspicions, and President Abbas refused to agree to a bilateral meeting as a precursor to a broader Egyptian-brokered summit including all the Palestinian factions.[ii] Abbas travelled last week to Syria, the country which shelters Hamas political head Khaled Meshaal, to seek President Assad’s support in the internal Palestinian power struggle.[iii] Nonetheless, a process of national reconciliation may still be launched next month because the main players have a vested interest in reengagement, and neither side wants to be seen by the Palestinian people as the ones to stand in the way of national unity.
This became evident when, characteristically, Khaled Meshaal spun Israeli and US preoccupations with their own domestic affairs as “an opportunity God has given us” to focus inwards and overcome internal differences.[iv] Meshaal wields perhaps more influence than anyone over Hamas’s strategic direction.
Abbas has expressed his desire to launch this process for some time, but has been keen to do so in a way that cannot be construed as Fatah capitulating to Hamas. The issue is of increased concern for him now as the validity of his term of office will shortly come into question. Hamas explicitly rejects Abbas’s continued legitimacy as president beyond the end of his four year term on 9 January 2009, which is fuelling Israeli concerns of a violent conflagration early next year.[v] Abbas claims he has the right to stay in office until Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections can be held together, and would value some semblance of domestic unity which might avert concern in Palestinian circles of a “coming battle with Hamas” as he takes steps to cling on to his position.[vi] The conundrum of Hamas’s military power and Islamist ideology notwithstanding, for Abbas, geopolitical contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza is simply necessary for achieving full Palestinian statehood.[vii]
A warm agenda, but cold calculations
Fatah’s relations with Hamas collapsed following the latter’s June 2007 violent coup. Autumn talks would present the first real opportunity since then to mould a new transitional government.
Egypt has prepared a 14-point initiative, covering five key political and security topics to be addressed in Cairo.[viii] First, it includes laying out parameters for a new administration. As proposed, it would consist entirely of independent technocrats, which has support from within senior ranks of the PA. Hamas prefers some kind of power-sharing arrangement, in which it would surely seek to become the senior partner, along lines more similar to the failed Mecca agreement of 2007. Second, a solution needs to be found to the long-running dispute about Abbas’s future, by formulating a timetable for parliamentary and presidential elections. The three other elements include restoring pre-June 2007 conditions to Gaza; institutional reform of the PLO; and restructuring the Palestinian security forces.
Sizeable gaps would need to be bridged by the respective parties for a breakthrough. They agree upon little beyond the general principle of re-establishing geopolitical unity. Hamas maintains that it is not willing to pay a price for doing so, hence for instance its flat rejection of the notion that external Arab security personnel be deployed in Gaza. Clearly, this is not its vision for security reform. Rather, Hamas will try to exploit the process of reconciliation to edge closer to its goal of dominating the Palestinian Territories. As a PA official commented last week, “[f]rom what we understand from the Egyptians, they [Hamas] want to control everything – the PLO, the security forces and the parliament…They want to take over the presidency as well.”[ix] Ultimately, just as with its ceasefire arrangement with Israel, Hamas may reserve the option to violate an understanding with Fatah by recourse to violence and terror in order to achieve these core objectives.
In the face of this threat, PA security forces have been boosted, under the auspices of US General Keith Dayton. They have begun to approve their effectiveness in improving law and order in Nablus, Jenin and elsewhere.[x] But how they would fare against Hamas military operatives is uncertain. The activation of Hamas sleeper cells or an assassination campaign of West Bank-based security chiefs and politicians could seriously undermine the PA’s rule. Security cooperation between Israel and Fatah – in light of what Palestinian chief of staff General Dhiab al-Ali recently referred to as a “common enemy” – has never been as overt as now.[xi] This is the context in which a deployment of 700 additional PA forces in the Hebron area was agreed with Israel last week.[xii]
A deeper set of divisions
The challenge of Palestinian national reconciliation is hampered by deep splits which extend beyond the open rivalry between Fatah and Hamas. Fault lines are also intra-organisational as well as between splinter factions vying for the same constituency.
Fatah is engaged in a painfully slow reform process but power remains largely concentrated in the hands of the ‘old guard’, the dwindling generation of leaders who came to the Palestinian Territories with Yasser Arafat from Tunis in 1994.[xiii] Prior to a Cairo deal with Hamas which might weaken further still Fatah’s position, the younger generation is itching for the long overdue Sixth Fatah General Conference. Though no firm date is set, it has been mooted for this year, following almost two decades since the last such Conference was held. Such a move would help to refresh the movement and empower a new breed of leadership perhaps better placed to tackle the domestic challenge Hamas will present. Regardless of whether a national dialogue gets the parties anywhere, Fatah still needs to formulate a political strategy for replenishing its Palestinian Legislative Council losses in January 2010.
Frictions between the Gaza-based Hamas leadership and those in exile are more explicitly borne out by current developments. Khaled Meshaal’s Damascus office recently stated that it would “fight any competitor,” even if the opponent was among its own supporters, clearly indicating internal frustrations within the movement.[xiv] As one Palestinian analyst put it, “[s]ome Hamas members are angry that Hamas is not presently fighting Israel, others are disgruntled by the slow pace of reconciliation efforts with Fatah.[xv]
Separately, the Ma’an Palestinian news agency reported last weekend how relations have openly soured between Hamas and rival terror group Islamic Jihad, with a Gaza source explaining: “Hamas is a political movement that is trying to rule while Islamic Jihad is an Islamic revolutionary movement that does not want to participate in ruling.”[xvi] Clearly, the Hamas leadership remains sensitive to the critique – both within its own ranks and by other militant factions – that by agreeing to the Egyptian-mediated Gaza ceasefire, it hampered its own ability to ‘resist the Zionist enemy’. Whether this arrangement with Israel will play into Hamas’s hands as part of its strategy for undermining Fatah remains to be seen.
Israel is now weighing up the cost of the ceasefire in terms of achieving progress towards the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been in Hamas captivity since June 2006. Hamas is inclined to pressure Egypt by linking its interests to issues which lie in Egypt’s hands, from trying to reconcile the Palestinian factions to the Gaza ceasefire to brokering an agreement over the fate of the kidnapped soldier. For instance, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri indicated over the weekend that Hamas was freezing negotiations for Shalit’s release until Egypt frees Ayman Nofal, a senior Hamas leader.[xvii] It is plausible that Hamas’s next move will be to show intransigence in the build up to talks unless Egypt agrees to permanently reopen the Rafah terminal between Gaza and Sinai. Ultimately, Hamas is conscious that Egypt wants credit for its diplomatic achievements vis-à-vis the Palestinians, which is important for its prestige in the Arab world.
Current developments are not the first attempt to reconcile divided Palestinians. The Fatah-Hamas rivalry is historic, complex, and deep. It has manifested more profoundly and dramatically than ever before in the last three years, since Hamas won legislative power in the January 2006 elections and subsequently adopted violence to consolidate its grip on Gaza. As such, any Egyptian success at reconciliation will be achieved above all on the basis of narrowly defined factional interests. At the start of 2009, as President Abbas’s term of office comes into question, the Hamas threat to the moderate Palestinian cause will not dissipate, whether or not a new national consensus can be forged.
[i] ‘Exclusive: Egypt hands over draft agreement for Palestinian unity; Summit meeting set for 9 November’, Ma’an News Agency, 20 October 2008.
[ii] Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Abbas to meet Assad in Damascus’, The Jerusalem Post, 11 October 2008; ‘Fatah rejects Hamas request for bilateral talks’, Reuters, 14 October 2008.
[iii] Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Abbas to meet Assad in Damascus’, The Jerusalem Post, 11 October 2008.
[iv] Albert Aji, ‘Palestinian leaders call for reconciliation’, Associated Press, 12 October 2008.
[v] Amos Harel, ‘In the dead of winter?’, Haaretz, 19 October 2008.
[vi] I’smat Abed Al-Khaleq, ‘Hamas’ gamble – who is the loser?’, Maan News Agency, 9 October 2008.
[vii] Akiva Eldar and Avi Issacharoff, ‘Abu Mazen to Haaretz: We will compromise on refugees but demand that some will return to Israel’, Haaretz, 14 September 2008.
[viii] See reports by Middle East News Agency; also Dutsche Presse-Agentur, ‘Hamas delegation in Cairo for national unity talks’, 7 October 2008; Osama Al Sharif, ‘End the Hamas-Fatah rift’, Gulf News, 19 October 2008.
[ix] Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Abbas rejects request by Egypt for talks with Hamas’, The Jerusalem Post, 16 October 2008.
[x] I’smat Abed Al-Khaleq, ‘Hamas’ gamble – who is the loser?’, Maan News Agency, 9 October 2008; Khaled Abu Toameh, ‘Abbas to meet Assad in Damascus’, The Jerusalem Post, 11 October 2008.
[xi] Leslie Susser, ‘Fatah Girds up for Hamas’, The Jerusalem Report (forthcoming), 27 October 2008.
[xii] Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel, ‘Israel to allow 700 additional armed PA troops into Hebron’, Haaretz, 10 October 2008.
[xiii] Mouin Rabbani, Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2008.
[xiv] I’smat Abed Al-Khaleq, op. cit.
[xvi] Ma’an News Agency, ‘Hamas vs. Islamic Jihad: new tensions emerging’, 17 October 2008.
[xvii] Israel Radio News, 18 October 2008; ‘Hamas official: We may freeze Schalit talks till Egypt cooperates’, The Jerusalem Post, 18 October 2008.
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Cover story in Issue 14, October 27, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report.
When heads of the Palestinian Authority security forces met with Israeli officers in mid-September to discuss the deployment of Palestinian police, the focus quickly turned to a looming military showdown in the West Bank between their Fatah forces and their Islamist Hamas rivals. With both sides refusing to recognize the other’s legitimacy, military confrontation has become a real possibility Israeli intelligence sources say. Fatah is planning a sweeping preemptive strike and Hamas is preparing a long war of attrition that will trigger a popular uprising.
Although the immediate arena seems to be the West Bank, Fatah officers have declared publicly that the PA also must be ready to use force in Gaza, where Hamas seized control in June 2007, “to reunify the homeland.” Israeli experts, however, say the talk of retaking Gaza is pure bluster and the question is whether the PA’s organized forces can ward off a challenge in the West Bank from Hamas, which enjoys more popular support.
Tension has been high since the Gaza takeover, and has risen recently because PA President Mahmud Abbas, who is also the Fatah leader, wants to put off presidential elections scheduled for next January and extend his term by a year. Hamas warns that if he does so, it will declare his rule “illegitimate”; Abbas retorts that, in that case, he will declare Gaza a “mutinous” territory, implying that a military attack against Hamas there would be legitimate
Fatah’s public bravado comes after the successful deployment of American-trained PA forces in two tough West Bank cities: Nablus and Jenin. In their shiny new uniforms, PA police have been able to create a new atmosphere of law and order, keeping criminals and gunmen off the streets. But whether these forces will be enough to keep Hamas at bay is another story altogether.
In the officers’ meeting at the Israeli army’s Judea and Samaria Headquarters at Beit-El, outside the PA capital Ramallah, the Fatah generals spoke openly of their fears that Hamas would try to organize mass demonstrations against Abbas, assassinate Fatah leaders and fan the flames of insurrection in the West Bank. They made a number of requests: That Israel allow the free movement of their forces to deal with Hamas-instigated local uprisings; that it approve the supply of more weapons and ammunition from Jordan; and that the American general, Keith Dayton, who has been training PA forces, be authorized to train more people at more sites.
The Fatah commanders used harsh language against Hamas and openly made an unprecedented appeal for help from Israelis against other Palestinians (even though they knew there was an Israeli journalist, Yedioth Ahronoth commentator Nahum Barnea, in the room). “We have a common enemy!” declared the PA chief of staff, General Dhiab al-Ali.
General Ali and the others knew Hamas would jump at the chance to use the meeting and their comments in it to denounce them as “collaborators.” But that was a knock they were prepared to take for the chance to rally their troops. Their fighting talk was intended to reflect confidence in their ability to defeat Hamas and to send an unmistakable message that, in a showdown, the Israelis would side with them. Indeed, the Israeli officers promised to set up a joint committee to consider all the Fatah requests.
The widening of the Fatah-Hamas breach raises a number of testing questions for Israeli policy-makers: In the event of an armed confrontation, to what extent should the IDF help Fatah? Should Israel see the new PA forces as the harbinger of an orderly Palestinian state, providing a basis for a two-state solution? Can the new forces guarantee a peaceful Israeli handover of the West Bank to Palestinian rule or should they be seen merely as a means to help contain a potentially explosive situation on the ground? Does the rift between Fatah and Hamas serve Israel’s interests, or should Israel encourage dialogue between them for a unified Palestinian position that might make the implementation of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal more feasible? In other words, how should Israel handle the struggle between Fatah and Hamas for control of the Palestinian national movement?
The gradual disappearance of armed gangs roaming the streets of the West Bank began after Israel offered Palestinian gunmen an amnesty in July last year. About 300 handed in their weapons, and were taken off the list of wanted men. Others, who kept their weapons, lay low to evade arrest. American-trained Palestinian forces took over from Israeli forces the policing of Nablus in November 2007, and Jenin in May 2008, consolidating the process. Both Nablus and Jenin had been notorious for their lawlessness and the transition to Palestinian-imposed law and order was striking.
The training of the new forces is part of a U.S.-European master plan for transforming the security and economic situations in the West Bank. If Palestinians are able to demonstrate a capacity for law and order, Israelis will feel more confident about handing over territory, and Palestinians with a higher standard of living will be more amenable to making peace, the thinking goes. The driving force behind the security program is Gen. Dayton, who has already trained 1,000 Palestinian police at a base in Jordan, and is currently training 500 more there. He is also running courses in Jericho for the elite PA presidential guard, and has helped establish a strategic planning department in Ramallah. The next step will be to put Palestinian forces into other West Bank cities, starting with Hebron or Tulkarm. A force is already patrolling the Hebron environs.
Israel is also doing its bit. It has pulled back its forces from around Palestinian cities and is allowing greater freedom of movement by removing dozens of roadblocks and checkpoints. Israeli commanders say they are conducting fewer night incursions into the cities to arrest fugitive militiamen so as not to undermine the authority of the PA forces. They are also leaving work against Hamas social welfare organizations, the “Dawa,” which funnel large amounts of money to the Islamist militias, to the PA. Of a list of around 60 such organizations handed them by the Israelis, the PA claims to have closed down more than 50.
The big question, though, is how the PA forces will perform in the event of a more serious showdown with Hamas. In the fighting in Gaza in June 2007, well-armed PA units crumbled against smaller Hamas forces because they lacked motivation and leadership. Commanders fled to hotels in Ramallah, leaving badly paid troops to face well-ordered, zealous Islamist forces. Many ran away, others switched sides and the rest were routed. Within days Hamas was in control of Gaza, taking the Israelis and the Americans, who had started training PA forces in Gaza, completely by surprise.
Dayton expects the PA units will acquit themselves far better in the future. They are better trained, the commanders will be fighting with their backs against the wall and the men will have much stronger motivation, especially if they believe they are fighting for a well-ordered Palestinian state.
Israeli security experts are skeptical. Although they believe the military balance of power in the West Bank is tilted heavily in favor of the PA, they are not sure that when it comes to the crunch, its troops will fight any better than they did in Gaza.
Talking to The Report, Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, a former adviser to the Defense Ministry on Palestinian affairs, goes further. He totally rejects the idyllic security picture painted by the Americans and picked up in some of the Israeli press.
In his view, falatan – the lawlessness of guns in hands other than the central authority – is still widespread. All that has happened, he says, is that the guns and the private armies have gone underground. “The new police don’t dare tackle the militias head-on. There is no ‘assembly line’ for dealing with militia fighters or money men: that is, no process of arrest, trial and jail. At best, people are detained and released a few days later,” he says.
Harari, now a senior researcher at the Institute for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, acknowledges that on the face of it, the balance of power in the West Bank favors the PA and Fatah. “In the West Bank, they have about 40,000 armed men, whereas Hamas has not been able to build a significant counter-force under their noses, the way it did in Gaza. It doesn’t have the 7,000-strong militia, which was the backbone for the coup in Gaza,” he observes. “But the reason they don’t have it is because we have been making arrests almost every night for the past three years. The PA forces help here and there, but we do most of the work.”
Still, Harari acknowledges that the PA has learned from its mistakes in Gaza. “One of the lessons was that their forces there were infiltrated by Hamas. They have set up a special vetting unit to ensure that this is not the case today,” he says.
But all that is on the surface. Underground, all over the West Bank, geysers of resistance are bubbling. According to Harari, the militias, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front (PFLP) and Democratic Front (DFLP) have an estimated 120,000 weapons – rifles, grenades and explosive charges – “under the floorboards waiting to come out. And if there is a confrontation, bear in mind that groups like PFLP and DFLP which, although secular, were against Oslo, might side with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”
In Harari’s view, the PA will be able to hold on against Hamas and the others only as long as Israeli forces remain in the West Bank. If they were to withdraw, he reckons it would take Hamas at most six months to take over. Israel, he says, must therefore stay in the West Bank and back Fatah. “We have no choice. We can’t just leave 250,000 settlers open to the attacks of Hamas armed gangs and suicide bombers. Moreover, if we left, within six months Hamas would build up terrorist infrastructures capable of reaching Tel Aviv. And if the PA is ready to help us keep a lid on this terror, why not?” he declares.
As for Gaza, Harari dismisses as absurd any idea of the PA overthrowing Hamas there. “First let them take Tulkarm, Bethlehem and Hebron,” he scoffs. But looking at the overall Palestinian-Israeli balance, Harari argues that sooner or later Israel will have to go into Gaza to deal with the Hamas military machine there. “In my view, what will happen is that after some major terrorist attack from Gaza, Israel will go in and smash Hamas. It will be very costly, but there is no choice,” he asserts.
Not all Israeli experts share Harari’s unflattering assessment of the changes on the Palestinian street. Left-wingers like Ron Pundak, director general of the Tel Aviv-based Peres Center for Peace and one of the early negotiators in the Oslo process, see in the new deployment of Palestinian police a highly significant step towards Palestinian statehood. According to Pundak, it is having a powerful “ripple effect” on Israelis, Palestinians and the militia groups as they all begin to see the emergence of a new reality that could usher in a period of peace and quiet. For Israelis, says Pundak in an interview with The Report, the main message is that they can at last confidently withdraw from the West Bank, because there is someone on the Palestinian side to take over.
The question is can the PA be trusted not to turn its guns on Israel once it withdraws.
In Pundak’s view, it can. “The PA’s main goals today are to maintain internal security and reach a peace agreement with Israel. And if Israel were to withdraw under the terms of an agreement, they would have no reason to turn their weapons on it. Moreover, it would be a phased withdrawal, with strict monitoring of each stage, and foreign forces could be introduced to take over from the retreating Israelis to ensure the peace,” he declares.
As to the looming showdown in the West Bank, Pundak dismisses any chance of a Hamas victory. “On the West Bank, the Hamas and Jihad forces are very weak. So I don’t take all this talk about what’s going to happen in January [if Abbas defers the presidential election] seriously. What will happen is whatever Abbas wants to happen. If he decides he wants to stay on as president, he’ll stay. And if he wants to step down, he will,” he insists.
But Pundak adds a significant rider: Over time, he says, Fatah will only be able to stand up to Hamas if there is a credible peace process. He argues that in the absence of a peace process, chaos will return to the West Bank, and that, in a state of anarchy, the radicals always get stronger. “Since Oslo in 1993, history shows that whenever there was a political process, the moderates gained the upper hand, and whenever the political process got stuck, the extremists set the tone, until in Gaza Hamas eventually won control. Without a peace process, the same thing could happen in the West Bank,” he maintains.
Although the PA is reportedly planning a large-scale preemptive strike against Hamas in the West Bank, Israeli experts, who know the situation on the ground well, do not expect them to be able to deliver a knockout blow. Moshe Elad, a former military governor of Jenin and Bethlehem, tells The Report that Fatah commanders themselves recognize this. “Hamas could start a drawn-out, low-intensity rebellion and that’s precisely what the Fatah people fear: A war of attrition they can only win if the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] helps them where necessary. They didn’t come to the IDF and ask for help for nothing. They are really worried,” he says.
According to Elad, now a researcher on Palestinian society at the Haifa Technion’s Shmuel Neeman Institute, what worries Fatah most is the fact that Hamas enjoys far more public support. “Fatah may have the weapons, but Hamas has the people behind it, and the great fear of the Fatah forces is that, in a showdown, the Palestinian public will side with Hamas,” he asserts.
To illustrate what this means on the ground, Elad maintains that Abbas can’t even move around freely on the West Bank. “Abbas has not made any visits on the West Bank outside his Muqata’ah headquarters in Ramallah. People say he hasn’t got time. Nonsense, Arafat used to visit West Bank communities every week. I think Abbas has a problem going into most places, because his people are not in control,” Elad contends. His bottom line: Although Fatah has a long score to settle over June 2007 and wants revenge, it will not able to destroy Hamas resistance at a stroke.
The fact that its forces are being trained by Americans and supported by Israel is not helping Fatah’s cause on the ground, says Yohanan Tzoreff, a researcher on Palestinian government and society at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Indeed, he tells The Report, Hamas is exploiting this to depict the new PA police force as anti-Palestinian. “They call it the ‘Dayton force,’ which enters mosques and clamps down on the public in a way that serves foreign interests, not the Palestinian people. They depict it as part of a foreign plot in which the PA is a partner. And there are lots of people out there ready to take this at face value.”
But Tzoreff, a former adviser to Israel’s military government in Gaza, does not think the growing Fatah-Hamas tension will lead to violent clashes. They, and the Arab world as whole, he argues, have too much to lose. “I think as we get closer to January you will see increasing mobilization of the Arab world to prevent a blowup. Because of the potential implications of a Fatah-Hamas showdown for Arab regimes, who fear a backlash, they will do everything possible to create some sort of dialogue between them,” he predicts.
The result of this dialogue could be an agreement in which Abbas’s term remains valid for an agreed period, and in return the Hamas government in Gaza is not defined as mutinous. “That is basically what each side wants: to be recognized by the other as legitimate. That doesn’t mean that it will be possible to go ahead with a serious political process, but it does mean that each side will be able to live unmolested in its own backyard,” says Tzoreff.
If the efforts to prevent it fail and there is a confrontation, Tzoreff says the Palestinians will quickly stop it themselves by drawing Israel into the fighting. “When they shoot at each other, they almost invariably shoot at Israel to draw it in, and once that happens, both sides turn against Israel and the domestic Palestinian violence stops,” he observes.
In Tzoreff’s view, not only the Arab world, but Israel too should be pressing for dialogue between Fatah and Hamas. This, he argues, is the only way to take a genuine process forward. Current Israeli policy is to warn Abbas that if he talks to Hamas, Israel will break off all ties with him. This approach, says Tzoreff, should be reversed.
“We should be saying to Abbas: ‘We want to reach a deal, and, as the elected president, your job is to create a Palestinian consensus around the agreement.’ And for that he must be encouraged to talk to all the relevant powerbrokers,” Tzoreff argues.
The growing Fatah-Hamas rift coincided with a changing of the guard in Israel.
As tensions mounted on the West Bank, Prime Minister designate Tzipi Livni was holding intensive talks on the formation of a new government. If she succeeds, the Fatah-Hamas standoff will almost certainly be one of the first big issues to cross her desk. She will have to decide how much to help Fatah and how best to take the peace process forward. And the first decisions of a new, untried Israeli prime minister could have major local and regional ramifications.
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By KARIN LAUB
Washington Post, Sunday, October 19, 2008; 1:08 AM
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip is now virtually complete.
Since the summer, the Islamic militants have silenced and disarmed their remaining opponents, filled the bureaucracy with their supporters, and kept Gaza’s economy afloat, even if just barely, despite a 16-month-old international embargo and border blockades by Israel and Egypt.
With nothing in sight to weaken Hamas’ grip, the political split between Gaza and the West Bank – the two territories meant to make up a future Palestinian state – looks increasingly irreversible.
That conclusion was also reached by the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, in a September report describing Hamas’ ascendancy, and the split is one of the main obstacles to U.S. efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
It weakens moderate President Mahmoud Abbas in the negotiations because he isn’t seen as speaking for Gaza. Israel, Abbas and the international community don’t want a deal that leaves out the 140-square mile Gaza Strip’s and its 1.4 million Palestinians. And it’s unlikely Israel would give up the West Bank as long as Hamas is in charge in Gaza.
Undisputed rule has also improved Hamas’ leverage ahead of power-sharing talks with Abbas’ Fatah movement in Cairo later this month.
Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas leader, said his movement is eager to reconcile with Abbas. “If there is no pressure from the United States and Israel (on Abbas), we can build a good national unity government,” Yousef said.
However, in previous negotiations, the militants showed little willingness to give up any of their power and are unlikely to do so now.
Instead, the failure of this round of talks could set the stage for a new round in the Palestinian power struggle.
Compounding Abbas’ troubles is a dispute with Hamas over whether Palestinian law allows him to remain in office after Jan. 8, when Hamas says his term officially ends. Abbas, relying on an amendment that was never fully ratified, claims he can stay on another year. Hamas, citing Palestinian law, is set to appoint its own man, Deputy Parliament Speaker Ahmed Bahar, as president in January.
Abbas would be hard put to portray the Islamists as usurpers of power when his own legal status is in question.
“Starting in January, no one is legitimate,” said analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former Cabinet minister in the West Bank. “And when everyone is equal in being illegitimate, the advantaged party is the one that has the strength on the ground.”
That party is Hamas, which defeated thousands of forces loyal to Abbas in a five-day blitz in June 2007.
“We believe that Hamas is going ahead with its plan to sever Gaza from the West Bank and to build its own regime,” said former Deputy Prime Minister Azzam Ahmed of Fatah. “We believe they are succeeding.”
One reason they are succeeding is the situation on the ground. Gaza City’s streets are cleaner and safer than before the takeover. Despite budget shortages, Hamas has fixed traffic lights, paved some streets and opened a new children’s hospital, and claims to have imposed law and order after the chaos that often dogged Fatah rule.
It has also been careful not to push an overtly Islamic social agenda. For example, officials have suggested to female reporters covering Gaza’s parliament that they wear head scarves, but those who don’t are not shunned.
Still, one-party rule has made dissenters reluctant to talk openly, especially after hundreds of Fatah activists were rounded up over the summer.
Hamas now controls every aspect of daily life, from screening visitors at a new border checkpoint to running what the International Crisis Group described as a network of paid and volunteer informers.
Hamas has seized opportunities to neutralize opponents.
A July bombing blamed on Fatah gave Hamas a pretext for shutting dozens of offices of Fatah and related associations. Hamas policemen guard the now empty former Fatah headquarters.
“Everything has been taken over and there is nothing left for Fatah in the Gaza Strip,” said Hazem Abu Shanab, a Fatah spokesman who spent nearly two months in Hamas custody after the July blast.
The bombing also provided the grounds to go after one of Hamas’ last armed rivals, the Fatah-allied Hilles clan. In August, Hamas defeated Hilles fighters in a clash, sending dozens into exile and arresting others.
Ahmed Hilles, 24, a mechanic, said he was ridiculed in Hamas custody. “They told us we were defeated,” said Hilles, adding that he believes Hamas is now too powerful to fight.
Strikes by teachers and health workers, called by West Bank union leaders in August in an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, have backfired. Hamas fired thousands of the teachers, replacing them with university graduates, and forced most doctors back to work.
Not all the new teachers are necessarily Hamas loyalists, but even those without political ties feel increasingly indebted to the Islamists.
“I am not a Hamas member, but I think they have done many good things since they took over,” said Abu Khaled, 35, a newly hired math teacher.
Economically, Hamas is surviving.
International sanctions can’t block the inflow of money from Iran and donations from Muslims worldwide. At the same time, Abbas, Israel and the international community don’t want to push Gaza over the brink by fully enforcing the embargo.
“The embargo is working, but not to the extent that we want it to work, and not to the extent that everybody is keeping up the pressure on Hamas,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron.
Abbas, for example, continues to pay the salaries of some 70,000 civil servants in Gaza, in exchange for staying loyal and refusing to work for the Hamas government. Such loyalty, and with that Abbas’ main link to Gaza, would likely disappear if the money stopped coming.
Yet the salaries help prop up Gaza’s economy, and thus Hamas rule.
In addition, Hamas has about 20,000 people on its payroll, and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh last month cited a monthly operating budget of $20 million. The money is scraped together by smuggling cash, laundering money and stepping up tax collection. There’s even enough left over for occasional unemployment payments.
Gazans are also feeling safer these days because of a cease-fire that has stopped Israel’s attacks on wanted militants in Gaza and salvoes of Palestinian rockets on Israeli border towns. Israel agreed to the truce in June despite concerns that Hamas would use it to bring in more weapons, and has eased the blockade, allowing in more trucks carrying food and humanitarian supplies.
Life is also made more bearable by the unhindered influx of goods, from weapons to food and medicines, through dozens of Hamas-supervised smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
For example, the underground trade has brought down the price of a pack of Marlboro cigarettes to $3, down from $8.30 a year ago.
Politically, through, the future looks gloomy, the International Crisis Group said.
“Reversing the drift toward greater Palestinian separation, both political and geographic, will be a difficult and, at this point, almost hopeless task,” said the think tank, which specializes in areas of conflict and has been monitoring the rise of Hamas in Gaza.
“In Gaza, new realities are taking hold,” it added. “Prospects for reconciliation, reunification and a credible peace process seem as distant and illusory as ever.”
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed to this report.
© 2008 The Associated Press