Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 September 2007
Issue No. 862
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A clash of wills

As Israel positions itself to gain advantage, Hamas has reached a decision to seriously address the internal Palestinian crisis, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Click to view caption
Hamas Executive Forces arrest a Fatah supporter as he go to attend an open air Friday noon prayers

Hassan Al-Masri breathed a sigh of relief Friday as he looked out from the balcony of his home in the western quarter of the Al-Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip and found only young boys on their way to perform Friday prayer in the open. They were doing so in response to a call made by factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), supported by the government of Salam Fayyad in Ramallah, in protest against what it says is "the Hamas movement's control of mosques in the Gaza Strip".

Al-Masri, who works in one of the civil institutions of the Palestinian Authority (PA), feared that Fayyad's government would suspend his pay if he did not participate in this prayer. Activists in the Fatah movement had spread rumours to that effect among employees and staff of various PA departments. He was relieved when he realised that -- at least in the area in which he lives -- the call of the PLO factions found a response from only some youth.

Yet it was not pure rumour. The Ramallah government had suspended the salaries of employees who refused to comply with calls for strikes organised by syndicates connected to Fatah in protest against Hamas assuming executive power.

Rasmiya Awaydi, 52, works as a nurse in the Dar Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. She told Al-Ahram Weekly that after 30 years of continual service in nursing, the Fayyad government suspended her salary simply because she refused to comply with the strike in the health sector. "It was an extremely cruel moment for me," she said. "Should I comply with a strike that affects people but has no relation to professional demands so as to guarantee that I continue to receive my salary, or respond to my conscience and remain by the side of patients?"

All signs indicate that the Fayyad government is exploiting its ability to guarantee employee salaries in order to enlist them in protest activities against Hamas, whose government can only guarantee a third of employee salaries.

Mustafa Al-Barghouti, a representative in the Palestinian Legislative Council and former Palestinian minister of information, says that he daily receives hundreds of communications from employees and members of the security agencies informing him that the Fayyad government has suspended their pay for no apparent reason. Barghouti asserts that there is talk of hundreds of thousands of employees who have been punished without committing any wrongdoing. "The Fayyad government must show the legal basis on which it has suspended the salaries of hundreds of thousands of employees, many of whom were appointed before the latest legislative elections took place and whose families are suffering badly due to a lack of income and their livelihood being cut off, especially as we are nearing the start of the blessed month of Ramadan," he told the Weekly.

For its part, the Fayyad government has admitted that in August alone it halted the salaries of 9,000 employees. During a hearing held by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights in Ramallah last Sunday, Sadi Al-Kernz, secretary-general of Fayyad's cabinet, said that the decisions to dismiss employees or suspend their salaries came as part of government policy for reforming employment.

The Fayyad government has been careful to invest in areas where Hamas is deemed weak. This approach has not been limited to the exploitation of its virtual monopoly of financial affairs, but has gone as far as an attempt to create a wider political front to counter Hamas by reviving the framework of the PLO in Gaza. Last week, President Mahmoud Abbas made a decision to consider PLO factions a "commission for national activity". This decision has been viewed as an attempt by Abbas to firmly establish PLO factions as an alternative to Hamas in the Strip, the agreement of leftist PLO factions to join this commission interpreted as bias towards the interests of Fatah as opposed to Hamas.

Saleh Zaydan, politburo member in the Democratic Front, one of the factions participating in this commission, denies that his movement's participation means bias towards Fatah. "This framework exists in nearly all the areas in which the Palestinian people are found, and is an attempt to solve the growing social problems of people in the Gaza Strip," he told the Weekly. While it is true that the leftist factions do not enjoy popular support worth mentioning, their affiliation with media efforts in support of Abbas has to a large extent diminished the margin of manoeuvrability available to Hamas.

Ismail Haniyeh's dismissed government has responded to the protest activities organised by the PLO factions with harsh resolve. It forcefully prevented Fatah activists from performing Friday prayer in the open, and arrested Fatah leaders. Moreover, the executive forces of this government assaulted journalists to prevent them from photographing what it was doing. Ibrahim Abul Naja, spokesperson for Fatah and one of those who was briefly detained, said that the suppression of Fatah members by the military agencies of the Hamas government came as part of the Haniyeh government's attempt to force Fatah to engage in dialogue on Hamas's terms. "We will not dialogue with Hamas unless it retracts from its overthrow of legitimacy," Abul Naja told the Weekly in stern tone.

Abbas's inclination towards intensifying pressure on Hamas in Gaza is closely related to the international meeting in Washington he was invited to by President Bush. Palestinian official sources told the Weekly that the American administration has promised Abbas "major achievements that will curtail Hamas's ability to maintain control of the Gaza Strip" during the meeting. The same sources also stated that the Americans stressed to Abbas that they have reached agreement with the Israelis to ease restrictions on the everyday life of Palestinians in the West Bank, and that the American administration was currently placing pressure on Olmert's government to convince it to finalise with Abbas the principles of a permanent settlement.

Yet Barghouti warns Abbas of falling into the "trap set by Israel and the American administration". The former Palestinian minister of information added: "Abbas will be shocked by the bitter reality awaiting him at the autumn meeting, for they will only discuss the means of carrying out PA reforms, and there won't be any serious discussion of seeking an end to the occupation."

For its part, Israel has its own idea about the future of the Gaza Strip. Last Monday, Israeli radio lifted the veil from a plan prepared by the Department of Planning and Research in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs that calls for the appointment of a "foreign mandate government" to administer Gazan affairs following the collapse of the Hamas central government. The plan calls for tightening the grip on crossings and limiting the quantities of goods entering the Gaza Strip to the least amount possible. This is in addition to the imposition of restrictions on the transfer of funds to the Strip, all with the aim of expediting the fall of Hamas.

The plan also recommends that Israel stipulate that Abbas firmly establish the separation of the West Bank and Gaza before it agrees to enter into dialogue with him. Israeli radio noted that Olmert, who is convinced of the plan, clarified last week to Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Massimo D'Alema, that Israel rejects the Italian position calling for the formation of a Palestinian national unity government. In light of the extremely complicated current situation in Gaza, the leadership of Hamas has recently grown convinced that it is no longer possible to avoid the responsibility of proposing a serious political initiative to end to the internal Palestinian crisis.

Al-Ahram Weekly exclusively obtained a draft of the initiative prepared by the Hamas Political Committee and which Hamas intends to submit to Abbas indirectly. The initiative states that Hamas is prepared to place all security and presidential headquarters and border crossings temporarily under Egyptian command, until they are handed over to official security agencies that the initiative stresses must be restructured on a "national and professional" basis, and for whom a referential authority must be determined.

The initiative also calls for the formation of a central government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the same programmes as those of the national unity government, and which would comply with the Cairo and Mecca agreements with regard to the future of the PLO. The initiative stresses the necessity of applying the Cairo understandings related to this issue, and the setting of a timetable for holding parliamentary elections. It also stresses the necessity of reconsidering all executive decrees issued by Abbas since Hamas confronted Fatah militarily.

In all cases, it is the Palestinian citizen who continues to pay the price as Fatah and President Abbas, on the one hand, and the Hamas movement on the other, seek to gain points in the clash of wills ongoing between them.

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