A civil war in the making

A Palestinian militant from the Popular Resistance Committees stands in the northern Gaza Strip, August 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

CAIRO (IPS) - Recent weeks have seen the worst fighting between rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas since the latter’s takeover of the Gaza Strip last summer. Hamas accuses the “treasonous faction” within Fatah — which worked with US military intelligence in last year’s failed bid to destroy the resistance group — of instigating the violence.

“Hamas’s accusations are understandable,” Abdelaziz Shadi, political science professor and coordinator of the Israeli studies program at Cairo University told IPS. “Instability in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip would be in Fatah’s interests.”

In the 14 months since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in a preemptive coup, after winning elections in 2006, mutual animosity has been largely confined to a war of words. In recent weeks, however, the dispute between the two movements — which now head rival governments in Gaza and Ramallah — escalated into open conflict.

On 25 July, a bomb went off on a crowded beach in the Gaza Strip, killing five major figures in Hamas’s military wing and a six-year-old girl. Hamas, currently party to a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian resistance factions, accused elements of Fatah of carrying out the attack.

Despite official denials by Fatah, Hamas security forces in Gaza carried out a territory-wide campaign of arrests of Fatah personnel suspected of involvement. Fatah retaliated in the West Bank by detaining scores of Hamas-affiliated activists, along with a number of civic leaders not associated with the resistance group.

After human rights groups condemned the arrests — in both territories — as “politically-motivated,” the majority of detainees from both sides were soon released.

Fatah is usually described by the western media as “moderate” because it supports negotiations with Israel, held regularly since last November’s Annapolis summit in the US. Hamas, meanwhile, often described as “extremist,” maintains a policy of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, noting that negotiations have so far failed to achieve a single breakthrough worth mentioning.

The inter-Palestinian rivalry took a drastic turn for the worse on 2 August, when fighting erupted between Hamas security forces and members of the prominent Hilles clan in Gaza City’s al-Shejaeya district. According to Hamas security officials, certain pro-Fatah members of the clan were suspected of involvement in the 25 July beach bombing.

After a 48-hour-long battle that left 11 dead and much of the neighborhood in ruins, Hamas security personnel reportedly detained dozens of Hilles members for questioning. In an unprecedented development, an estimated 180 clan members — fleeing Hamas security forces — sought refuge in Israel.

“The situation has become so grave that partisans of Fatah actually fled to Israel for protection,” said Shadi.

Following an appeal by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli authorities eventually took in the Fatah men — but not before making them undress before television cameras.

“Israel publicly humiliated its own agents,” Magdi Hussein, political analyst and secretary-general of Egypt’s frozen Labor Party, told IPS. He described the episode as “more proof that cooperation with Israel can only lead to degradation and loss.”

The Hilles members were later reportedly transported through Israel before being permitted to enter the Fatah-run West Bank.

According to local analysts, Hamas’s claims of Fatah complicity in attempts to destabilize Gaza are not easily dismissed.

“Hamas’s accusations are not without foundation,” Hussein said. “When news of the beach blast was initially broadcast on PA television in Ramallah, it was accompanied by triumphant music and patriotic anthems as if it were a victory.”

While not mentioning Fatah by name, Hussein went on to blame the Gaza bombing on “Palestinian agents of Israel.” Agents, he said, “whose close association with Israel was proven by the fact that they ultimately fled there for refuge.”

“Israel’s inability to remove Hamas from Gaza — either by force of arms or by cutting it off from the rest of the world — has prompted it to adopt indirect means of weakening Hamas,” added Hussein. “Now it’s using its agents inside Gaza to incite violence domestically.”

Shadi, too, conceded that the Gaza bombing “might have been the beginning of an attempt to overthrow Hamas rule” in the Gaza Strip, noting the territory had also seen a handful of other, smaller blasts throughout July. “There are elements that would like to portray Hamas as incapable of maintaining security,” he said.

It would not be the first attempt by elements of Fatah to strike out at Hamas in Gaza.

In the summer of last year, Washington — frustrated by Hamas’s victory in 2006 legislative elections — provided Fatah cadres with the arms and support to extirpate the Hamas leadership in Gaza. The plan was to be jointly coordinated by US Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton and long-time Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan.

The so-called “Dayton Plan” was preempted, however, when Hamas — after six days of heavy fighting in mid-June — seized control of the Gaza Strip. Since then, Gaza’s Hamas-run government has maintained relatively high levels of stability throughout the territory despite an internationally sanctioned embargo that has brought the strip’s economy to the brink of ruin.

“Ultimately, this inter-Palestinian bloodshed only serves Israel,” said Shadi. “For the average Palestinian, meanwhile, the humanitarian situation remains worse than ever.”

Last week, Egyptian officials reiterated calls for dialogue between the warring factions, but local observers remain skeptical.

“With the recent escalations and fighting, there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel for Palestinian reconciliation,” said Shadi.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.