Out of control
Factional infighting threatens to engulf Gaza, reports Khaled Amayreh from the West Bank
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, sporadic fighting between Hamas and militiamen affiliated with Fatah strong man Mohamed Dahlan was raging in parts of the Gaza Strip, with Hamas appearing to have the upper hand.
At least eight Fatah fighters were killed Wednesday morning when Hamas militiamen attacked and overran Fatah positions in Gaza City and surrounding suburbs. More than 10 civilians were injured in the fighting, the most ferocious since Fatah and Hamas signed the Mecca Agreement in February.
Hamas fighters seized a refugee camp outside Gaza City after storming the headquarters of Fatah's National Security Forces. Eyewitnesses said the attack met little resistance.
An estimated 50 people have been killed since the latest round of infighting started on Sunday evening, with Tuesday witnessing the bloodiest attacks. In the northern part of the Gaza Strip, Hamas attacked and overran a compound belonging to the Preventive Security Force (PSF).
Around 200 Hamas fighters stormed the compound where as many as 500 Fatah fighters were holed up. They fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at the multi-story building. The raid followed demands by the Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades that all PSF personnel abandon their positions or face attack. After surrendering to Hamas, PSF members were allowed to return to their families unharmed.
Hamas said the decision to storm PSF headquarters came after Fatah fighters abducted and executed Omar Al-Rantisi, a nephew of the late Hamas leader Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi, assassinated by Israel in 2004.
Hamas insists the current confrontation is not between Fatah and Hamas but between the Palestinian people and an American-armed and financed group within Fatah that is seeking to promote a Zionist agenda, an allusion to Dahlan who has vowed on several occasions to destabilise the Hamas government.
"This group has allied itself with the enemies of our people, leaving us no option but to stop them," said a statement issued by Hamas Tuesday.
The current round of the conflict has witnessed some of the ugliest scenes yet. One Fatah member was thrown of the roof of a multi- storey building, dying instantly. A Muslim preacher on his way to a mosque was shot dead.
Earlier on Tuesday a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the home of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Haniyeh escaped unharmed.
Hamas's spokesman Fawzi Barhoum accused Fatah of firing the rockets in an attempt to assassinate Haniyeh. He vowed to pursue "the Zionist collaborators".
"Hamas has decided to punish the attackers and it will do so without mercy," said Barhoum.
On Monday gunmen affiliated to the PSF attacked Haniyeh's office, interrupting a cabinet meeting. Following the attack Haniyeh accused "elements within Fatah" of trying to bring down the unity government.
Both Abbas and Haniyeh have appealed for an end to the fighting but neither can exercise control over their respective groups' armed wings.
The continuation of the infighting, and Hamas's rout of Fatah in northern Gaza, prompted the latter to suspend participation in the national unity government. The decision, observers believe, is a step towards Fatah leaving the government altogether. That, almost inevitably, will lead to an increase in factional fighting.
A frustrated Abbas said on Tuesday the conflict was destroying Palestinian national interests and undermining the Palestinian cause. "In order to protect the higher national interests of our people and to try and stop the bloodshed, in my position as head of the Palestinian Authority and head of all security forces I call for an immediate halt to fire," he said.
The increasingly weak PA president earlier accused Hamas of "wanting to carry out a coup" and of "seeking to control Gaza by force".
Leading Hamas member Ahmed Bahr retorted by accusing Abbas of "responsibility for all the bloodshed in Gaza".
"It is Abbas who gave the Dahlan gang carte blanch to terrorise Gazans, undermine the government and carry out the American-Israeli agenda in the service of the enemies of our people," accused Bahr.
The failure of Hamas and Fatah leaders to halt the bloodshed has frustrated Major General Burhan Hamad, head of the Egyptian security delegation, who has been struggling to negotiate a truce.
Burhan hinted on Tuesday that he might ask the Palestinian people to take to the streets to stop the fighting if the two groups could not reach an agreement.
In an impassioned plea he said, "we must make them ashamed of themselves and what they are doing."
"They have killed all hope," he continued. "They have killed the future of their people."
Commentators believe Hamas is more determined than ever to isolate Dahlan and his supporters while trying, as much as possible, not to antagonise the overall Fatah movement.
"Hamas's ultimate aim is to form at least the semblance of a united front with patriotic Fatah elements against the Dahlan groups," said one Gaza journalist close to Hamas.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr was quoted as saying Wednesday that the violence could spread to the West Bank if nothing was done. Amr, in Tokyo for a visit aimed at urging Japan to renew and increase aid to the cash- strapped PA, dismissed as "speculation" rumours that Fatah had opted to leave the national unity government. (see Editorial p.10)