Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 April 2006
Issue No. 789
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A rocky start

The Palestinian Hamas-led government had a fiery first week in office, reports Khaled Amayreh

This week's formal assumption of power by the Hamas-led government was accompanied by internal problems, a diplomatic boycott by the United States and a growing clampdown by Israel, directed particularly towards the Gaza Strip.

On Friday, 31 March, a booby-trapped car exploded in downtown Gaza, killing Khalil Al-Quqa, a commander with the People's Resistance Committees (PRC), a group made up of resistance fighters from various Palestinian factions, including Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The group is believed to be responsible for the almost nightly firing of home- made Qassam missiles at Israeli settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Initially it was assumed that Al-Quqa was assassinated by Israel in an aerial missile attack. It later became apparent that the booby-trapped car was detonated via remote control, suggesting that the perpetrator was either an Israeli agent or, as many of Al-Quqa's supporters and friends maintain, "elements" within a Fatah militia linked to former Gaza strong man Mohamed Dahlan, and his chief aide in the Strip, Samir Mishharawi.

During Al-Quqa's funeral procession mourners denounced Dahlan and Mishharawi as "Israeli agents" and "quislings". The sloganeering soon degenerated into a gunfight between Fatah and PRC militiamen, resulting in the deaths of three people, including a bystander. More than 20 others were injured.

In the first test of his government, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh ordered Interior Minister Said Siyam to end the lawlessness and restore calm immediately. The task proved easier said than done.

Siyam issued an order banning the public display of firearms and vowed that anyone violating the order would meet the full force of the law. He then hastily arranged meetings with the heads of all militias operating in Gaza and asked them to shoulder their responsibility at this "crucial juncture".

Mishharawi, who had just returned from Egypt, rejected the ban and appeared at an impromptu press conference in downtown Gaza on Sunday surrounded by several armed militiamen. He announced his group would not heed the ban because a "wrong beginning leads to a wrong end".

Mishharawi went on to accuse the PRC leader, known as Abu Abir, of insulting Fatah by spreading "baseless accusations" and demanded he be punished.

Recognising he possessed no magic wand to control Gaza, Siyam announced the formation of a committee to investigate the killing of Al-Quqa. It is expected to submit its findings within 10 days.

The new Palestinian government must also contend with the US decision to ban all diplomatic contacts with the Hamas-led cabinet, including operatives and officials with no formal connection or affiliation with the movement.

The decision, a formality given the US continues to consider Hamas a terrorist organisation, was welcomed by Israel which views it as a vindication of its attempts to ostracise and vilify the movement.

Hamas reacted calmly, arguing that the diplomatic boycott served only to underline that US foreign policy in the Middle East was subservient to Israel and to the powerful Jewish lobby in the US. A Hamas law-maker from Hebron asked, half-jokingly, "why speak to the monkey when we can talk to the organ grinder?"

Meanwhile, Israel continued to tighten the noose around ordinary Palestinians, in an effort to punish them for electing Hamas and demonstrate that Hamas would bring only poverty, and even starvation.

On Tuesday, David Shearer, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), warned that the Gaza Strip faces a major humanitarian disaster should Israel continue to close border crossings, especially the Karni crossing.

Shearer told the Israeli Foreign Ministry that conditions in Gaza could deteriorate to the kind of humanitarian crisis faced a few years ago by Kosovo if shipments of food and other basic consumer commodities continued to be blocked. Israeli officials, however, appeared determined to treat the threat of the humanitarian crisis as nothing more than a public relations problem.

Haaretz newspaper quoted an Israeli army official as saying that "Israel is aware of the difficulties, and an effort is being made to find solutions without violating the decision not to be in contact with the Hamas government."

The statement was described by a Palestinian spokesman as "mendacious".

"What they are telling the world is that Israel is willing to starve one and a half million Palestinians because they want to maintain a ban on all contacts with Hamas. Unfortunately such criminal attempts to starve our people began long before the elections and Hamas's electoral victory. What does allowing food to reach Gaza have to do with Hamas?" asked the security official, who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition his name be withheld.

The closure of border crossings between Gaza and the West Bank appears part of a calculated policy to bring Palestinians to their knees. A few weeks ago Dov Weisglass, a senior Israeli government official, told reporters in West Jerusalem that Israel aimed to leave Palestinians hungry but not to starve them.

Amid all the bad news there was one bright light: the Palestinian minister of finance reported that Arab donors were finally making good their promises of aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Omar Abdul-Razzaq said the PA was now in a position to pay some 130,000 civil servants their March salaries.

Earlier this week representatives from the Quartet -- the US, EU, Russia and UN -- met in Amman and decided to continue to deliver humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians while circumventing the new Hamas-led government.

The new Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar has already been invited to visit China, and is expected to extend the tour to include India and other Asian countries. Hamas officials also maintain that French diplomats have initiated contacts, a claim the French ambassador to Israel denies.

Hamas hopes that contacts with Asian, Arab and Islamic countries, as well as Russia and some EU states will help combat US-Israel efforts to isolate the movement internationally.

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