The Hamas-Fatah Conflict Reaches a New High Point

by Gerry Foley

The clashes at a Fatah rally in Gaza on Nov. 12 may have been a turning point in the conflict between Fatah and Hamas, for better or worse. They will either lead to a deepening of civil war, or lead the protagonists to step back from the brink.

Moreover, in this situation of tragic division in the Palestinian movement, the Israeli army command has announced that it is planning a large scale invasion and long term occupation of the Gaza strip. “Last month, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the IDF is ‘getting closer to a large-scale operation in Gaza, and we’re likely to stay there for a long time,’” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Dec. 8.

The gathering of a quarter of a million Fatah supporters in a territory with a total population of a million and a half showed that the older Palestinian organization retains mass support in the territory despite its military defeat at the hands of Hamas, widespread accusations of corruption, and internal disorganization and demoralization.

It is also an indication that Hamas’s attempt to impose what amounts to a military dictatorship on Gaza is beginning to erode its support. Also, Hamas’s radical rhetoric has helped Israel to continually tighten a siege on the territory that is making life unbearable for the population of Gaza.

The attack of the Hamas security guards on the demonstration, killing six Fatah supporters, created an enormous shock. It enabled the Fatah president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmud Abbas, to call for the first time for the overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza. There were some indications that the Hamas political leadership wanted to defuse the confrontation. But the political leaders seem to have little influence over the militants.

The clashes were followed by a sweeping crackdown against Fatah in Gaza. The predominance of eyewitness accounts cited in the international press blame the Hamas security guards for the outbreak. But there are also some reports of provocations from Fatah activists—in particular, shouts denouncing Hamas as Shiite because it gets support from Shiite Iran. Fatah in Gaza seems to have widely adopted this reactionary and provocative theme.

The Israeli press has been citing polls showing declining support for Hamas and corresponding rises for Fatah. Of course, the rising support for Fatah may be due in part to hopes that Mahmud Abbas can achieve some sort of compromise with Israel that can make the lives of the Palestinians easier.

It was similar hopes that led to the Olso Accords in 1992, the major Palestinian-Israeli accord to date. But these hopes were totally deceived by Israeli actions. That is one of the sources of the rise of Hamas. And, although Abbas’ hopes for concessions from the Israelis are more modest after this experience, it remains to be seen if they will bear any fruit.

The Israelis pose as a condition for concessions that Abbas suppress the Palestinian guerrillas. He has tried to do this to some extent in the past and failed. He was evidently convinced that he did not have the muscle or the political support to do it. But the civil war between Fatah and Hamas is now making it easier for him to attack the militants, particularly in Nablus, a Hamas stronghold on the West Bank.

Hamas’ response to this has been to issue dire warnings to Abbas not to give away any of the rights of the Palestinian people. The Islamic organization is trying to gain support against its rival by claiming to be a more intransigent defender of the Palestinians against the Zionist state.

But its accusations that Fatah leaders are traitors and sell-outs obstruct the attempts of the Hamas leadership to moderate the conflict between the two movements. Fatah’s attempts to use sectarian prejudices against Hamas by calling it Shiite are a
similar barrier.

Some liberals in the Israeli press have argued that Iranian support for Hamas is a good thing in that it has enabled them to build up a disciplined army capable of controlling Gaza, and therefore a government with which Israel could negotiate. The problem in this is that in order to negotiate with any Palestinian representatives, Israel is going to have to offer some real concessions, and so far there is no assurance that it will do that. Instead, the Israeli defense minister’s statement quoted above indicates that the Zionist government is contemplating a holocaust in the ruined enclave.

In the meantime, Hamas’s military power has led it to try to impose its military as the only armed force in Gaza. And this has led to armed clashes with Islamic Jihad, a smaller but very active military organization. On Nov. 7, an Islamic Jihad member was killed in a shootout at a funeral for an Islamic Jihad member previously killed by Hamas.

It is to be hoped that the outrage among Palestinians over Palestinians killing Palestinians and the threat of a major Israeli onslaught on Gaza will lead to new political debate and organization. That has to be based on organizing the Palestinian people as a whole to demand their rights and not fighting over control of mini-governments and fragmentary territories.

The rise of Hamas shows that the Palestinian people are not ready to surrender any part of historic Palestine. They want their country back. But in order to achieve that they need a credible perspective—that is, a democratic secular Palestine in which all the inhabitants of the country can live together on basis of equality.

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