RAMALLAH, occuiped West Bank (IPS) - Reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah is looking increasingly problematic as the two groups exchange serious accusations of treason, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Tension between the two groups has escalated in the wake of Israel’s 22-day military assault on Gaza, code-named Operation Cast Lead, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, nearly 5,000 wounded, and the coastal territory’s infrastructure decimated.
Fatah, affiliated with the ruling Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, accuses Hamas of killing, torturing and beating up a number of Fatah activists in Gaza.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, in turn accuses Fatah members of guiding and helping the Israeli military to strike Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip during the war.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza called Monday for an end to extrajudicial attacks against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, saying it had documented evidence of such assaults.
The documentation includes cases of close-range firing at many persons’ legs, severe beatings and house arrests. The organization did not say who the individuals were or which party they were affiliated with.
“We are very worried about these accusations and we are looking into them,” said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli rights group B’Tselem. “But we have received no evidence to back up these claims yet.
“It will take time before there can be any independent verification of the matter with the conditions on the ground at present,” Michaeli told IPS.
According to some local reports, Hamas militiamen turned a number of hospitals and schools during the assault into temporary detention centers where dozens of Fatah members and supporters were held on suspicion of helping Israel during the war.
Eyewitnesses say that a children’s hospital, a mental health center in Gaza City, and a number of school buildings in Khan Younis and Rafah in southern Gaza were among the places that Hamas turned into “torture centers.”
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum strongly denied the accusations. He said Fatah was making false claims to detract from the fact that it had remained on the sidelines during Israel’s devastating military operation, without challenging the Jewish state.
Taher al-Nunu, another Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said his organization was looking into a few reports of attacks by low-level supporters of the party. He said these were instances of score-settling among local clans, and not sanctioned by Hamas.
“Maybe there are some clashes between families,” he said. “We will investigate these cases. There are not a lot.”
Hamas spokesmen Salah Bardaweel and Fawzi Barhoum said Abbas and his “spies” had informed the Israelis of the movements of Hamas interior minister Said Siam who was assassinated in an Israeli strike on 15 January.
A Fatah official in Ramallah said the allegations were baseless and merely an excuse for attacking Fatah activists in the Gaza Strip.
Samir Awad, from the political science department at Birzeit University in the West Bank said it was quite possible that Fatah’s accusations were exaggerated and politically motivated.
“There is no evidence to back up the claims. Mahmoud Abbas [whose term as PA President officially expired on 9 January] has lost an enormous amount of credibility and popularity following what many Palestinians see as his failure to take a strong stand against Israel during the Gaza onslaught,” Awad told IPS. “This might well be a way of distracting the public’s attention.”
In 2007 a small minority of Fatah members were widely believed to have been planning a coup against a unity Fatah-Hamas government in a bid to oust Hamas, which beat its rival in 2006 legislative elections.
According to extensive media reports, Fatah members in Gaza were supplied with weaponry, money and training by the Egyptians, Israelis and by the US. Hamas pre-empted this move with a coup of its own, establishing itself as the sole ruler of Gaza in June 2007.
The two Palestinian factions have also been bickering over the distribution of critical humanitarian aid in Gaza as international and regional donors rush relief supplies into the beleaguered strip.
Reports in the Israeli media say Hamas gunmen have been hijacking aid trucks entering the territory. Mahmoud Habbash, the PA social affairs minister, claimed that the aid trucks were meant to come under the authority of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA.
Hamas, however, countered that the supply trucks were sent by Arab donors specifically for the Hamas administration in the coastal territory, and that they had the papers to prove it. UN officials confirmed that none of its supply and aid trucks were either attacked or hijacked by armed groups in Gaza.
It is against this background of bitter acrimony that regional leaders and the international community are hoping an agreement towards reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah can be hammered out.
“I think holding new Palestinian elections and implementing the Arab initiative would be an important step forward,” Dr. Moshe Maoz, a Middle East specialist from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University told IPS.
“The Arab initiative details a formula for the re-establishment of a Palestinian unity government and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Maoz.
Maoz says it is too early to tell whether there is any hope of reconciliation. “A lot will depend on whether US President Barack Obama will lean on both Israel and the Palestinians.
“Which Israeli government takes power after February’s election will also play into the equation. A hard-line Israeli government under right-wing hawk Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud would make a settlement harder. A government under Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the ruling Kadima party would be more open to negotiations,” said Moaz.
“How much Egypt and other regional leaders are able to influence and pressure both Palestinian parties will also determine the outcome of any attempts at reconciliation,” added Awad.
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