Deteriorating relations between Fatah and Hamas could turn the spectre of war into a reality, reports Khaled Amayreh from the West Bank
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An Israeli soldier patrolling past a closed Palestinian store. On its door is the Jewish Star of David, daubed by Jewish settlers living in the centre of the West Bank Palestinian town of Hebron
After a week of fighting between Hamas and Fatah left more than a dozen people dead the spectre of civil war has never been more real for the four million Palestinians living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the Gaza Strip the poisoned atmosphere between Hamas and Fatah descended to new depths following the killing, by the Palestinian government's "executive force", of a high-ranking Fatah security officer last week. Fatah accused Hamas of executing the Fatah officer in his own home and in full view of his family. Hamas accused the officer and his men of killing a number of Hamas personnel.
The showdown between the two sides reached new levels on Sunday, 7 January, when tens of thousands of Fatah supporters, including police and security personnel, held a rally at the Al-Yamouk Stadium in downtown Gaza. The keynote speaker was Mohamed Dahlan, the controversial Fatah leader and member of Parliament accused by Hamas of attempting to oust Hamas from government by force.
At the rally Dahlan launched a scathing attack on Hamas, calling the movement a "gang of murderous agents of Iran". He vowed to "teach Hamas a lesson" and make the movement "pay twofold for each and every provocation".
The Hamas retort was swift. "Dahlan and his cohorts," said a spokesman for the group, "are CIA agents who are trying to plunge the Palestinian people into chaos and civil war in the service of America and Israel".
"Even the gasoline in their cars is paid for by the CIA," he added.
The latest confrontation between Fatah and Hamas began on 6 January, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas branded the "Executive Force," answerable to PA Interior Minister Said Siyam, illegal "unless it is incorporated" into the Fatah- dominated Palestinian security forces. Abbas threatened to dissolve the 6000- strong force which he said was playing a "destructive role".
Hamas rejected Abbas's remarks, arguing that the force was legal and that Abbas himself had issued a decree to that effect.
Hamas leaders, including Prime Minister Ismael Haniya, argued further that the force was created by a legitimate and democratically-elected government after Fatah-dominated security forces had proved unwilling and/or unable to maintain security and stem the rising tide of lawlessness.
The bulk of Fatah-dominated security agencies in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank refuse to carry out orders from the Hamas-led government. President Abbas, in addition, effectively withdrew most security-related powers from the government, prompting it to create its own police force, ostensibly to maintain law and order but also to provide security for Hamas leaders and government officials. Meanwhile, mutual recriminations and accusations continued, with each side blaming the other of contravening the law and endangering public peace as well as compromising Palestinian national interests.
The implosive atmosphere soon spread to the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Fatah forces are allowed to operate, especially in city-centres, as long as they do not interfere with Israeli army operations. (The Israeli army last week carried out a raid in the heart of Ramallah, killing five civilians, injuring many others and vandalising Palestinian property without facing any resistance from the increasingly-powerful US-armed Abbas presidential guard.)
On Sunday and Monday of this week, suspected Fatah militiamen went on a rampage of arson, shooting and abduction, targeting individuals and public figures believed to be affiliated with Hamas. In Ramallah itself, masked men armed with AK-47s torched several malls, department stores and money- changing offices, reportedly in full view of PA police and security forces. One of the targets was the Daraghmeh Mall where clothes worth a million Israeli shekels were burned.
Several cars were torched and one, belonging to former Minister of Finance Salam Fayyadh, was shot at. The deputy-mayor of Ramallah, a Hamas- affiliate, was the target of a failed abduction attempt thought to be by Fatah militiamen.
In Nablus armed men from Fatah abducted the deputy-mayor, Mahdi Al-Hanbali, along with six other Hamas supporters. The abductors threatened to kill Hamas members in the West Bank whenever Fatah members are killed or attacked by Hamas in Gaza.
Al-Hanbali and other abductees were subsequently released, a move suggesting that a possibility to patch things up between Fatah and Hamas still exists.
President Abbas has condemned the shooting and arson in Ramallah and the West Bank and has ordered his security forces to apprehend the perpetrators. He also promised to compensate the victims for losses which amount to millions of dollars.
Whether Abbas is in control of Fatah forces in the West Bank, especially the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), which Hamas tacitly accuses of responsibility for the vandalism and arson, is doubtful. This, along with the Hamas assertion that the former Gaza strongman Mohamed Dahlan has effectively taken over Fatah, bodes ill for any prospective reconciliation between the two groups.
Last week the Bush administration announced that the US would provide the PA leadership with more than $80 million dollars to bolster the Fatah- dominated security forces in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The US apparently hopes that military and financial assistance, which is being channeled with Israel's consent, will enable Fatah to defeat Hamas. But many Palestinians, including some Fatah leaders, such as the Damascus- based veteran Farouk Kaddumi, view the American "assistance" as interference in internal Palestinian affairs, aimed primarily at fanning the flames of civil war in the service of Israel and its designs to liquidate the Palestinian question.
This week a group of Palestinian intellectuals called on Egypt and other Arab countries to intensify mediation efforts between Hamas and Fatah, saying the prospect of civil war among Palestinians could soon be a reality.