Palestinian Affairs: Guns and grassroots

Is the W. Bank headed for a Hamastan? Popular sentiment indicates Fatah had better get its act together.

Hamas gunmen 298.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas gunmen 298.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
As Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction contemplate what to do with the hundreds of millions of dollars that the international community is about to pour on them following their defeat in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is busy planning how to export its "Islamic revolution" to the West Bank. Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip are now talking openly about taking over the West Bank. "It's only a matter of time before the West Bank falls into our hands," said a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip this week. "Fatah is in control only because it has many armed thugs and security officers there. But we have the backing of the people, and that's more important." Fatah's massive clampdown on Hamas in the West Bank in the past week reflects the state of hysteria among its leaders and activists. The campaign against Hamas figures and institutions was not part of a well-planned security operation executed by the Palestinian security forces; rather, the job was left to hundreds of gunmen belonging to Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. These gunmen, who have long been accused of terrorizing the Palestinian public, are no longer seen by many Palestinians as "heroes of the revolution." In fact, in recent months many Palestinian families in the West Bank have appealed to Abbas to disarm his militiamen and restore law and order. But to no avail. Most of the Fatah gunmen double as officers in Abbas's security forces and are on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority. They were recruited to the security services as part of a US-backed plan to "reform" these forces. During the day, they patrol the streets as law-enforcers. But at night, many of them switch roles and are involved in various types of criminal activity. While many Palestinians in the West Bank have expressed discontent over Hamas's bloody coup in the Gaza Strip, they are at present equally unhappy with the way the Fatah militiamen are running wild in the West Bank. "What's the difference between the Fatah gangsters in the West Bank and the Hamas murderers in the Gaza Strip?" asked a money-changer in Nablus. "Hamas was kidnapping people and executing them in the street. They were also looting and destroying homes. This is what Fatah has also been doing in the West Bank in the past week." The money-changer, who said he was among a group of local merchants who pay "protection" money to Fatah gangs on a regular basis, called on Fatah not to repeat the mistakes it made in the Gaza Strip. "Fatah lost in the Gaza Strip because of the corruption of its leaders and because many of their gunmen were responsible for the anarchy and lawlessness there," he said. "If they continue to do the same things in the West Bank, they will also lose here." FATAH'S CREDIBILITY has been dealt a severe blow as a result of what happened in the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians say they still can't understand why Fatah was defeated so easily and quickly by Hamas's relatively small forces. On the streets of Ramallah this week, many people mocked the Fatah leaders who fled the Gaza Strip with Israel's help. Muhammad Dahlan and his colleagues are now being referred to as the "five-star refugees" because they are staying in the city's best hotels. "These guys are finished," said Omar Hamdan, a Fatah supporter from the nearby Jalazoun refugee camp. "They ran away from the Gaza Strip, leaving behind the poor people to suffer. These Fatah leaders care only about themselves and their families. We want to know why they didn't fight to the last soldier. We want to know what went wrong over there. Where are the thousands of Fatah gunmen and Palestinian policemen who were supposed to prevent Hamas from taking over?" Even the top Fatah leadership in Ramallah is embarrassed. Sources close to Fatah said Abbas has refused to meet with most of the Fatah security chiefs and officials who ran away from the Gaza Strip. They added that Abbas has even decided to transfer the new refugees to security installations in Jericho and Ramallah, pending an investigation into the reasons behind Fatah's downfall. "These officials who ran away from the Gaza Strip will be held responsible for the failure of Fatah," the sources emphasized. "We want a real commission of inquiry," said Hatem Abdel Kader, a top Fatah official in the West Bank. "If we don't learn from our mistakes and punish those responsible for our defeat, we will also lose our control over the West Bank. We must start acting immediately." ABDEL KADER and his colleagues in Fatah have every reason to be worried about the future of the West Bank. After all, they know very well that the West Bank is not 100 percent in their hands. In fact, Hamas continues to control most of the large cities that it won in municipal elections over the past two years. These include Nablus, the largest city, as well as Ramallah, Al-Bireh, Kalkilya and even Bethlehem. As for Hebron, Palestinians have long been referring to the city and its surroundings as the West Bank's Hamastan. In addition, Hamas continues to provide West Bankers with a vast network of social, medical, education and charity services. It's true that Hamas does not have a large number of armed men in the West Bank. But it does have several sleeper cells belonging to its armed wing, Izaddin Kassam. Almost all the Hamas suicide bombers who struck in Israel in the past seven years came from the West Bank. Unless Fatah gets its act together, it will eventually be defeated in the West Bank as it was in Gaza. The international aid that is going to Salaam Fayad's government is actually going to the ailing Fatah faction. The money will buy Fatah some calm for the short term, because the majority of the Palestinian civil servants haven't received full salaries for the past 18 months. But in the long term, Fatah needs to do much more than pay salaries. It needs to get rid of all its corrupt leaders and the armed thugs on the streets. In short, it needs to offer the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas. Supporting moderate and pragmatic Palestinians is a good idea. However, unconditional support has already proven to be a big mistake. Those who receive the money must be held accountable. They should be required to end the anarchy and lawlessness in the West Bank as a condition for receiving money and weapons. Otherwise, the money and weapons will eventually fall into the hands of Hamas, as was the case in Gaza.