For a long time, relations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Islamist movement Hamas have been tense. On September 30 these tensions finally boiled over.
After a series of mysterious and still-disputed events, members of Hamas clashed with Palestinian police officers throughout Gaza City. Three Palestinians were reported killed, including a major in the Palestinian police, while more than 50 others, among them children, were injured.
The worst clashes took place in the crammed Beach refugee camp, in the western part of Gaza City, where Hamas militants squared off with policemen at the doorsteps of the camp’s police station. The militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and lobbed handmade grenades at the policemen, killing the police station’s deputy commander, Major Ali Mekkawi.
The clashes raged for about six hours and subsided only around midnight, local time, on October 1, after Egyptian mediators stepped in. It was the fiercest internecine fighting since 1996.
Sources in Hamas said that the clashes were triggered when police stopped a car in Gaza City and demanded that its four occupants hand over their weapons.
One of the four was Mohammed Rantissi, the son of the former Gaza Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, who was assassinated last year by Israel. Rantissi refused the demand and when he attempted to drive off the police fired at the car’s tires.
However, according to the Palestinian interior ministry, the clashes began after a police patrol tried to settle a dispute between Rantissi and another citizen, over which one of them was to draw money first from an ATM machine. Rantissi called a number of Hamas militants who fired at the police.
What was unique about this particular clash, though, was that local residents sided with the PA, pleading over local radio stations with Hamas to stop the clashes and show self-restraint. Other, angrier residents took to the streets where the clashes were and hurled stones at the Hamas militants.
Commentators were unanimous in concluding that these days, any quarrel, dispute or brawl between two ordinary citizens in Gaza could end up developing into an armed confrontation between the PA and the ‘Hamas Authority’.
Talal Okal, a Palestinian political analyst, believes that the weakness of both the legislative and judicial authorities are the precursor for such clashes emerging in the Palestinian street.
“The lack of political and popular monitoring, along with the monitoring of all the factions and parties over the executive authority, has always been disputed since Oslo [peace accords of 1993], while the absence of a reference point that controls the armed resistance movements and militants provides a suitable atmosphere for the growth of tension and chaotic power struggles,” Okal said.
Moreover, Hani Al Masri, a columnist at a local newspaper, asserts that this crisis has roots in the state of multiple authorities that was created by the shuffled political situation, which further led to bolstering lawlessness and weapons chaos.
“There is no other alternative but to search for a temporary formula in which balance between maintaining a sole authority on the street and the resistance weapons can be achieved, in response to the current situation, where major movements such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are not part of the [Palestine Liberation] Organization and the PA,” he said.
“This temporary formula must hold until the time comes for holding the legislative elections, which will be the step to having everyone under the umbrella of Palestinian legitimacy,” Masri added.
Indeed, tensions between Hamas and the PA have always been out in the open, from questioning the results of the recent local elections in the West Bank, to arguments about who was to blame for the explosion that happened in Jabaliya refugee camp two weeks ago during an armed rally for Hamas.
These tensions are seen by Hassan Al Batal, another political analyst, as an omen that does not bode well for the Palestinian people. His analysis of the situation was pessimistic.
“A month before these clashes,” Batal said, “Hamas official in Jabaliya refugee camp Fathi Hammad threatened the PA of a popular uprising against it if people’s living standards did not immediately improve after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He also argued that the current authority was made up of a minority and that Hamas was ruling the 120,000 refugees of Jabaliya.”
“A week ago, and following the Jabaliya explosion during a rally for Hamas, the movement’s West Bank official Mohammed Ghazal also threatened to form a second and parallel authority for Hamas in the Palestinian territories,” Batal said.
He made clear that Hamas has had the intention of replacing the current PA for a long time, and Israel has received these intentions with open arms and has built on them.
What can be regarded as odd about these clashes, stated Batal, was that they ensued on the very day that Palestinian factions, including Hamas, had declared a renewed commitment to observing the ceasefire, and on the same day that Israel had decided to halt its attacks against Palestinians.
Away from the political analysts Abdullah Abu Oun, a grocery shop-owner in downtown Gaza and a resident of Beach refugee camp, said that these clashes meant nothing to the Palestinian people, as they did not - and will not - solve their problems.
“Ask anyone in the street if they benefited from the [September 30] clashes. If Hamas or the PA wins in these clashes, will they be able to bring food to the table or jobs to the impoverished Gaza population?” Abu Oun asked.
“It’s really simple to figure out,” he went on. “It’s a show of force by Hamas ahead of the legislative elections. They want to prove to the people that they’re the ones ruling the streets, and that without them in control, the PA would never be able to control lawlessness.”
“But they did that at the expense of Ali Mekkawi, Omar Shanti and Hiyam Nassar [the three Palestinians killed during the clashes]. Let us see if their loved ones care for Hamas or the PA’s message,” he bitterly concluded.
Yasser Abu Moailek is a freelance journalist and translator living in Gaza Strip. He contributes news items and feature stories to several news agencies around the world and has worked with foreign media outlets and NGOs in the Gaza Strip. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.