A Case of Do or Die (Extract)

Internal conflicts between Hamas and Fatah make life even worse for the residents of the Gaza Strip

23fatah224 (photo credit: AFP)
(photo credit: AFP)
Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Life in the Gaza Strip has never been easy since 1948 - not under Egyptian rule and not under the Israeli occupation, which lasted from 1967 to 2005 and, in some ways, is still continuing. With its population density among the highest in the world, including hundreds of thousands of refugees living in squalid refugee camps, and its lack of natural resources and sources of livelihood, throughout history life has rarely been good. But no one seems to remember it ever being as bad as it has been this winter, and not solely because of Israel's massive Operation Cast Lead, which left over a thousand Gazans dead and several thousand wounded. Among the casualties were hundreds of children and other civilians killed and wounded; tens of thousands of ruined homes, and severe damage to infrastructure and public and private property. "My sister's home was destroyed. My cousin lost his five daughters. Four other family members were killed by the bombing near the UNRWA Fahoura School," says Abd Al-Sallam Abu Askar, a journalist who was born in Gaza but now lives in Ramallah. A social worker from Gaza, who, like most people interviewed by the press, asks to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, says, "There is a lot of damage. Many houses were destroyed. Salah Al-Din Street [the main street in Gaza] is in shambles. And even agricultural areas were destroyed by Israeli armor." But when Gazans reflect on their situation, many feel particularly victimized by intra-Palestinian conflict and especially by the conflict between the Islamist Hamas, which currently rules Gaza and the secular nationalist Fatah, which controls the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, and since then it has been purging Fatah personnel in the Strip. But the confrontation between Hamas and Fatah is not merely about control over this or that strip of territory. Hamas does not only aim to wrest control of the entire Palestinian Authority and the West Bank from Fatah, but its leadership in Damascus is also now trying to take over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the supreme representative organization of the Palestinian people both in the occupied territories and in the Palestinian diaspora. With the implementation of the Oslo Accords, the arrival in Gaza of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Gazans experienced a momentary sense of euphoria and the illusion of independence. But Palestinians quickly realized that under the PA, the economic situation deteriorated even further while widespread corruption ate away at the basic fiber of society. And infighting and violence between the secular, nationalist Fatah, the dominant faction in the PLO, and the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas has plagued Palestinian society from the moment that the PA was established in Gaza. In early 2006, Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the PA general elections in the territories and its leader, Ismail Haniyah became prime minister, but Fatah's Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) retained the presidency. Following Hamas' military takeover in the summer of 2007, the situation became even worse. The violent confrontation over control of the Gaza Strip ended with a Hamas victory, and Hamas did not hesitate to use its special "Operative Forces," which operated in parallel with the regular police forces, who were under the Palestinian Authority, to enforce its will. The harsh pictures of the takeover are still fresh in the minds of most adult Gazans: Hamas forces tossing Fatah members from high-rise buildings, kidnapping them, beating them and shooting them in the streets. Under Hamas rule in Gaza, international financial aid came to a halt; Israel imposed a siege and naval blockade; and the economy ground to a halt. "Hamas took over all of the governmental institutions, including education, economy and so forth… and treats its opponents to its iron first," Abu Askar says. Hamas forces also continued to subject Sderot and other Israeli communities to rocket fire, despite the fact that Israel had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The continued rocket fire was the reason for Israel's launch of Operation Cast Lead after years of restraint. And during and after Operation Cast Lead, Hamas killed many more Fatah operatives, whom it accused of collaborating with Israel, than it did Israelis. "This struggle between the Hamas and Fatah will lead to the end of the world." Today, the streets of Gaza are filled with posters of shaheeds (martyrs) and slogans extolling courageous Hamas fighters, and the organization is investing efforts to help this myth take root and even to present the outcome as a divine victory, similar to the manner in which the Hizballah in Lebanon describes itself as "the Party of Allah" and its victories as divine. "On every corner you can see green Hamas flags, and sometimes those of other organizations, but not Fatah or PLO," the social worker says. Whatever resentment there is today against Hamas is due in part to the behavior of many of the movement's top activists during the war. It's not comfortable these days to ask Hamas members, "Where were you during the siege?" At least not in public. But, the residents are well aware that the leaders of Gaza were well protected while the population was exposed to the Israeli firepower and was forced to serve as a human shield for those Hamas fighters who hid among the population. Haniyeh, who was dismissed by the Palestinian Authority, has said that even during the worst of the war, he was able to "attend to affairs of state," indicating that he was not in any personal danger. And rumors circulated that Dr. Mahmoud Al-Zahar, former foreign minister of the Hamas government, and one of the most influential Hamas leaders had escaped to Egypt (although they were later proven to be false). Hassan Nasrallah admitted after the Second Lebanon War that had he known how fierce Israel's response was to be, he would not have kidnapped the Israeli soldiers. Similarly, in an interview with Al-Jazeera television, Haniyeh said, "The war was imposed on the Palestinians… to take revenge for the sumud (standing-fast) … The Palestinian people were surprised by the attack…" It is apparent that despite the boastful warnings and threats towards Israel about Hamas' superior preparedness and despite the IDF's concern about the ambushes, traps, mined sink holes and booby-trapped tunnels, armed Hamas militiamen and especially their senior field leaders preferred to avoid direct contact with the Israeli forces, taking off their uniforms, and blending in with the population. Says another Gazan citizen, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, "The Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades [the Hamas military wing] ordered their men not to fight. We didn't see any resistance." Adds another, "They did not fight as they should have. But maybe this was the plan: to draw the Israelis into the densely inhabited areas of Gaza. But since fighting took place in open areas - where they couldn't take a stand against armor - they had to save themselves…" Although its performance against the Israeli army hardly sparkled, Hamas militiamen claim impressive casualty figures among their fellow Palestinian Fatah rivals in the Strip. Several days after the mid-January cease-fire, as Hamas and Fatah were continuing their Egyptian-initiated reconciliation talks in Cairo, the Palestinian Authority published a list of 181 names of Palestinians who were killed, shot or maimed, they claimed, by members of the Hamas during the fighting. Some residents say that some of the names are not at all familiar, and no details were provided of the ostensible violent clashes in which these men supposedly died, implying that at least some of the names may be fictitious. "Maybe," the social worker adds pointedly, "they wanted to save their strength to prevent Abu Mazen from returning to Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks." Indeed, no one denies that Hamas did continue its fight against the Fatah. One victim whose murder has attracted particular attention was Heidar Ghanem, a Gaza civil rights activist and a former researcher for B'tselem, an Israeli human rights group. Why was he murdered, residents ask quietly among themselves. Because he documented Hamas abuses in Gaza? Because he was suspected of collaborating with Israel? Or perhaps because Hamas thought that this was yet another way to get at the Palestinian Authority? Dozens of Fatah members certainly were killed during the war, and there's little doubt that Hamas was responsible. The PA minister of prisoner affairs, Ashraf al-Ajrami, himself a Gazan, accuses Hamas of using violent means to achieve their fundamentalist Muslim agenda. "They want to establish a Muslim emirate in the area. They are brutal," he tells The Report from his office in Ramallah. Hamas does not allow people to speak freely… they shoot them…" According to a report by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), located in Gaza, published on February 3, "…At least 32 Palestinians were killed by members of the published Palestinian Security Services (PSS) under Hamas control and unidentified gunmen… In addition, dozens of other people sustained injuries after being shot or severely beaten by unidentified gunmen, who in some cases claimed to be members of the PSS." In the first interview he gave after coming out of his hiding place to travel to Egypt to participate in the reconciliation talks, Al-Zahar said Hamas needed to cope with traitors who cooperated with Israel. He told Al-Jazeera Arabic TV on February 2: "Some people wrote on walls in Gaza, 'Welcome to the Israeli Defense Forces.' How can the Palestinian people interpret this! ... Some of the collaborators who were held in prisons in Gaza escaped during the war. Others whose interests are tied with Israel wanted this conflict in order to achieve their own objectives." Hamas representatives explained at length why they believe they had no choice but to execute suspected collaborators. "The government will show no mercy to collaborators who stab our people in the back and they will be held accountable according to the law… if any collaborator is sentenced to death, we will not hesitate to carry it out," Hamas government spokesman Taher al-Nunu was quoted as saying in the French press. But there were also many eye-witness reports of wanton killing of alleged collaborators carried in the foreign media. And on February 10, Amnesty International reported that "since the end of December 2008, during and after the three-week Israeli military offensive … Hamas forces and militias in the Gaza Strip have carried out a deadly campaign of abductions, deliberate and unlawful killings, torture and death threats against those they accuse of 'collaborating' with Israel, as well as opponents and critics… At least two dozen men have been shot dead by Hamas gunmen and scores of others have been shot in the legs, kneecapped or inflicted with other injuries intended to cause permanent disability, subjected to severe beatings which have caused multiple fractures and other injuries, or otherwise tortured or ill-treated." Against this background, Gazans are asking themselves if all the death and destruction was really necessary and what brought it upon them. Was it really in order to achieve an "honorable cease-fire," as Ismail Haniyeh has claimed and to get Israel to open up the border crossings? The questions are asked softly, almost in a whisper. Not everyone has the courage to publicly criticize Hamas. Most Gazans won't talk to reporters, and the few that do won't give their names. One who does agree to talk tells The Report: "The crossings were open until the Hamas decided to plant a bomb at the Rafiah crossing and Israel retaliated and closed the crossings. The situation deteriorated ... Hamas did not renew the cease-fire. So did we have to go through all this to regain something we had before?" he demands. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.