Palestinian Affairs: Rivalry and rocket fire

'Conspiracy' is the word of the week in the PA.

hamas protest 298 (photo credit: AP)
hamas protest 298
(photo credit: AP)
Hamas leaders say they are now convinced that their new cabinet, which has been in power for only two weeks, is being targeted by a US-led conspiracy topple it and replacing it with a Fatah cabinet. The word muamarah [conspiracy] was being used this week by almost every Hamas official to describe the current state of affairs in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas. According to the Hamas representatives, almost the entire world is part of the alleged conspiracy to prevent them from remaining in power: the US, Europe, some Arab countries, Fatah, and, of course, Israel. Not that the Hamas leaders were expecting a smooth takeover. But what really surprised them, they say, is the well-organized international campaign that is underway to discredit their cabinet and send a message to the Palestinians that they had made a grave mistake by electing Hamas. Or, as one Hamas legislator put it this week, "The Palestinians are being punished because they voted out the thieves and corrupt gangsters who have been stealing their money for more than a decade." The plan, according to the legislator, is to isolate Hamas on all levels, in the hope that its cabinet would collapse within three to six months. Israel's decision to cut off ties with the PA and to brand it a terror entity, as well as the EU decision to suspend financial aid, is seen by the Hamas leadership as a declaration of war not only on the movement, but also on all Palestinians. While the American, European and Israeli punitive measures did not come as a surprise to Hamas, what has really angered the movement is the stance of some Palestinians and Arab countries. Talk about the involvement of former PA officials in the alleged conspiracy is not new. Hamas-affiliated Web sites and leaflets are full of reports about "secret" meetings between Fatah leaders and Israeli and American officials to discuss ways of thwarting Hamas's efforts to rule. Even when a Fatah leader is invited to attend an academic seminar in the US or Europe, Hamas's spokesmen rush to accuse them of plotting with the enemies of the Palestinians. When former PA security Chief Jibril Rajoub was recently on a speaking tour in Houston, for example, Hamas claimed that he had been invited by the CIA to discuss ways of bringing down the new Hamas administration. In another case, some Fatah leaders who were invited to meet former Shin Bet head and newly-elected Labor MK Ami Ayalon in Morocco later this month have been forced to issue denials that they, too, were involved in some kind of "filthy" scheme. Tensions between Hamas and the former ruling party have been mounting ever since the Islamic movement scored a landslide victory in January's parliamentary election. The tensions reached their peak over the past week following a series of decisions taken by Mahmoud Abbas with the declared aim of curbing Hamas's power. Sources close to Abbas have admitted that the latest measures are aimed at reducing Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's status to that of Mayor of Gaza. Almost every day Haniyeh and his ministers learn about another "presidential decree" issued by Abbas and denying them certain powers. Most of the PA security forces, for instance, have been placed under the direct control of Abbas. The same applies to the media, finances, border crossings and the scores of Palestinian embassies around the world. In short, Haniyeh and his "videoconference cabinet" [that's how some Palestinians refer to it because its ministers, who are from the West Bank and Gaza, have not been given permission to travel around freely], have already been stripped of most of their powers right from the outset. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar was the first to be told by Abbas that he would not be allowed to make any decision regarding foreign policy or to appoint even a single diplomat. "He's responsible only for his private secretary and driver," remarked a top Abbas aide sarcastically. "He knows nothing about foreign policy." Sources close to Zahar this week accused Abbas's office of standing behind Egypt's decision to boycott the new foreign minister during his visit to Cairo. Interior Minister Said Siam, who is formally in charge of the security forces, is still trying to figure out which forces exactly are under his jurisdiction. Even before he managed to solve the riddle, Abbas surprised him with another one of his "presidential decrees" - this time appointing Fatah security chief Rashid Abu Shabak as "director of internal security." The appointment of Abu Shabak, a sworn enemy of Hamas and a ruthless "hunter" of Palestinians suspected of "collaboration" with Israel, was seen by many Palestinians as a spit in the face of Hamas. ABBAS AND his senior aides maintain that they are entitled to take such decisions because they are acting as representatives of the PLO, which is in the highest authority for the Palestinians. The PA and its institutions, they explain, must report to the PLO, which sets the main guidelines for the political and economic policy. That's why Abbas is engaged these days in an effort to establish a shadow government that would function in parallel to Haniyeh's cabinet. The PLO now has "ministers" who hold the title of "holder of portfolio." Sufyan Abu Zaidah, the former minister for prisoners' affairs, claims that he is continuing to carry out his duties in his capacity as holder of the portfolio of prisoners' affairs in the PLO. The issue of the shadow cabinet was raised during the tense meeting between Abbas and Haniyeh last Friday in Gaza City. A furious Haniyeh accused Abbas and his Fatah party of conspiring against the democratically elected cabinet and warned that Hamas was running out of patience. Abbas, for his part, insisted that he was acting in accordance with the PA's Basic Law and that he was in charge of everything. This power struggle, which is likely to escalate in the coming weeks, is taking place at a time when no one knows when and if the PA's 140,000 civil servants will ever see money in their bank accounts. Moreover, the Fatah-Hamas rivalry is raging at a time when dozens of militias are busy firing rockets at Israel. Hamas leaders pointed out this week that almost all the rocket attacks were being carried out by Fatah-affiliated militiamen in the Gaza Strip. They claimed that the timing of the increased attacks was not coincidental, and that some Fatah leaders were trying to drag Israel into a major confrontation that would eventually lead to the collapse of the Hamas regime. Ironically, this was the same argument that Yasser Arafat used when Hamas launched suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israel in the past. Like many Palestinians, Hamas leaders are convinced that the international pressure on the Islamic movement would backfire. "The US, Israel and the Europeans are boosting Hamas's popularity," they say. "The Palestinians don't like the external pressure and see it as an attempt to punish them for their democratic choice." According to one Hamas minister in Ramallah, "The West thinks that the Palestinians would vote for Fatah in the next elections because of the economic sanctions. This just shows how naive decision-makers in Europe and Washington are. They don't understand that the Palestinians would prefer to starve to death than succumb to blackmail." The Israeli government's decision this week to boycott the PA except for Abbas is seen as having caused huge damage to the PA chairman and his campaign to topple Hamas. The message that the government sent to the Palestinians was that Abbas was good for Israel because, unlike Hamas, he would agree to make political concessions. Abbas is said to have been enraged by the context of the government's statement, which made him appear as if he were a collaborating with Israel and the US against the interests of his people.