Palestinian infighting and the ‘day after

Mahmoud Abbas takes part in a meeting in Israel to discuss security matters on March 8. (Brian Hendler)

Mahmoud Abbas takes part in a meeting in Israel to discuss security matters on March 8. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Aug. 2 (JTA) — From the looks of it, some Palestinians appear to have joined Israeli opponents of the Gaza Strip withdrawal. How else to explain the Palestinian escalation of violence as Israel makes final preparations for a withdrawal that will leave Palestinians in full control of their own fate in Gaza? The answer relates directly to what will happen in the Palestinian arena after Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal strip, slated to begin Aug. 15. The Palestinians are in the midst of a power struggle between the old guard of the Palestine Liberation Organization and malcontents who range from the Al-Aksa Brigade — the terrorist militia of the mainstream Fatah Party — to fundamentalist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This power struggle eventually will be tested in elections, originally scheduled for last month but postponed at least until January. Palestinian radicals want to reach those elections armed with the credit for kicking the mighty Israeli army out of Gaza under fire. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said recently that Islamic Jihad, which did not sign on to the cease-fire agreement that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reached with the terrorist groups last winter, had decided to do everything possible to upset the Israeli withdrawal. The radicals believe Israel will withdraw in any case, and they see a withdrawal under fire as a win-win situation. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a mid-July suicide bombing in Netanya that killed five Israelis. Hamas, which did agree to the cease-fire, wants to settle accounts with Abbas for having postponed the elections. Following a mid-July Kassam rocket attack on the Israeli community of Netiv Ha’asara, which killed a 22-year-old woman, the P.A. security forces took real action against Hamas for the first time since 1996. Interior Minister Nasser Youssef sent armored personnel carriers to prevent further attacks, but Hamas activists set the trucks on fire. The incident spurred a series of confrontations between Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters and P.A. security men. Three Palestinian youths were killed and 45 people were wounded in the clashes. Danny Rubinstein, the Palestinian-affairs analyst for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, labeled the developments the “Third Intifada,” this one against the Palestinian Authority. However, Abbas’ hard line seemed short-lived, as radicals quickly went back to humiliating and even kidnapping P.A. officials, with a tepid response from the P.A. leadership. Hamas and Islamic Jihad dare to attack Israel because they’re more motivated than the P.A. security forces, which were deeply involved in terrorist attacks during the intifada and appear now to have little inclination to crack down on their recent comrades in arms. Moreover, they may feel Abbas is no longer in total control of the system and has lost considerable public support. That assumption may be erroneous: The latest public poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion showed that 75 percent of Palestinians support Abbas’ call for Hamas to abandon violence, and 76.5 percent expressed support for the continuation of the cease-fire with the Jewish State — though figures for Palestinian violence toward Israel presented this week by Israeli security officials suggest that the “cease-fire” existed in name only. In July alone, for example, there were 436 attacks on Israelis, including the firing of 142 mortar shells, Ha’aretz reported. Israel reacted to the attacks with a resumption of “targeted killings” of terrorist leaders. Why doesn’t Abbas show leadership and put an end to provocations by the radicals, at least those from within his own party? Many analysts believe Abbas’ timidity and his frequent assertions that he is too weak to act bode ill for the situation in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal. Israeli security sources said over the weekend that unlike his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, Abbas may want to tame the radicals but prefers to maintain Palestinian unity at all costs. If that’s the case, some Israeli analysts suggested, Abbas could end up just like Arafat — irrelevant in Israeli eyes. Asked whether Abbas would meet Palestinian obligations under the “road map” peace plan to dismantle terrorist groups, his top aide, Diane Buttu, said the P.A. president is focused on establishing a unified security force that “can operate on a national platform.” What exactly will happen with security in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal is an open question. According to reports in early August, Israel has agreed that Egypt will post 750 troops along its border with the Gaza Strip. The new deployment, which would effectively overturn a clause in the 1979 Camp David peace accord demilitarizing the Sinai, will begin Sept. 1 along the Philadelphia Corridor, Israel Radio reported Monday. Under the deal, Egypt will be responsible for preventing arms smuggling from Sinai to Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza. (JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this story.)

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