News Analysis Ongoing Fighting in Gaza Could Be

For the second time in less than a month, the Palestinians are on the brink of civil war.

Dozens of armed men and civilians have been killed in street fighting that erupted Jan. 25 between militias of the radical Hamas and the secular Fatah movements. The showdown is over policy toward Israel and the kind of society the Palestinians are trying to build.

The latest round of violence erupted just days after top-level efforts to set up a joint Hamas-Fatah government of national unity failed. That left Hamas in power and the international boycott, imposed in the wake of its refusal to recognize Israel, in place.

The fighting is partly an attempt by Fatah to create conditions for lifting the boycott, which is causing the Palestinian Authority severe hardship.

The stakes are high. The outcome of the fighting could have a significant bearing on chances for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and determine whether the Palestinians join the moderate pro-Western Arab camp or side with the radicals led by Iran.

Over the past few months Fatah, in anticipation of the showdown, has been building its military power with Western help. Israel, which also would like to see a Fatah victory, is monitoring the fighting very closely but won’t intervene to avoid making Fatah look like Israel’s stooge.

The fighting erupted on the anniversary of Hamas’ sweeping election victory in January 2006. The ostensible cause was the car-bomb killing of a Hamas activist in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. But the deeper reason was the effect on Palestinian society of Hamas’ bleak year in office.

Most significantly, the economic hardship caused by the boycott intensified an already widespread breakdown of law and order. Armed gangs for months have been roaming the streets, loyal in many cases to family or tribe rather than to one or the other of the larger organizations.

Pundits say further atomization of Palestinian society can only be prevented by a strong central government with clear political and social objectives. And that can only come about if either Fatah or Hamas wins a resounding victory in their struggle, or if the two organizations find a way of working together.

For months, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has been trying to set up a joint Hamas-Fatah unity government acceptable to the international community. This, Abbas believes, would pave the way toward lifting the international boycott and starting negotiations with Israel.

But so far he has been unable to come up with a formula acceptable to Hamas, which refuses to meet the international community’s three conditions for a resumption of aid: recognition of Israel’s right to exist, a repudiation of terrorism and acceptance of past agreements the Palestinian Authority signed with Israel.

On Jan. 21, Abbas and Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’ Damascus-based leader-in-exile, met in a last-ditch effort to agree on terms for a joint government. They failed and, a few days later, the fighting resumed.

Hamas blames Israel and the West for the renewed internecine warfare.

“Fatah, through its Al-Aksa Brigades, is executing an Israeli-American plan to topple the Hamas government,” Hamas spokesman told Israel’s Yediot Achronot daily. “It was all planned in advance. They got money and instructions.”

Fatah denies the charges of collusion and says it is simply responding to a Hamas drive for control over Gaza.

Israeli pundits see the clash as more than a local power struggle. Roni Shaked, Yediot’s Arab affairs analyst, described it as “a war over Palestinian identity” that he predicted would have repercussions far beyond the Gaza Strip.

It is a war, Shaked wrote, “between Fatah, which wants a secular-national identity, and Hamas, which seeks to establish a Palestinian-Islamic identity. It is a war between western values and Islam. Therefore the fate of the Hamas government will not be decided in Gaza or Ramallah, but in Tehran and Washington.”

Fearful that the unrest could spill over to their own countries, moderate regional players have been trying to mediate before the fighting in Gaza gets out of hand. The Saudis have invited Fatah and Hamas representatives to Mecca for talks, and a Gaza-based Egyptian contingent has been trying to negotiate a cease-fire.

On the other side of the ideological fence Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian terror organization closest to Iran, also wants to stop the fighting. The group claimed Monday’s suicide bombing in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, which killed three people, reportedly wanting to send a message to the other terrorist groups to stop fighting each other and refocus their attacks on Israel.

Fatah, though, seems intent on forcing the issue with Hamas — if not this time, then in coming weeks or months. Strongman Mohammed Dahlan has taken over the reorganization of Fatah forces in Gaza. He reportedly wants to build a Fatah army of at least 12,000, twice the size of Hamas’ current strength.

Money has been flowing to Fatah from Europe, the United States and Saudi Arabia; weapons and vehicles are coming from Egypt. And in the current round of fighting, unlike the previous ones, Hamas has suffered more casualties than Fatah. In the most significant battle to date, Fatah fighters from the elite presidential guard drove away Hamas militiamen who had surrounded a building housing one of Fatah’s top Gaza commanders.

Still, according to Israeli assessments, Hamas remains the stronger force in Gaza for now.

The fighting this time has been more brutal than ever. Officers on both sides have been summarily executed. There have been targeted killings and indiscriminate shootings. People have been kidnapped in broad daylight, sometimes with TV cameras brought in to amplify the shock effect.

Both sides have threatened to assassinate the others leaders. A few weeks ago, someone apparently planned to assassinate Abbas on his way from the West Bank to Gaza. His security guards detected roadside bombs and his entourage turned back.

Some Israeli pundits maintain that the hatred on both sides now is so great that there can be only one result: a fight to the finish.

“There won’t be any reconciliation here,” Arab affairs analyst Amit Cohen wrote in Ma’ariv. “Nor will there be a national unity government. The profound hatred between Hamas and Fatah can’t be resolved anymore by words or negotiations … the next blowup is only a matter of time. This violence, the street battles, the kidnappings — all these will only end with a decisive military victory by one side or the other, which brings in its wake total control of the Gaza Strip.”

Such a clear-cut victory would certainly change the Israeli-Palestinian equation — for better or for worse. But will the Palestinian antagonists go all the way, or will they pull back at the brink, as they always have in the past? The next few weeks and months could be crucial.

NEXT STORY