Commentary: Hamas' heavy hand
Pushed on by factional rivalry, Hamas is flexing its muscles in Gaza to the cost of Palestinian unity, writes Samir Ghattas*
International media have already begun to converge on Gaza in anticipation of the Israeli unilateral withdrawal scheduled for 18 August. The approaching zero hour of what has been described in Israel as the most widely covered event in history has also given rise to wanton speculation over how it will play out. The consensus prediction is that it will be bloody, on both sides of the fence.
Violent confrontations are expected between Israeli settlers in Gaza supported by the Israeli religious right and the military and security services charged with evacuating them. It is further feared that these confrontations will spill over into Israel itself and engulf Israeli society in widespread unrest. The anxiety is shared not only by official government sources and political analysts in the independent media but also by a large segment of the public. According to a recent opinion poll, a fraction of respondents felt confident that the withdrawal would pass without Jewish bloodshed while 44 per cent believed that Israel stood on the brink of civil war.
The growing frequency of popular disturbances seems to confirm these fears. Clashes have erupted between rival demonstrations for and against the withdrawal. Settlers have been resorting to increasingly violent means of protest, which have included scattering nails and pouring oil on major thoroughfares and harassing and physically attacking Israeli soldiers. Recently, hundreds of settlers barricaded themselves inside Hotel Maoz Yam in Gush Katif, proclaiming that they would resist evacuation until death. In addition, there have been several instances of insubordination among soldiers who declared their refusal to carry out orders to evacuate settlers.
Declaring his resolve not to show leniency or negotiate with the "extremist gangs who are trying to terrorise and tear apart Israeli society", Sharon ordered the army to evacuate the settlers from the hotel and for insubordinate soldiers to be prosecuted before military tribunals. Nevertheless, such measures would not have sufficed to curb the deteriorating security situation had they not been accompanied by an outpouring of popular condemnation of the violence used by settlers and their extremist supporters. Following days of growing unrest an opinion poll recorded that public support in Israel for the Gaza withdrawal rose to 62 per cent after it had fallen to 53 per cent shortly before things got heated.
If, because of these developments, observers are now less dire in their predictions on the effects of the withdrawal inside Israel, the reverse is the case as concerns the situation in Palestine. In spite of the fact that all Palestinian factions continue to spout slogans regarding "the sanctity of Palestinian blood", not crossing "the red line into internecine strife" and "safeguarding national unity", few are adhered in light of the numerous instances in which the language of violence has prevailed. If we are to understand the sudden breakdown in the internal Palestinian security situation we must look beyond posturing and the crossfire of mutual recriminations.
The beginning of the decline can be traced to reactions to the invitation extended by the Fatah Central Committee in June to all Palestinian opposition factions to take part in an extended national unity government. The idea was to ensure the broadest possible scope of unanimity and coordination during the delicate phase of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Hamas initially seemed to welcome the invitation, announcing that it would defer declaring its position regarding it until after consultations with leaders of the movement's political bureau abroad. However, suddenly, and with no preliminaries, Hamas unleashed an unprecedented vehement barrage of accusations against Fatah leaders, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
At about this time the Palestinian Islamic Jihad staged a suicide bombing in Netanya. The operation was not only intended to respond to Israeli assaults against Jihad targets but also to provoke the other Palestinian factions, Hamas in particular in view of the long standing rivalry between it and Jihad. Until this point, Hamas -- unlike Jihad -- has shown a high degree of commitment to the ceasefire, limiting as much as possible its responses to Israeli assaults against it.
The Netanya bombing threw everyone into disarray. Sharon, under fire from the Israeli ultra-right, had to take a tough stance towards the Palestinian leadership, especially after it had transpired that the suicide bomber was from Tulkarem, which had just been restored to Palestinian Authority (PA) control. Although Abbas's credibility, too, had been shaken by the operation, he demonstrated a high degree of resilience and called for a meeting of the opposition factions to agree upon a collective stance in the face of Israeli retaliation. However, Hamas, which has been positioning itself as the only Palestinian force capable of replacing the PA, seized this opportunity to flex its muscles in the hope of hastening the downfall of the Abbas government. In a sudden about-face on its commitment to the ceasefire, it unleashed a barrage of Qassam missiles from northern Gaza into Israel.
The action was clearly timed to coincide with Abbas's arrival at the meeting with opposition factions. Soon afterwards, Hamas announced that its forces had broken into a Palestinian national security building, set fire to its contents and confiscated the cars and weapons inside. In another open challenge to the PA, the Palestinian resistance organisation dispatched its military units to patrol Gaza streets and intersections, leading to clashes and exchanges of gunfire with the Palestinian security forces that normally perform this duty. Also, in addition to the incendiary broadcasts that flared from the Hamas-owned Al-Aqsa radio station, Hamas took advantage of Friday prayers to use mosque pulpits and microphones to incite worshippers to take to the streets in a mass protest demonstration against the PA.
It came as little surprise, against this background, that Hamas boycotted the meeting of the Higher Palestinian Monitoring Committee, which was attended by all other factions, and then declared its rejection of the committee's call to the factions to withdraw their militias from the streets so that established PA security forces, alone, could restore order. That Israel targeted five Hamas members for assassination in retaliation for the casualties resulting from the Qassam missile attack confirmed the Hamas's resolve to defy the PA. In response to Abbas's proclamation that there could be only one authority, the PA, and one law, which is that established by elected councils, and one legitimate security force, which is that of the PA, Hamas leaders declared their intention not to lay down their arms.
Although Hamas claims that its arms are there to retaliate against Israeli aggression, the organisation has long been using its militias and affiliate groupings to assert control over Palestinian society. A recent manifestation of this is to be found in its "vice and virtue", or "anti-corruption" unit, which in April executed Youssra Al-Azami and wounded her fiancé on suspicion of "immoral behaviour", has attacked women bathing on the beaches of Gaza and forcefully prevented a music concert from being held in Qalqiliya. Only a few days ago, Hamas gunmen attacked three youths from Khan Younis for attempting to stop missiles from being fired from behind their houses for fear that their homes would be destroyed in an Israeli retaliatory attack.
Several weeks ago Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish expressed his dismay at signs of a Taliban-like attempt to gain control over Palestinian society. Indeed, events over the past week appear to confirm this. One must regretfully admit that they must be seen primarily in the context of a bitter power struggle in which competing sides resort to illegitimate and undemocratic means and opportunistic exploitation of the resistance against the Israeli occupation to advance factional interests.
* The writer is director of the Maqdis Centre for Political Studies in Gaza.