hamas security force 224.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The power struggle playing out between Hamas and Fatah picked up steam Thursday, with dueling shows of force on the streets of the Gaza Strip despite two secret meetings between their leaders late Wednesday and early Thursday.
In those meetings, The Jerusalem Post learned, the highest leadership of both parties in Gaza discussed possible power-sharing arrangements in the PA and the PLO.
As a 3,000-strong internal security force established by Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Said Siam made itself visible for the second day throughout Gaza, members of the preventive and national security forces started their own patrols on special orders from PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas, Fatah officials said, was forced to deploy his forces after the Hamas government openly defied the veto he slapped on Siam's new security force and his appointment of Popular Resistance Committees leader Jamal Abu Samahadanah to take charge of the combined forces controlled by the Interior Ministry.
On the corners of Gaza's main intersections, Hamas and Fatah militias, distinguishable only by the color of their shirts (black for Hamas, green for Fatah) and the amount of facial hair, sometimes stood mere meters from each other. Their fingertips were never more than an inch away from the triggers of their AK-47s.
Despite a 5 p.m. demonstration through downtown Gaza City against the new force by citizens, in which gunmen fired shots into the air as they marched by the militiamen, the separate, heavily armed forces avoided confrontation.
Still, fears that a civil conflict is looming intensified as the two main factions traded recriminations for yet another escalation in tensions.
"This new force is made up of just one political body [Hamas] which means it will lead the Palestinian climate to be very hot with clashes, and a culture of hatred will develop," said Fatah spokesman Abdel Hakim Awad. He added that the new force was an illegal body.
The exact opposite message was delivered by Hamas, which said the militia was comprised of volunteer members of all the militant faction wings. Hamas government leaders spread out across Gaza on Thursday taking that message directly to the people - and putting on a show for television crews at the same time.
"We're here to let the whole world know that we have one job - to secure the Palestinian people," Salah el-Badarweil, the spokesman for the Hamas faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council, said as he shook hands with members of the new security force in downtown Gaza City. "[Hamas and Fatah] must work together in a union, without tension, and with respect for each other to make sure no there is no hatred between them."
"We are so proud of the people [in the new force] who were fighting the Israeli forces and are now fighting for the security of the Palestinian people. The resistance and making Palestinian people secure are the same job," he added.
But while they spoke of Palestinian unity, Hamas officials also took swipes at the Fatah leadership.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, PA cabinet secretary Gazi Hammad said that it was Fatah who originally politicized the security forces and brought Gaza to a state of street warfare and near anarchy.
"Abu Mazen [Abbas] said he would solve the security problem and he didn't and people started accusing us as the government of failing to stop violence," Hammad said. Installing law and order in the PA territories was one of Hamas's main campaign pledges in the recent elections.
After a spate of attacks last week, "we sent out the force," he said. "Ten minutes later, the president sent his forces out too, but we were waiting for their move for the [last] five years."
The competing forces were deployed despite secret meetings between the highest levels of each faction's leadership in Gaza. According to both sides, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Siam met with Fatah leaders Samir Mashhawari and Ahmed Hales on Wednesday to bridge the widening differences between them. Later, the Fatah leaders also met with Hamas officials who do not currently serve in the government.
It was the second such round of meetings between the two factions in the last month and according to Fatah officials, the leaders discussed the possibilities of forming a Hamas-Fatah coalition government in the Palestinian Legislative Council and also the possible entrance of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO.
The two sides also established three joint committees to lay the groundwork for the May 24 summit between all the factions which will take place simultaneously in Gaza and Ramallah.
With the ubiquitous gunmen deployed in both the wide boulevards of Gaza City and the narrow alleys of the refugee camps, opinions from Gazans varied widely as to whether the heightened military state was a positive development.
"The new force is good at the moment because it will protect us from thieves and all their crimes," said Nemar, an owner of a downtown mini-market. "All I want is to live in safety and bring home food for my kids. So far, [the new security force] is quite cool, nice and peaceful."
Just a block down the street, clothing shop owner Hazzem Hani had drawn the shutters on his display case windows after he saw a member of the new security force walk by armed with a rocket-propelled grenade.
"For sure I don't feel safer," he said. "These guys are from Hamas. We need the police to come back to power like it was before the [second] intifada."
Meanwhile, the Karni crossing endured another schizophrenic day Thursday when it was closed just an hour after its noon opening due to what a Civil Administration spokesman said was a "specific security threat" Israeli intelligence received about an attack in the works.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz had ordered the crossing open with greater regularity on Tuesday.
But the closure dashed the hopes of truck drivers there. "There are problems all the time ," said Darwish Um-Hassem, who lined up his truck to collect a shipment of cement. "I'm here every day and it's never open for long."
Karni is the sole goods crossing into and out of the Gaza Strip, and it has endured frequent closures since an agreement between Israel and the PA which calls for it to be shut only in cases of exceedingly specific security threats was brokered in November by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"We understand the importance of Karni, but unfortunately terrorist are trying to use the crossing to attack the Israeli people and in the end they are hurting their own people," the Civil Administration spokesman said. "We are trying our best."
Earlier in the day, PA Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal told the Post that all the Palestinian factions had agreed not to attack Karni or Erez, the pedestrian crossing in the north of the Gaza Strip. He blamed last month's attack on Karni, which was thwarted by PA security personnel, on Israeli collaborators.
Members of Force 17, the PA presidential guard, recently took control of all Gaza's crossings so that Israel and the international community could coordinate with PA border control without dealing with Hamas.