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(photo credit: AP [file])
For the first time since its forces took full control of the Gaza Strip five months ago, Hamas appears to be facing a major crisis that is likely to undermine its credibility and status among Palestinians.
In a desperate attempt to sweep the Islamist movement's predicament under the rug, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh delivered a speech Sunday in which he tried to send the message that Hamas still spoke with one voice.
Haniyeh's remarks also reflected the frustration among Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. He claimed that Palestinian parties were involved in the ongoing Israeli "siege" of the Gaza Strip and that the US had given Israel a green light to launch a large military operation against Hamas there. He also said that some Palestinian parties were trying to disrupt the work of the parliament and judicial system.
Haniyeh's words were clearly directed against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction in the West Bank. But in the same breath the Hamas leader also sought to reassure Abbas that the Islamist movement had no plans to stage a coup in the West Bank. Moreover, Haniyeh denied that Hamas had plotted to assassinate Abbas using booby-trapped underground tunnels in Gaza City earlier this year.
Haniyeh's statements, which came two days after four Hamas leaders in the West Bank met with Abbas in Ramallah, stand in sharp contrast to remarks made by other Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.
The Ramallah meeting, which caught the Hamas leadership in Gaza by surprise, highlighted divisions among the leaders of the Islamist movement. Today it is evident that the West Bank Hamas is different from the one in the Gaza Strip - at least regarding strategy toward the rival Fatah faction.
In recent weeks, many Hamas representatives in the West Bank have openly criticized their colleagues in the Strip, holding them responsible for the continued tensions with Fatah.
The meeting with Abbas was preceded by a press conference that was held by a number of Hamas representatives in Ramallah, where they condemned threats by a top Hamas military leader to overthrow Abbas's regime in the West Bank. The two most senior Hamas representatives in the West Bank, Nasser Eddin al-Shaer and Hassan Yussef [who is in an Israeli prison], have not hesitated to publicly express their disapproval of Hamas's latest actions and threats.
But not all the challenges facing Haniyeh come from the West Bank. Palestinian journalists in the Gaza Strip pointed out that Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar did not appear alongside Haniyeh Sunday. The two have long been reported to be embroiled in a sharp dispute over future strategy.
Sources close to Hamas say that while Haniyeh has been pushing for a conciliatory approach toward Abbas and Fatah and a truce with Israel, Zahar and his followers remain vehemently opposed to any dialogue with Fatah. Zahar, together with another influential Hamas leader, Said Siam, is also said to be opposed to an unconditional truce with Israel. Relations between Zahar and Haniyeh reached a boiling point two months ago when their followers clashed in Gaza City, using firearms and explosives.
The differences among the Hamas leaders are believed to be the main reason behind the ongoing rocket attacks on Israel.
Hamas's political leaders have failed to agree on a clear policy toward the rocket squads simply because they refuse to talk to one another.
The infighting among the top brass of Hamas is taking place as the economic and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip continues to escalate, prompting many Palestinians to question the Islamist movement's ability to change the situation for the better. In the past few weeks, prices of basic goods and cigarettes have skyrocketed and dozens of factories and other businesses have been forced to close.
In addition, Hamas leaders have recently been complaining about the lack of Arab and Islamic support for their government.
Over the weekend, Hamas suffered a blow when the Syrians advised the movement's leaders to call off a meeting that was supposed to take place in Damascus to voice opposition to the US-sponsored Annapolis peace conference. The Syrians apparently came under US pressure to cancel the Hamas-sponsored conference, which was intended to embarrass Abbas by depicting him as a pawn in the hands of the Americans and Israel.