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Behind the Hamas-Fatah conflict
Is Gaza headed for a civil war?

January 5, 2007 | Page 4

GROWING TENSIONS in Gaza between the Hamas government and the former ruling party Fatah have led to an escalating battle of rhetoric and armed skirmishes. Socialist Worker talked to Palestinian activist and author TOUFIC HADDAD about the sources of the conflict and the role played by the U.S. and Israel.

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THE U.S. is seeking to drive a wedge between Hamas and Fatah. Why?

WHAT WE see in Palestine must be viewed in the context of a U.S. effort to reverse the electoral gains of Hamas in the January 2006 elections.

The U.S. promoted the elections as part of a neoconservative vision of "exporting democracy" throughout the Middle East. But this "policy" failed because the election didn't produce the results the U.S. wanted. The policy failed not because the result wasn't democratic, but because it was. It reflected the national aspirations of the Palestinian people.

The question for the U.S. is thus how to deal with Hamas in power. At first, it thought that strangling Hamas both economically and politically would work. Then it thought that a full-blown military push would work.

What else to read

The Electronic Intifada Web site provides updates on the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank. For an eyewitness account of life in Gaza under Israeli's iron siege, read "From Gaza With Love," an Internet blog written by Dr. Mona El-Farra.

For a collection of essays on the history of Israel's occupation and Palestinian resistance, including contributions by Toufic Haddad, read The Struggle for Palestine, edited by Lance Selfa.


The latest idea revolves around pressuring the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to allow some small gains for the Palestinians. But importantly, the U.S. wants these gains to be realized through Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

The idea is for Israel to provide money, arms and diplomatic recognition through Abbas--not the official Hamas government--in order to strengthen this current within the Palestinian national movement. Israel has agreed to release $100 million in tax money owed to the Palestinians, relax checkpoint restrictions and perhaps conduct a prisoner release--though so far, none of this has happened.

But this is about more than just Hamas. What the U.S. is really aiming at is the breakup of the Palestinian consensus around the principles of full decolonization of the 1967 occupied territories, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, a non-recognition of Israel and Zionism, and continuation of the resistance--which are the principles the election results conveyed.

The U.S. is saying that these principles will have no political and diplomatic future, and that the only way forward for Palestinians is to play by American rules, with the U.S. as the sole broker.

At the same time, there's a contradiction in U.S. policy, as they can only pursue this strategy halfheartedly. Everyone already knows that Abbas headed up the PA for more than a year after Yasser Arafat died, until Hamas was elected, and that Israel had a whole year in which it made no concessions nor held any negotiations. This on top of more than a decade of failures produced by Oslo.

At the same time, the U.S. doesn't want Hamas to be able to project itself as the leader of the popular resistance that is forging a new path. So they see Abbas as the lesser of two evils.

The facade of Israeli concessions is largely an American attempt to placate its allies in the Arab world, who are putting pressure on the U.S. to deliver something to quiet the popular discontent they face from their own populations.

The Saudi Arabians and Egyptians in particular are keen to claim that some sort of progress is taking place on the Palestinian front, because the regional tensions are building with the U.S. failure in Iraq, the defeat of the joint U.S.-Israeli effort to push back and destroy Hezbollah in the summer, and the failed Israeli attempt to strangle and overthrow the Hamas government.

But anything more than the appearance of progress runs directly against what Israel is trying to carry out at this moment--namely, setting up a framework for the unilateral establishment of its final borders without regard to the wishes of any other party or nation, and doing away with the Palestinian national movement as we know it, which they have already been pursuing incrementally for the past five or six years.

It's a different approach to eradicating the Palestinian movement than trying to carry out something like the nakbah (Arabic for "catastrophe")--the destruction by Zionist militias of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the expulsion of more than 800,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948.

Instead, it's a process of slowly shaving away the cadre and resources of the resistance organizations and strangling them with a diplomatic, military and economic straitjacket that is very difficult to escape.

WILL THE armed skirmishes between Hamas and Fatah supporters lead to civil war among Palestinians?

SECTIONS OF the old PA security/economic elite are interested in reversing Hamas' election victory--people like Mohammed Dahlan, Abu Ali Shahin and Samir Mishharawi, and Abbas' presidential guard, the Force 17, in Gaza.

The U.S. and Israel thus see these people as natural allies in pushing back Hamas. They are keen to promote these forces, which is why we hear talk of bringing to Gaza the Badr Brigades, which are essentially Jordan-based Palestinian forces that would be loyal to Abbas (and shouldn't be confused with the Iraqi Shia militia of the same name).

There have also been highly publicized reports of the Egyptians letting in 2,000 Kalashnikovs and 2 million rounds of ammunition, which were given to Abbas' presidential guard. Egypt did this because Hamas is not only politically stronger, but has also managed to develop a significant military presence, making it difficult for Hamas to be displaced without an alternative military force.

IS THE key motivation for Abbas' collaboration with Israel and the U.S. the drive to reclaim the economic advantages that flow from controlling the PA infrastructure--such as handing out of government jobs and contracts--or is it something else?

IT IS and it isn't. There are former benefactors of the old regime who have been cut out. But we should also remember that not even all of Fatah was benefiting under the old arrangement.

There are elements within Fatah that are against Abbas' collaboration with Israel on the project of isolating Hamas. Some have come out in favor of Hamas. Others are taking a more independent stand, but clearly oppose the likes of Dahlan and Abbas. Overall, there is complete anarchy within Fatah.

This was demonstrated when Abbas recently said he was going to call for new elections. The next day in Syria, all the factions of Fatah--and, of course, all the oppositional factions of the left and the Islamists--rejected that.

This included a senior Palestinian figure, Farouk Qaddoumi, who is head of the Palestine Liberation Organization politburo, and nominally the secretary general of Fatah since Arafat's death.

Qaddoumi was always against Oslo and refused to return to the Occupied Territories in 1994 with the creation of the PA. He is now trying to organize the anti-Abbas wing within Fatah, though he is forced to do so from abroad. But his appearance with Khaled Mishal, the head of Hamas, declaring that the January 2006 elections should not be reversed goes to show that only a particular current within Fatah agrees with the agenda of Abbas.

It's important to understand the underlying political motivations of Abbas and his supporters. It's not as if Abbas just wants to be a fat cat in Gaza, and doesn't want Hamas ruining his good times. Politically, he and his co-thinkers believe that the Hamas road is not the way to advance the Palestinian national cause.

Their trajectory for the past 30 years has been to try to found a Palestinian mini-state, so that they can establish a base from which to organize. Once such a state is established, they argue, they could say to the Israelis, "Look what good neighbors we are, there is no need for enmity between us, and let's live together," ideally in one state.

They also believe this transitional mini-state could be used to build the Palestinian project itself from a territory that would be recognized, and their honest political conviction is that the only way to accomplish this is through the Americans and through the Israelis.

The other side rejects this outlook, and thinks the political compromises that must be made are too costly and run counter to Palestinian interests. Abbas argues that if you start with rejecting Israel, then you always give Israel the opportunity to attack you, and for that reason, he thinks this position is a nonstarter.

But Abbas' current has been shrinking, and continues to do so, because this approach has only led to setback after setback--to political compromises, but no state, and to Israel still attacking Palestinians and colonizing their land. So this current has been unable to mobilize sufficient support among Palestinians to effectively push back Hamas.

Hamas has been able to keep its base intact, and the segment of the population that's not firmly Hamas or Fatah is still willing to give the Hamas government a decent opportunity to try a new approach. Thus, if elections were held again today, the result would largely be the same.

This has created intense frustration among Dahlan and the rest of the PA security elite. They feel the ground upon which they are standing is getting smaller, and any successes of Hamas will mean their political end.

That is why they're instigating incidents on the ground--kidnappings, strikes, road closures--through their control over the old security apparatuses, with the aim of making it more difficult for Hamas to rule.

It's important to understand that the system Hamas took over once they won at the polls was completely Fatah-dominated. Fatah controlled the key media in the West Bank and Gaza and the bureaucracies of all the government ministries. So Hamas formed a government, but there was a situation of dual authority.

Hamas has spent the last year trying to carve out spaces through which they can rule. One of their biggest challenges has been within the security forces themselves. Because it didn't have any influence there, Hamas was forced to create its own military force from the ground up.

Thus, the Executive Force was born. It is composed of militants from all factions--2,500 from Hamas' armed wing, 1,800 from the Fatah armed wings, and 500 more from the left and other factions. Today, a lot of the struggles revolve around this force, which Hamas created to provide itself with some way to defend its government and enforce its rule.

Hamas was clever in creating this force. It was carried out under the leadership of Sayed Siyam--the person who won the most votes of any candidate in the January elections. As minister of the interior, he reached out to the grassroots Fatah vanguard and built an independent force that could create a sense of law and order in Gaza in place of the chaos that was there before.

Much of this chaos was stirred up by the political, economic and social crisis created by Israel's deliberate targeting of a functioning authority during the Intifada. It was made worse by the unruliness of the old security services as well as the growing family feuds and criminal gangs that flourished because of the breakdown of the system itself.

ISN'T ABBAS playing a dangerous game by turning toward open collaboration with Israel?

VERY DANGEROUS, but I don't think civil war is the likely outcome. What you see taking place is targeted attacks against individuals who have played particular roles.

Hamas is very intent on making sure there's not a repeat of 1996, when the PA cracked down on Hamas, driving them underground. Now Hamas is much larger and has weapons, and there are elements of Hamas--mostly individuals, it seems--who have taken revenge against the PA individuals who carried out this ruthless repression.

If you go to Hamas' Web site, they are daily releasing new evidence of the rampant corruption within the PA when Fatah was in power, because they now have access to the files that document the scale of what went on. They post pictures of Dahlan with former Israeli Defense Minster and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, who was Sharon's right-hand man--and other pictures of Abbas shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert.

This is done to remind people that Abbas and his coterie are seeking deals with the very people who killed 660 Palestinians in 2006 and were responsible for 4,000 more Palestinian deaths in the previous five years.

Palestinians don't want a civil war. They know such a conflict wouldn't serve any useful purpose, and only Israel would benefit.

We must also remember that the tension between Fatah and Hamas isn't new--although the tension, it must be acknowledged, has never been so high. In the last month or so, almost 20 people were killed in these skirmishes, but as I said, they are not easily described as Hamas-Fatah skirmishes. Many were carried out by individuals with scores to settle, and again, Fatah is itself internally divided on this question.

Hamas doesn't have any particular reason to push for a conflict, because they're now in power. Hamas wants to win these questions politically with the population, and the future appears to be moving in their favor.

I don't think Fatah will push matters either, because they would only end up exposing their own weakness.

So no one in Gaza has an interest in civil war. But outside forces are trying to promote this outcome--in part to "show" that Palestinians can't rule themselves, are hopelessly divided and aren't "worthy" of negotiating with.

In the last week, an agreement was struck between Fatah, Hamas and all the security apparatuses to investigate any future incidents that take place--in order to contain the fallout, because everyone understands the situation is potentially explosive and is also subject to being abused.

The social erosion and desperate conditions produced by Israel's siege has created a situation where neither Hamas nor Fatah has full control over the street. Small events can get blown out of proportion and take on political meanings that they wouldn't if there were a fully functioning system.

But at the same time, there have been serious incidents that are impossible to ignore. For example, when PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh came back from a tour of the Middle East, his convoy was shot at, one of his bodyguards killed and one of his sons shot. Hamas called it an assassination attempt and directly implicated Dahlan. This goes to show the challenges at hand.

Rather than engage in a tit-for-tat, Hamas is trying to focus on forming a national unity government--which ultimately is a Palestinian national demand, seen as necessary to take up the challenges Palestinians face today. But such unity cannot be created unless you can achieve political agreement. This is impossible as long as the Abbas wing is still holding out and Fatah continues to be in such disarray.

Of course, while all of this takes place, Israel continues its colonization of Palestinian land, the construction of the apartheid wall, arrest campaigns, assassinations, closures and so on.

In fact, just last week, Israel announced the construction of a new settlement in the Jordan Valley--the first "official" new settlement in 10 years. Previously, Israel used to say that the new settlements it constructed were merely extensions of old ones, due to "natural population increase." This shows the level of impunity Israel feels today.

As far as Israel is concerned, the Zionist colonization of Palestine and the destruction of the Palestinian national project must continue at full pace, whether Fatah or Hamas is in power. The faster international forces are made aware of this reality, the faster we can organize an opposition.

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