by Gerry Foley / October 2006
Conflict between the two major Palestinian factions, Hamas and al Fatah, escalated to the brink of civil war on the last weekend in September. The Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmud Abbas, said in fact that the “red line” had been crossed. By “red line” he meant civil war, which he said Palestinians had avoided for 40 years.
By Oct. 2, at least 12 Palestinians had died in the fighting in the last two days. This brought the total number of the dead in inter-Palestinian fighting over the past year reportedly to almost 200. (Le Monde of Oct. 4 reported from that from Sept. 12, 2005, to Sept. 12, 2006, 181 Palestinians were killed in inter-Palestinian fighting and more than 1300 wounded.)
On Oct. 2, the Reuters news agency reported that Fatah militants had issued a statement threatening to assassinate Hamas leaders, including Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas office in Damascus, who has been a prime target of assassination attempts by the Israeli secret service. The Israeli daily Haaretz quoted the alleged statement in its Oct. 3 issue: “We in al-Aqsa [an armed group linked to Fatah] announce, with all might and frankness, the ruling of the people in the homeland and in the diaspora, to execute the head of the sedition, Khaled Meshaal, Saeed Seyam and Youssef al-Zahar, and we will execute this ruling so those filthy people can be made an example.”
This alleged statement, of course, could be a provocation concocted by the Israeli secret service. It would hardly better suit their needs. Hopefully, it will be disavowed by al Aksa. But the appearance of such a statement is an indication of how dangerous the present conflict is.
This internecine carnage comes on top of the war of attrition waged by Israel. Since June 25, when Palestinian militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier on the border between Gaza and Egypt, the Al Mezan Human Rights Center estimates that 230 people in Gaza, including 39 children, have been killed by Israeli attacks.
What is driving the inter-Palestinian conflict is the inability of the Palestinian Authority to pay the wages of its employees because of the financial siege that Israel and the imperialist governments have imposed in retaliation against Hamas, an Islamist party with a verbally more intransigent line toward the Zionist state than Fatah.
The PA is by far the biggest employer in the territories nominally under its aegis, and most of its employees are loyal to Fatah, which controlled the Authority since its founding, until it lost the Palestinian parliament elections to Hamas in January. The great majority of the PA employees have been paid only a tiny part of their salaries since Hamas took control of the government at the end of March.
The Hamas government had promised that the salaries due would be paid for the holiday month of Ramadan, which began Sept. 23. But the money did not arrive. Since Sept. 2, PA employees have been striking and demonstrating in protest continually.
The stage for armed conflict was set a few months ago by the Hamas government’s forming its own security force, parallel to the PA security forces still loyal to Fatah. According to an AP dispatch of Oct. 1, the entire Hamas security force of about 3000 men was deployed throughout Gaza on Saturday, Sept. 30, to control or suppress the protest demonstrations.
The attempt by the Hamas security force to break up an Oct. 1 protest march in the Gazan city of Khan Younis, which included Palestinian police supporters of Fatah, led to shooting and violent demonstrations throughout the Gaza Strip, which is Hamas’ greatest stronghold.
According to the AP dispatch cited above, the Hamas security force ordered the protesters in Khan Yunis to disperse, and when they did not, it fired on them. Palestinian police among the demonstrators reportedly fired back. The fighting quickly spread. In the subsequent shooting, nine Palestinians were killed, including two teenagers, and dozens were wounded.
The clashes reached their high point at the Palestinian government buildings in Gaza City, where Hamas security forces opened fire on Abbas’ presidential guard, killing one. According to the Oct. 1 AP dispatch, they fired anti-tank rockets and hurled grenades into the pro-Fatah crowd.
The violence extended to the West Bank, where Fatah is stronger. Pro-Fatah protesters stormed an empty Palestinian government building in Ramallah, set fire to some rooms, and kidnapped an official of the Hamas government. The car of the deputy premier in the Hamas government was fired on. He was not in the vehicle but two of his bodyguards were wounded.
Fatah supporters staged a general strike in Ramallah, shutting down all the shops and schools. In the city of Jericho, a shopkeeper was shot by Fatah fighters when he refused to close.
The fighting continued on Oct. 2, claiming another three Palestinian lives, despite Hamas’ withdrawing its security force from the streets and Abbas’ ordering the Palestinian security forces not to participate in any more protests.
Ten days earlier, the British Guardian correspondent pointed out Oct. 2, gunmen in Gaza shot down Jad Tayah, a senior Fatah intelligence official and five of his collegues. And a few days before that, gunmen hijacked a car belonging to Nabil Shaath, a close adviser to Abbas.
The Hamas leaders seem to have interpreted the protests and strikes by PA employees loyal to Fatah as a struggle for power. In an Oct. 1 article, the website of the Arab nationalist al Jazeera TV channel reported: “Iam Shawhan, a spokesman for the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, said: ‘We are going to beat with iron fists all those elements who are trying to sabotage the election process of our people, those who are trying to destroy our public properties and close the streets.’”
In the face of the escalating conflict, Abbas appealed for Palestinian unity, in particular since the Zionist rulers are threatening a major invasion of Gaza. And on Oct. 2, Hamas pulled its security forces off the street. However, for the moment, the attempt to form a united government between Hamas and Fatah has clearly been blown out of the water.
The scheme of a unity government had been designed to try to get around the blockage of funds and aid the Palestinian Authority as long as it is presided over by Hamas. The pretext of the Zionists and the imperialists is that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Ultimately, this argument is based on Hamas’ refusal to recognize the Zionists’ dispossession of the Palestinians from the territories on which Israel has been built.
In fact, this is a purely verbal position. Organizations linked to Fatah have been as active in guerilla attacks on Israel as Hamas, and have used the same methods. But this demand on Hamas that it formally recognize Israel’s right to exist on land that previously belonged to the Palestinian people has become the focus of a test of will between the Palestinian masses and their Zionist and imperialist enemies.
The liberal Zionist daily Haaretz has reported a poll showing that 66 percent of Palestinians are opposed to Hamas’ recognizing Israel. In order to force Hamas, and by extension the Palestinian people, to make a humiliating symbolic retreat, Israel and its allies have imposed a punishing siege on the territories nominally under the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. The squeeze has reached the point in which United Nations and international aid officials are raising warnings about an impending catastrophe.
Le Monde reported Oct. 4: “Two-thirds of Palestinians live under the poverty line. … This percentage has increased 3 percent a month, going from 50 percent in March, when the Hamas government took office, to 65 percent in August. The United Nations Conference for Trade and Development has warned that per capita income for Palestinians may fall to its lowest level in 25 years.
“The World Bank has also raised a cry of alarm, indicating that if the situation persists, 47 percent of the economically active population will be unemployed in 2008. In that case, the poverty rate will reach 74 percent.”
The worst situation is in Gaza, which in addition to being frequently bombed by the Israeli air force and assaulted by Israeli troops, is totally shut off in a tiny area. The precarious local economy has been virtually destroyed. Israeli bombing even demolished the one local electricity plant.
The BBC website reported Sept. 20: “Mr. Dugard, UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, said three-quarters of Palestinians in Gaza now depended on food aid—a result, he added, of Israeli military raids, blockades and demolitions. ‘I hope that my portrayal … will trouble the consciences of those accustomed to turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of the Palestinian people,’ Mr. Dugard told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.”
Dugard said that Israel had turned Gaza into a prison and thrown the key away. This is the sort of pressure that turns people desperate, and a common byproduct is that desperation and frustration turn them against each other. But this is obviously what the Zionists and their backers are counting on. They bear the primary responsibility for it.
The Palestinian fighters have the task of achieving unity in the face of the Zionist and imperialist pressures. But democratic and humanitarian world public opinion has the responsibility to condemn the brutal squeeze that is being put on the Palestinian people.