Analysis: Fatah's change of focus

They are no longer hiding their desire to topple the Hamas gov't and return to power.

Fatah gunmen 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Fatah gunmen 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Fatah leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, are no longer hiding their desire to topple the Hamas government and to return to power as soon as possible. The events of the past week in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have shown that, to achieve their goal, they are prepared to do almost everything, including unleashing hundreds of Fatah militiamen and policemen to torch government buildings and the offices of the Palestinian Legislative Council. In the aftermath of Hamas's landslide victory in the January parliamentary election, Abbas and his Fatah lieutenants declared that they would honor the results of the vote and focus their efforts on reforming their corruption-riddled party, especially by getting rid of many representatives of the "old guard" who were responsible for the defeat. But Abbas has since shifted his efforts and energy toward undermining the Hamas government with the hope of bringing Fatah back to power. And he is being assisted in his mission by a handful of Fatah officials and warlords who are still viewed by many Palestinians as icons of corruption and mismanagement. Demands by representatives of the "young guard" in Fatah to reform the party by injecting fresh blood into its brass have been brushed aside in favor of the anti-Hamas campaign. Abbas, his critics say, never gave the Hamas government a chance to prove to the Palestinians that it might at least be able to bring good governance and restore law and order, as the Islamic movement promised in its election platform. Instead, he has taken a series of steps that have further alienated Hamas and brought the Palestinians to the brink of civil war. These measures included confiscating the new government's control over security, finances and the media. By placing the main branches of the PA security forces under his jurisdiction, Abbas provided Hamas's Interior Minister, Said Siam, with an excuse to establish his own "backup" force, comprising more than 3,000 Hamas militiamen who have been deployed in various parts of the Gaza Strip. The presence of the Hamas force on the streets has resulted in daily confrontations with Fatah gunmen and members of the PA security forces in which at least 14 Palestinians have been killed. By emptying the coffers of the PA just before Hamas entered government, Abbas and his Fatah loyalists have prompted Hamas leaders to seek financial aid from radical countries like Iran and Syria. Today Abbas is forced to sit on the side and watch as Hamas officials bring tens of millions of dollars in cash, stashed in suitcases, through the Rafah border crossing. The financial crisis in the PA, where more than 150,000 civil servants have not received their salaries for the past four months, has further radicalized Palestinian society and led to an upsurge in crime and violence. Many Palestinians are wondering why the international community, which demanded free and democratic elections, is now punishing them because of their choice. A growing number of people - including Fatah supporters - don't seem to like the fact that the US, Europe and Israel are openly trying to get rid of a democratically elected government. More importantly, they don't like the fact that the outside world is trying to reinstate the same guys who were voted out last January. There is a consensus among Palestinians that civil war is a "red line" that should never be crossed. But what the Palestinians fear most is a Hamas-Fatah war that could plunge the Palestinian territories into a vicious cycle of violence. The power struggle between Fatah and Hamas is not perceived on the Palestinian street as a conflict over the future of the peace process with Israel, but as a fight over money and power. It is seen as a battle between those who lost the election and those who won. The referendum that Abbas has called for next month over a document drafted by some Palestinian prisoners is also being viewed as a ploy designed to remove the Hamas government and bring Fatah back to power. Hamas and several other factions have already announced that they and their supporters would boycott the referendum, which means that only Fatah supporters will participate. It would hence be difficult for Abbas to market the results of the referendum as an expression of the wish of the majority. Abbas is hoping to use the results of the referendum as an excuse to de-legitimize the Hamas government. But Hamas will then argue that the referendum itself was illegal because it was boycotted by many Palestinians - and because the PA Basic Law does not authorize Abbas to hold one. Even if Abbas and the international community succeed in overthrowing the Hamas government, there is no guarantee that Fatah would win in another free election. The Palestinians look at Fatah today and see the same faces they have been seeing for decades: cronies of Yasser Arafat, corrupt officials and warlords hungry for power and more funds from the US and Europe. There is also no guarantee that such a move would contribute to calming the situation. A defeated and humiliated Hamas would be much more dangerous than a Hamas that has to face the challenges of running hospitals, schools and paying salaries to tens of thousands of families. The best way for Fatah to regain the confidence of the Palestinians is by reforming itself and getting rid of the bad guys. Abbas needs to come up with a new team that would offer his people hope for a better future. Acquiring more rifles and ammunition is not necessarily something that would strengthen Abbas and Fatah. On the contrary, supplying him with more M-16s "so that he could confront Hamas" plays into the hands of his opponents and makes him look like a puppet serving the interests of the US and Israel.