Fatah-Hamas Strife Seen ‘Escalating’


Even as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave Hamas extra time to decide whether to accept the so-called "prisoners’ document" as the basis for renewed talks with Israel, Israeli analysts were predicting further Palestinian anarchy and an all-out civil war.

"I don’t see a way to overcome this crisis without engaging in a civil war," said Moshe Eldad, a researcher at the Shmuel Neeman Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that the "contest" between Abbas’ Fatah movement and the Hamas government "is escalating."

"In some ways, a civil war is already going on with daily gunfights," he said. Since the start of clashes between Hamas and Fatah gunmen in late April, at least 10 Palestinians and one Jordanian have been killed in the Gaza Strip, according to reports. Five persons were killed Monday night alone, including a Hamas terrorist and his pregnant wife. The appearance Saturday of a new Fatah militia of 2,500 men in the West Bank town of Jenin increased tensions even more. It was said to be Abbas’ answer to the 3,000-strong militia the Hamas government mounted last month over the strenuous objections of the Palestinian Authority president. Fatah officials were quoted as saying that other Fatah militias would be established all over the West Bank and Gaza unless Hamas disbanded its force.

As the power struggle between Abbas and Hamas played out on the street, the PLO, which Abbas also heads, was preparing for a national referendum on the "prisoners’ document." The planned vote, now scheduled for late July, was Abbas’s idea, an apparent attempt to regain momentum and support among the Palestinians. Although it would be non-binding on the Hamas government, the vote is being seen by observers as a way for Abbas and his Fatah Party to regain at least some of the control they lost to Hamas in last January’s upset election.

The document speaks of the right of Palestinian resistance in the territories using "various means": thus sanctioning continued terrorist attacks against Israel. It does not call directly for recognition of the State of Israel. Instead, it calls for the right to establish an independent Palestinian state "on all territories occupied in 1967 … based on the UN Charter and international law and international legitimacy."

Boaz Ganor, founder of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said this is an "indirect way to refer to a two-state solution." But he added since it also calls for the right of Palestinian refugees to live within Israel proper, the document "might be a platform for beginning discussions, but it is nothing for Israel to accept."

"The most problematic article [of the document] from the point of view of Hamas is the one that refers to the PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," Ganor said. "This may be a bigger problem for Hamas than an indirect acknowledgement" of Israel.

The Israeli government itself is remaining mute on the document. Aryeh Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said his government "looks at this as an internal situation of the Palestinians."

"This is a document that was written by people who are in Israeli jails because they engaged in terror," he said. "A lot of them are murderers. This is certainly not a basis for discussion with us. We have nothing to do with this document."

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Israel is "trying to keep a low profile because it does not want to hurt Abbas."

"Fatah is scared that Hamas will take the Palestinians back to the Middle Ages," he added, noting that Hamas as a religious and cultural agenda "that would end modernization and isolate them [Palestinians] internationally."

A number of analysts suggested this week that even if Abbas calls for a national referendum on the document, it is unlikely that Hamas would allow it to take place if opinion polls showed it winning voter approval. A poll released this week said 77 percent of Palestinians supported the document.

Eldad said Hamas "won’t wait for [the referendum]. If they feel the mood [of the public is against them], they will launch attacks against both Fatah and Israel."

He also said several of the five Palestinian prisoners who composed the proposal appear to be backing away from it. Makovsky said the situation was fluid, and with so much "brinkmanship" in Palestinian politics, much could change between now and the planned referendum. He said Abbas is pressing for its passage because it "makes him a relevant player."

"He is looking for a way to end the international siege regarding [international] financial assistance and he feels that the referendum might achieve that objective," he said. The risk, though, is that should the referendum take place and the proposal fail, Abbas would have to resign, according to Makovsky. Meanwhile, Israeli defense officials were quoted as saying that Hamas was directly responsible for firing six Kassam rockets that struck the Israeli city of Sderot Tuesday, striking two homes, lightly injuring one woman and landing on the bed of a child who had left his room only a short time earlier. It was one of the first attacks on Israelis directly linked to Hamas since the organization declared a self-imposed cease-fire more than a year ago and it left many observers confused.

Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he found the attack "puzzling" since Hamas units generally are well disciplined and follow orders from a central command. "I don’t see how Hamas emerges the winner by breaking the cease-fire at the moment," he said.

But Steinberg suggested that perhaps Hamas leaders saw themselves trapped by Abbas with his call for a national referendum on the "prisoners’ document" and was worried that it would lose power if it went to a vote.

"Hamas was proven ineffective [in governing] and there have been riots by those who have not been paid" for three months, Steinberg said. "They need to reestablish popular support and the best way to do that is with terror attacks."

There were reports this week that Hamas is attempting to add toxic chemicals to its bombs. And Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, said the amount of weapons and explosives smuggled into the Gaza Strip since Israel left last summer was more than the total smuggled into the strip since the Six Day War. He said 11 tons of TNT, 3 million bullets, 19,600 rifles, 1,600 pistols and 10 shoulder rocket launchers were just some of the material smuggled in.