Sunday, July 24, 2005

Fatah vs Hamas

From Al-Ahram Weekly:

After marathon talks, mediated by Egypt, that lasted till well past midnight on Tuesday the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas agreed to end their armed showdown in the Gaza Strip. At a press conference in downtown Gaza, Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas leader, and Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, PA minister for prisoners, announced that all fighters had been ordered to return to their homes.

"Nothing should compromise our unity against our enemy," said Rayyan.

The two sides agreed to continue dialogue and never again resort to violence in settling their differences, to end all forms of incitement and revive the "Cairo understandings".

However, early Wednesday Hamas fighters attacked the homes of the head of the Palestinian security services and the head of Fatah in Gaza, with seven injured in the incident. Conflicting reports emerged, each side blaming the other.

Earlier on Tuesday clashes between Fatah and Hamas fighters at the Jabalya refugee camp, and later in Beit Lahya in northern Gaza, had left more than 20 injured. The fighting between Hamas and Fatah alarmed a broad cross-section of Palestinian society, prompting civic and religious leaders as well as NGOs to call on both sides to stop the fitna, or divisiveness.

The deputy chief of Egyptian intelligence, Mustafa El-Beheiri, had held several meetings with PA and factional leaders in an attempt to persuade them to accept a draft agreement maintaining the "quiet", ie the fragile de facto cease-fire with Israel.

During a meeting with the Egyptian delegation on Monday night Hamas leaders agreed to end the "battle of declarations" with the PA and their demands for the sacking of Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Youssef.

According to informed sources, Hamas continues to hold grudges against Youssef who, in the mid-1990s, led a campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip during which dozens of activists -- including Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the movement's current leader in Gaza -- were arrested and tortured.

The enduring mistrust between the PA and Hamas deepened last month when the PA decided to postpone till further notice the legislative and local elections it had promised during the meeting of factions in Cairo only months earlier. In return for the elections, and for PA promises to take action against corruption and nepotism within its ranks, Hamas agreed to abide by the cease-fire. Yet the PA has effectively reneged on all its promises.

Hamas' frustration was exacerbated as rumours circulated in the Strip that the PA leadership was planning to reward its cronies with plots of land in the soon-to- be-vacated settlements. Despite PA denials, simmering resentment finally exploded when a missile was fired on an Israeli settlement outside Gaza earlier in the week. While officially Hamas claimed the attack was in retaliation for the killing by Israeli troops of a Fatah fighter a day earlier in Nablus, many insiders say it -- and subsequent missiles -- was a result of Hamas' indignation and frustration vis-à-vis the PA.

The situation further deteriorated Friday, 15 July, when armed men from both sides exchanged fire in central Gaza, killing two boys, with Hamas claiming the PA was implementing Israel's agenda, and the PA accusing Hamas of undermining national unity and acting as a state within a state.

When, on the same day, Israeli air forces began a series of assassinations, killing 12 Hamas members, the PA faced the embarrassing possibility that Palestinian public opinion would see it, and Israel, as fighting the same enemy.

By mid-week, with Israel threatening a ground offensive against the Gaza Strip, Abbas vowed to do his utmost to stop the firing of missiles on Jewish settlements and beyond the green line. The missiles, he argued, were threatening to delay the Israeli withdrawal and undermine Palestinian national interests.

Abbas also urged the EU and the Bush administration to exert pressure on Israel to exercise self-restraint, arguing that a fresh Israeli rampage through Gaza would "spoil everything".

His efforts bore fruit when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned her Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, Sunday, asking him to refrain from authorising incursions in Gaza. Rice is due to arrive in the region this weekend in an effort to encourage a smooth and orderly withdrawal from the Strip.

For its part, Hamas reasserted its commitment to the cease-fire on condition of Israeli reciprocity. "We are committed to the 'quiet' on condition of reciprocity. This means that if Israel doesn't respect the cease-fire we won't," said Said Siyam, one of Hamas' leaders in the Strip.

That reciprocity is clearly not on Israel's agenda. Siyam was assassinated by Israeli sniper fire on Sunday, 17 July. And on Tuesday, while El-Beheiri was meeting with the leaders of Palestinian factions in Gaza, the Israeli army entered the town of Al-Yamon in the northern West Bank, destroying a number of homes and killing at least two members of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Medical teams were reportedly denied access to the town.

Despite El-Beheiri's efforts the tug-of- war between Hamas and the PA is likely to continue, threatening the possibility of intra-Palestinian conflict. For that possibility to be avoided, Egyptian mediators must seek a long-term rapprochement between the two main forces in Palestinian society, which means ending PA attempts to marginalise its rival.