Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 December 2006
Issue No. 824
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Damage limitation

Rather than moving towards a national unity government, tensions between Fatah and Hamas are threatening to tear the Palestinian street apart, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank

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WHAT MEANING, PALESTINE? Holes left by bullets which killed three sons of a Fatah security top official, on Tuesday. The shots were fired by unidentified assailants. Security forces of the Palestinian Authority subsequently traded gunfire with Hamas policemen, as anger soared

As Fatah continues to raise the ante in preparation for a possible showdown with Hamas, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to deliver an important speech on 16 December in which he will call for early general elections while leaving the door open for further efforts to form a government of national unity.

Fatah has been organising violent demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank, calling on Abbas to "remove this calamitous government immediately". Unlike other recent protests, which were mainly over unpaid wages, the new round of demonstrations appear to be motivated by vengefulness as Fatah attempts to oust Hamas from government.

The 11 December killing in downtown Gaza of three school children of a Fatah security official, and the subsequent assassination of a Hamas-affiliated judge in Khan Yunis yesterday, will increase tensions between the two camps amid the already poisoned atmosphere of incitement and counter- incitement.

It is not clear yet who committed the murders of the schoolchildren, an action strongly condemned by all Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

What is clear is that Fatah exploited the incident to incite the street against Hamas, which might have led, or at least contributed, to the murder of Osama Al-Farra, a judge in the Sharia court in Khan Yunis. Hamas stopped short of accusing Fatah of being responsible for the early morning murder.

Abbas, according to his aids, will "brief the Palestinian people" on the failed talks with Hamas over the formation of a government of national unity and tell them that he, as their elected president, will do whatever it takes to extract the Palestinian people from the current political and economic quagmire that has followed in the wake of the Western blockade of the Palestinian government.

Abbas told reporters this week that he has not taken a decision to dissolve the government and call for early general elections, describing speculation that this is what he intends to do as "mere media talk".

"I hope you will not blow things out of proportion. We are going to discuss and examine our choices, and our first and final goal is to have a government that is capable of lifting the siege. We haven't realised this goal yet and we must all work to reach it. If that proves impossible then there are other alternatives which we will examine later."

Last week the PLO executive committee, which does not include Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movements, demanded Abbas call early elections as the only way to overcome the crisis currently facing Palestinians.

Abbas remains loath to act on the recommendation, mainly for fear that early elections without being coordinated with Hamas could lead to civil war. That, he has stressed on several occasions, is something he will never allow to happen.

The incessant and unmitigated pressure by a determined anti-Hamas group within Fatah, which Hamas often refers to as "Fatah's Israeli lobby" might yet succeed in persuading Abbas to cross the Rubicon. Certainly, the Palestinian president appears to have little room for manoeuvre, facing few choices, all of them fraught with uncertainty and not a small amount of risk.

If he decides to adopt the PLO executive committee recommendation and call for early elections without Hamas's consent, the resistance movement is likely to challenge the constitutionality and legality of the move. Most Palestinian legal and constitutional experts agree that while the president of the Palestinian Authority can dissolve the government, he cannot dissolve the legislative council.

Abbas, some observers suggest, might seek to pressure Hamas to consent to early general elections by ordering his security forces to take over government buildings and ministries in a de facto coup, but it is a scenario that could trigger a confrontation with Hamas, especially in the Gaza Strip, and Abbas would be blamed for the consequences.

Abbas also feels he must do something to appease Fatah and maintain his status as president. This could prompt him to call for early presidential elections, probably within 60 to 90 days, in the hope that he will be re-elected. With a popular mandate he would have a much stronger hand if he subsequently decided to dissolve the government and call for early elections.

This scenario, too, is fraught with uncertainty since Hamas will likely field its own presidential candidate, possibly the current premier Ismail Haniyeh, who might snatch the presidency from Abbas.

There have been suggestions that Abbas is asking Israel to free jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti to stand as Fatah candidate for president of the PA.

Assuming that Israel will accede to Abbas's request in this regard, and that is by no means certain, the choice of Barghouti as the PA's next president is unlikely to be acceptable to either Israel or the United States given Barghouti's rejection of any settlement with Israel that does not include total Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

Barghouti's views in this regard are similar to those of Hamas and his election as PA president would be a victory for Hamas as much as for Fatah.

Some insiders from Fatah's immediate coterie have intimated that Abbas might give more time for efforts to form a national unity government. He is expected to meet with Haniyeh in Gaza either before or after Saturday, the day he will deliver his speech, and the two could reach a compromise over the national unity government.

Hamas leaders, including Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, have said repeatedly that they will keep the door open for reaching agreement to form a national unity government with Fatah and other Palestinian factions. There is also the possibility that Hamas might show more flexibility in the hope that forming a government will enhance Hamas's overall standing and hurl the ball into Israel's court. (see p. 7)

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