Palestinian Affairs: Shooting in the dark

PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas is facing the foibles of his foiled coup.

hamas gunmen gaza 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
hamas gunmen gaza 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
If anything, the bloody Fatah-Hamas clashes over the past week prove that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's security forces continue to have a strong presence on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These events have also shown that Abbas's Fatah party has thousands of loyal gunmen who are not reluctant to take on Hamas. Ever since he came to power in January 2005, Abbas has been complaining that his security forces are too weak to fight Hamas or other terror groups. These forces, he argued, are unable to carry out their duties because Israel had "destroyed" them and their headquarters during the past six years of the intifada. This was the excuse he gave for failing to take action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who were firing rockets at Israel. And Abbas used the same excuse to justify his failure to restore law and order and disarm all the militias that are running wild in the Palestinian territories. Like his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, Abbas proved this week that he will use his powers as commander-in-chief only when his rivals challenge him and his regime. Arafat often used to imprison Hamas leaders only when they criticized him in public or said something bad about his top aides. Indeed, every now and then he did order his Fatah-controlled security forces to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad following terror attacks on Israel, but that was largely due to his fear that the terrorists were "harming" the national interests of the Palestinians. Then, Arafat mostly acted when the US and European governments threatened to cut off funds to the PA. ABBAS'S MAIN problem with Hamas is that the Islamic movement's presence in government has resulted in financial sanctions by the international community. Ever since Hamas came to power nine months ago, Abbas and Fatah have been waging a stubborn campaign designed to bring down the government of Ismail Haniyeh. After failing to persuade Hamas to cede control over most of the key ministries in a proposed unity government, Abbas, whose options are limited thanks to the PA constitution, finally decided to resort to a threat to call early presidential and legislative elections. His chief argument: The Palestinians are in urgent need of money from the international community. Although this argument sounds rational and convincing, there is no denying the fact that Abbas's undeclared goal is to topple the Hamas-led government and reinstate his Fatah party. To achieve this goal, he has recruited a large team of political advisers and spokesmen, whose main mission is to undermine the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian public. Tens of millions of dollars, badly needed to pay salaries of PA civil servants, are being poured into this campaign. Finally, Abbas decided to exploit Hamas's refusal to relinquish control over important cabinet portfolios as an excuse to take the fight to the streets. In fact, the latest Hamas-Fatah clashes began 24 hours before Abbas delivered his controversial speech last Saturday in Ramallah, in which he declared his intention to hold early elections. Following Friday prayers at the local Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque, hundreds of PA policemen and Fatah gunmen attacked Hamas supporters who tried to march peacefully toward Manara Square in downtown Ramallah. The forces had clear and firm orders to block the Hamas demonstrators at any price. The ensuing confrontation, condemned by Hamas as a "massacre" against worshipers, left more than 30 people wounded, three of them seriously. "How come we never see these forces when the Israeli army invades Ramallah?" asked Hamas operative Muhammad Jamil. "We've already seen Abbas's policemen surrender in their underwear to Israeli soldiers in Jericho and other Palestinian cities." Now that the street fighting has also failed to bring down the Hamas government, Abbas is beginning to realize the magnitude of the gamble he embarked upon when he announced his intention to send the Palestinians to the ballot boxes. Public opinion polls suggest that the Palestinian public still hasn't lost faith in Hamas, and that there is a growing sense that Abbas is part of a wider scheme aimed at overthrowing a democratically elected government. Hamas, on the other hand, has demonstrated that it is prepared to fight to the last man to stay in power. The mere fact that tens of thousands of PA policemen and Fatah gunmen in the Gaza Strip were not able to crush Hamas's tiny militia is seen as victory for Haniyeh and his colleagues. "This was a coup attempt that failed," remarked a senior Haniyeh aide. "We hope that Abbas and Fatah have learned the lesson and will now stop their conspiring against the government. If they insist on their current strategy, they will again discover that it's not easy to mess around with Hamas."