Not civil war
While the situation in Gaza has not yet pitched brother against brother, the increase in violence between Hamas and Fatah is alarming, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank
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Gaza onlookers gather around the car of Hamas activist Hossam Al-Jaabari killed in Saturday's Israeli air strike
Fresh violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip relegated the financial crisis crippling the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its Hamas-led government to a position of secondary importance, at least for a brief period. The clashes, which caused the death of a Jordanian Embassy employee on Monday, were isolated and localised, but they evoked latent fears that an all- out showdown between the two rival political camps in the occupied Palestinian territories might be inevitable, or at least more conceivable than previously thought.
Earlier this week, General Tareq Abu Rajab, chief of Palestinian Intelligence, was the target of a botched assassination attempt in downtown Gaza in which he was seriously injured, a number of his aides moderately hurt, and one bodyguard killed. Another assassination attempt, this time against Rashid Abu Shabak, head of the PA Preventive Security Services, was foiled Sunday. Until now it is unclear who was behind the two assassination attempts. The government condemned the "criminal acts" and initiated investigations. Fatah wasted no time in alluding to Hamas as the responsible party.
Until recently, Palestinians of all persuasions agreed that "Palestinian civil war" was the ultimate red line that no one would be allowed to cross, regardless of circumstances. This widespread understanding more or less remains intact despite -- or even as a result of -- the latest clashes and bloodshed.
It is difficult to pinpoint one objective reason for the recurrent altercations, other than the tribal-like rivalry between the two groups. Hamas complains bitterly that Fatah, possibly encouraged by Israel and the US, is refusing to come to terms of Hamas's electoral victory and is trying to rob the Hamas government of its basic powers and authorities, such as controlling police and security forces.
Earlier this month, the Hamas government formed a so-called "back-up force" of 3,000 security personnel, many of them members of Hamas's military wing, the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, and other resistance factions. The seemingly disciplined force was deployed in strategic locations outside ministry offices in Gaza City, creating for the first time in years a sense of security for local residents long tormented by acts of gangsterism and brigandage by faceless gunmen demanding protection money, taking hostages, or simply firing into the air with disregard for the safety and security of others.
According to government officials, the formation of the force had been agreed upon in consultation with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, however, denies he gave his consent and demanded the force be dissolved immediately. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh refused the order, reminding Abbas that the government was not Abbas's but the people's.
"This government was elected by the people. It is a sovereign government. We are responsible to the people who elected us, not to anybody else," Haniyeh said.
Haniyeh's argument is correct to a large extent, but Fatah, probably still in shock over its loss to Hamas in January, is insisting that Hamas must be subservient to Abbas since the PA itself is answerable to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, headed by Abbas.
Arguments and counter arguments are unlikely to end decisively in favour of either side since the points of contention are not really legalistic as much as they are political and ideological. Hamas, it is well known, had promised Gazans in particular that it would end lawlessness and chaos and establish order and calm if elected. Islamist pundits argue that Hamas is simply honouring its promises to the people.
For its part, Fatah is worried that the 3,000- strong Hamas force will evolve into a Hamas army, which would reverse of the long-time status quo of Fatah retaining exclusive control of Palestinian security forces. Hamas defends its decision by arguing that since PA security forces in Gaza refused to take orders from Hamas, the government had no choice but to act in order to uphold the rule of law and serve the paramount interests of the Palestinian people.
Hamas complains that Fatah security officials are not treating government officials with due respect. Such arguments fall on deaf ears among Fatah leaders who balk at the idea of accepting parity, let alone a position of subordination, with Hamas.
Palestinian officials, from both the PA and government, say emphatically that they will not allow a civil war to materialise. Haniyeh, speaking to reporters in Gaza on Tuesday, said: "Civil war is a repugnant term no Palestinian likes. The term doesn't exist in the Palestinian dictionary. I assure you that these incidents can be overcome."
Earlier, Haniyeh's political adviser, Ahmed Youssef, accused Western media of exaggerating the gravity of the security situation in Gaza: "these were isolated incidents initiated by some individuals. There is no confrontation between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza. The media is exaggerating. Whenever somebody fires a few rounds into the air, some Western news agency will report that gun battles are raging between Fatah and Hamas. What kind of journalism is this?"
Such assurances are not without basis. Tensions between Hamas and Fatah, at least so far, have been restricted to gunmen bickering over control issues, the Palestinian population for the most part unaffected. Moreover, the Israeli occupation has always been a unifying factor keeping internal civil strife at bay.
Nonetheless, when Palestinians see Palestinian blood shed by Palestinian hands, understandably they find optimism more difficult than usual.