Turning in his grave
Fatah uses the commemoration of Arafat's death to step up its campaign to destroy Hamas, reports Saleh Al-Naami
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Fatah supporters wave the Palestinian flag during an anti-Hamas demonstration in Ramallah
The Unknown Soldier's Square was empty of the youth who had recently staged a noisy demonstration there, just next to the Palestinian Legislative Council's headquarters in Gaza City. They had been demanding national conciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but such talk seems ever more unrealistic following the bloody events that took place in Gaza during the commemoration of the third anniversary of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's death. Clashes between Fatah activists and members of the Palestinian police force left seven dead and dozens wounded. These clashes took matters back to square one, said Khalil Ziyad, 22, a university student and activist in one of the youth groups calling for conciliation. "These unfortunate events showed that we must exert greater efforts and mobilise more of the public to drive conciliation forward."
A number of Hamas leaders who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Ahram Weekly that the clashes could have been prevented by the police leadership, which "failed to carry out its duties". With obvious frustration, the Hamas leaders stressed that Ismail Haniyeh's dismissed government had been lured into the position that Salam Fayyad's government wanted to see it in so as to be able to point at its impotence in maintaining security. To deal with the crisis, Haniyeh, prime minister of the dismissed government, rushed to announce his decision to release all those who had been arrested with the exception of those proven to have been involved in acts of violence. He also announced the formation of a "powerful and impartial" investigation committee. In a speech to the Palestinian people, Haniyeh said that he had not ruled out the possibility that the police had been responsible for the bloody events, but also stressed the role the Ramallah government had played in instigating the violence.
Particularly disappointing to the Haniyeh government and the Hamas leadership was the fact that the government had exerted great efforts to hold a successful commemoration for Arafat. This government realised that any attempt to disturb the event would harm its legitimacy in the eyes of much of the Palestinian public who see Arafat as a "leader and symbol of the Palestinian national struggle". Haniyeh recounted the steps his government had taken to facilitate the commemoration, including suspending classes for the duration so that students could attend. The Ministry of Education had also issued instructions for the first two classes that day to be dedicated to discussions with students about the characteristics of the late Yasser Arafat.
Yet Haniyeh's clarifications did not mean anything to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who seemed as though he had been waiting on hot coals for what took place in order to immediately exploit it and use it against Hamas. He called on the Palestinian public to bring down the Hamas government, pointing to the massive numbers participating in the commemoration, estimated at 200,000 individuals, as evidence of support for Fatah. Abbas assumed that Fatah's success in mobilising such a number meant that it would be able to cause the collapse of Haniyeh's government through tremendous popular mobilisation.
Yet even according to the Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip, Abbas's reading of events was entirely wrong. Hazem Abu Shanab, speaker of the Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip, clarified that one of the reasons for interest in the commemoration was that it stressed a refusal to make concessions on Palestinian "constants" on the eve of the fall meeting in Annapolis. "The commemoration was not directed against Hamas. On the contrary, it stressed the necessity of holding onto the constants for which Arafat was assassinated," he told the Weekly. Abu Shanab stressed that despite what happened, Hamas is a nationalist movement with an important role in the Palestinian national struggle, and that the primary adversary of Fatah must be the occupation. He further noted that while his movement is protesting against the actions of the Haniyeh government's security forces, it also rejects the actions of Abbas's security agencies in the West Bank.
More concrete evidence that Abbas's reading of the tremendous public response to the commemoration was wrong and that it did not indicate support of Fatah is the fact that Fatah supporters failed to organise a public march to protest against what took place. There is no dispute among observers in the Gaza Strip that the Fatah movement there is facing two major problems. On the one hand, it is suffering from a leadership vacuum since most of its prominent leaders fled following Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, there is a strong sense of bitterness among Fatah activists over Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's treatment of them, particularly following his talk of dismissing thousands of Fatah security agencies in the Gaza Strip.
Yet President Abbas didn't stop with his call for the overthrow of the Hamas movement; he has again rejected all reconciliation efforts, instructing Rouhi Fatouh, his personal envoy to Damascus, to cancel a meeting scheduled with the head of Hamas there, Khaled Meshaal. At the same time, Abu Mazen's security agents have exploited the Gaza events to escalate their security campaign against Hamas activists in the West Bank. These agents are continuing to arrest Hamas activists around the West Bank, and the independent Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has confirmed that those arrested are being subjected to methodic and cruel torture. A large number of those arrested have been transferred to hospitals because of their deteriorating health due to torture.
But what is truly appalling is that Abbas's campaign against Hamas activists is coordinated with the Israeli occupation army. In Nablus, for example, a city that the Fayyad government announced would be the first in the West Bank in which the security plan would be implemented, security work is actually split between the occupation army and Abbas's agencies. At night, special units of the occupation army undertake arrest campaigns against activists in the Palestinian resistance movements, including Hamas activists. During the day, the same mission is carried out by the Palestinian security agents. Haniyeh explains that these campaigns against Hamas activists aim to uncover the organisational structure of the movement in the West Bank so as to destroy it.
Abu Mazen has exploited the Gaza events to escalate operations against Hamas activists and ban political and social activism in the movement altogether. He has also cancelled meetings with Hamas leaders in the West Bank that he hoped would lead to a split within Hamas.
The Fayyad government has not halted at striking Hamas. Rather, it has issued orders to strike at all resistance movements, a move that has only increased their criticisms of the policies of Abbas and his government. The minister of the interior in Fayyad's government, Abdel Razaq Al-Yehia, stated that his government had made a commitment to Israel to dissolve all the military arms of the resistance movements without exception as part of its commitment to the "roadmap". Khaled Al-Batsch, a prominent leader in the Islamic Jihad movement, says that what Abu Mazen's agencies are doing in the West Bank confirm that it has no relation to Hamas's control over the Gaza Strip, but rather is related to a plan to liquidate the entire Palestinian resistance. "Abu Mazen will lose his legitimacy as president if he collaborates with the occupation state and conspires against the resistance," he told the Weekly.
Yet despite the signs that the Gaza events have ended current reconciliation efforts, some still believe that there is no escape from dialogue. Yehia Daabsa, deputy head of the Hamas parliamentary bloc, is one. "There are two choices facing Abu Mazen after the Annapolis conference, which will end in complete failure," he told the Weekly. "He can either submit his resignation and step back, or he can return to the negotiation table to end the division in the Palestinian arena."
Whether Al-Daabsa's expectations are met or not, one thing that is certain is that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are living in a state of frustration. While Palestinians have been able to acclimatise to a strangulating siege, deteriorating economic conditions and constant operations by the Israeli army, it is hard for them to tolerate the pain of this internal struggle.