Hamas still holds sway in Gaza, 16 years after 'bloody coup'

"Hamas won, Palestine lost": Amid a power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, the 16th anniversary of the terrorist group's takeover passed unnoticed.

  boy holds a placard as Palestinian Hamas supporters attend a rally against visits by Israeli right wing groups to Al-Aqsa mosque, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip May 26, 2023 (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
boy holds a placard as Palestinian Hamas supporters attend a rally against visits by Israeli right wing groups to Al-Aqsa mosque, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip May 26, 2023

The 16th anniversary of Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip passed almost unnoticed on Wednesday, as the power struggle between the Islamist movement and its rivals in the ruling Fatah faction continues unabated.

Hamas’s “coup” came 18 months after it won the January 2006 parliamentary elections, which led to the formation of the first Palestinian unity government, headed by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Hamas officials claimed then that Fatah refused to accept its defeat in the parliamentary elections and worked, together with Israel, the US, and other international parties, to remove Hamas from power.

Hamas victory in parliamentary elections intensifies Fatah tensions 

Prior to the elections, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority security forces had engaged in a security crackdown on Hamas members and leaders in the Gaza Strip. 

The crackdown, which began shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, saw hundreds of Hamas men thrown into Palestinian prisons throughout the Gaza Strip. Among those arrested were senior Hamas officials Mahmoud Zahar and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

The Hamas victory in the parliamentary elections intensified tensions with Fatah and led to a series of violent clashes between PA security forces and gunmen belonging to the Islamist movement’s military wing, Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades.

The tensions reached a peak in June 2007, when thousands of Hamas militiamen attacked several PA security installations in different parts of the Gaza Strip. They also attacked the homes of dozens of PA and Fatah security officers and activists.

One of the first security installations targeted by Hamas was the headquarters of the Preventive Security Service, whose officers were accused of spearheading the crackdown on Hamas and other opposition groups for several years.

The PA claims that dozens of its officers, including colonels and generals, were captured and executed by Hamas gunmen. Some were shot in front of their family members, while others were dragged to the streets and lynched.

One officer, Mohammed Salameh al-Sweirki, who worked for the PA’s Presidential Guard, was thrown from the 13th floor of al-Ghufari Tower in Gaza City. The incident reportedly took place on June 10. At least two other officers and one Fatah activist were said to have been killed in a similar way.

On June 14, 2007, Hamas militiamen dragged Sameeh Ibrahim al-Madhoun, the overall commander of Fatah’s armed wing, Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, to the street and executed him in front of several journalists and civilians. Madhoun, who also served as an officer in the Presidential Guard, was wanted by both Hamas and Israel.

Most of the officers targeted by Hamas belonged to the Preventive Security Service, the General Intelligence Service, the National Security Force, and the Presidential Guard.

One of the senior officers killed by Hamas was Brig.-Gen. Abdel Qader Salem Salim, commander of the General Intelligence Service in the northern Gaza Strip.

Another senior officer, Maj.-Gen. Mohammed Diab Gharib, was one of the commanders of the Preventive Security Service. He was reportedly shot dead after Hamas militiamen surrounded his home for several hours, firing rockets toward it and calling on him to surrender. 

The militiamen eventually stormed the house and killed Gharib, one of his brothers, and a number of top Fatah operatives who were inside.

It is worth noting that dozens of PA and Fatah officials managed to flee to Egypt and the West Bank.

Palestinian sources said more than 120 Palestinians were killed and 500 wounded during the violence that led to the completion of Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip on June 14. Other sources estimated that more than 600 Palestinians were killed in the five days of fighting.

PA officials said at least 350 Palestinians, mostly security personnel and Fatah activists, were killed by Hamas militiamen in 2006 and 2007.

Attempts by a number of Arab and Islamic countries to end the Fatah-Hamas dispute have all failed. The rival parties signed at least seven reconciliation agreements, but none of them ended the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

There are also no signs that Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip is nearing its end. On the contrary, Hamas appears to be in full control of the coastal enclave and does not seem to be facing any real challenge from other groups there.

PA and Fatah officials continue to refer to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip as a “bloody coup” or “black coup.”

The officials say Hamas’s actions pose a serious threat to the Palestinians’ national aspirations and obstruct the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines. Others argue that Hamas, with the help of Iran and Qatar, has actually turned the Gaza Strip into a separate Palestinian state.

In a statement marking the anniversary of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, the Fatah leadership in the West Bank said the Palestinians were “determined to foil attempts to transform the coup into a political and geographical separation [between the West Bank and Gaza Strip].”

Since 2007, Hamas has been working to establish a separate Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip to serve foreign agendas, a reference to Iran and Qatar, the statement said. Under Hamas rule, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are suffering from unemployment and poverty, it said, adding that many PA and Fatah members were killed by Hamas.

“Our people won’t forget this historical crime,” the statement said.

Wasel Abu Yousef, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the minor Palestine Liberation Front group, said the Fatah-Hamas dispute plays into the hands of Israel, which does not want a Palestinian state. The divisions among the Palestinians undermine the status of the Palestinian cause, he said.

Mahmoud al-Zaq, secretary-general of the Gaza-based National Work Commission, a group formed by the PLO to tackle problems faced by the residents in the aftermath of the 2007 “coup,” told the Awdah television channel that Hamas was seeking to “liquidate” the Palestinian issue by establishing a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.

Raef Diab, a member of the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA), another small political party, was quoted as describing the Hamas “coup” as one of the most “abhorrent things the Palestinians were subjected to after the Nakba [Arabic for catastrophe, the word used by Palestinians to describe the establishment of Israel in 1948].”

Commenting on the 16th anniversary of the Hamas “coup,” former PA negotiator and political analyst Hassan Asfour said: “Hamas won; Palestine lost.”