Palestinian Affairs: Where there's smoke...

Hamas and Fatah are now using the kind of attacks against one another they used to reserve for Israel.

hamas training 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
hamas training 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
The latest standoff between Hamas and Fatah is yet another reminder of the severe power struggle that has been raging in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for more than two years. The recent crisis, which erupted after a mysterious explosion of a vehicle killed five Hamas men who were picnicking on the beach in Gaza City last Friday, shows that the two parties are far from ending their bloody dispute. Hamas leaders continue to insist that Fatah was behind the explosion. And though they have yet to provide concrete evidence to back up the charges, Hamas leaders were quick to order an unprecedented clampdown on Fatah, arresting more than 160 of its members and closing dozens of institutions run by Fatah supporters and members in four days. The only "evidence" that Hamas has been able to provide thus far is a clip from the Fatah-controlled Palestine TV, in which "revolutionary" music accompanies the pictures of the explosion in Gaza City. The clip, which also includes songs in praise of Fatah, is reminiscent of Fatah broadcasts that were intended to celebrate armed attacks on Israel. Hamas leaders in Gaza say they have no doubt that top Fatah officials ordered the attack on the Hamas vehicle. They claim that in the past, their security forces managed to thwart similar attacks that were masterminded by a group of Fatah officials in the West Bank. One of these Fatah officials, according to the Hamas leaders, is Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who allegedly dispatched a young Fatah activist to kill Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh last year. Another Fatah operative whose name has been frequently mentioned as a suspect is Muhammed Dahlan, the former Fatah security commander who currently spends most of his time in Cairo. "There is a group of traitors in Fatah who work for the Zionists and Americans," said a senior Hamas official. "These are the same figures who fled the Gaza Strip last year. They want to destroy Hamas at any cost." This tension on the ground has been accompanied by a war of words that is continuing to poison the atmosphere between Hamas and Fatah. For the first time, Hamas this week began referring to Fatah's leaders as "sons of pigs and monkeys," a label that had thus far been reserved for Jews. This is in addition to other terms, such as "Zionist agents," "prostitutes" and "mentally retarded." Fatah, for its part, has also pulled up some of the words it used once against Israel. Fatah spokesmen are now referring to Hamas as an "occupation force" in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders are being depicted as "terrorists," "oppressors," "scum of the earth" and "sex perverts." Fatah responded to the Hamas crackdown by arresting about 100 Hamas supporters and members in the West Bank. These measures coincided with an IDF crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, a factor that played into the hands of Hamas. Hamas spokesmen rushed to accuse Abbas and his prime minister, Salaam Fayad, of collaboration with Israel to close down charities, schools, kindergartens and other Hamas-affiliated institutions in the West Bank. The spokesmen claimed that, in some cases, IDF troops and Abbas's security forces carried out joint raids on villages in the West Bank in search of Hamas members. Hamas is now calling on the Palestinians in the West Bank to launch an intifada against Abbas and the PA. The threats have prompted several top PA officials to take precautionary measures, while others have moved their families to Amman or Cairo. Despite the crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, there are still no signs that Abbas and his Fatah party are in full control. True, Hamas does not have a military presence in the West Bank, but there's no ignoring the movement's political power there. Ironically, the IDF and Fatah measures against Hamas figures and institutions have served as a boomerang, earning the Islamic movement more sympathy among West Bank Palestinians. ABBAS'S REPUTATION among his people suffered a severe setback this week, when Haaretz reported that he was threatening to dismantle the PA if Israel freed jailed Hamas ministers and legislators. The report, which has been strongly denied by Abbas, is now being used by Abbas's rivals as further proof that the man is a "traitor." Abbas's standing may soon suffer another blow as he finds it difficult to pay salaries to more than 150,000 public servants in the PA. The PA, according to its own spokesmen, is on the verge of bankruptcy, due to the failure of donor countries to live up their promises. As a result, the PA's deficit has grown over the past seven months from $1.6b. to $2b. The confrontation with Hamas and the financial crisis do not bode well for Abbas, who is also facing increasing challenges from within Fatah. Abbas's term in office will expire in January 2009, and, according to his aides, he has no intention of stepping down. In fact, Abbas claims that the PA constitution, which was ostensibly amended a few years ago, allows him to remain in power for another year. But Hamas has already declared that it won't recognize Abbas as president of the PA beyond January 2009. Hamas officials have even made it clear that they will remove Abbas's pictures from all government institutions in the Gaza Strip after that date. In any case, it would be impossible to hold presidential elections in the wake of the increased tensions between Hamas and Fatah, and the continued split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So what's going to happen in January? Hamas says that, according to the PA constitution, the acting speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council - who is a Hamas official - will take over as president for a transitional period until new elections are held. Fatah, on the other hand, says that it would support Abbas if he decides to stay in power for another year. However, not all Fatah members are willing to accept such a scenario. Representatives of the "young guard" in Fatah have made it known that they would revolt against any attempt to block the emergence of a new leadership. Jailed Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, who has recently been very critical of the way Abbas and the veteran Fatah leadership are handling the affairs of the Palestinians, has expressed his desire to run in the next presidential election. Whatever path Hamas and Fatah choose, it's clear that the two parties are headed toward further schism and conflict. Hamas's actions in Gaza demonstrate that the movement has decided to eliminate any Fatah presence there. Similarly, Abbas's forces are now waging a battle to "cleanse" the West Bank of Hamas. The separation between the West Bank and Gaza is likely to grow, as the two sides continue to trade accusations and target each other. Yet, whereas there are no signs that the Hamas grip on Gaza has been weakened as a result of the power struggle, there are many indications that Abbas and Fatah are losing their credibility and power on the streets of the West Bank.