Israel’s economic siege of Palestine fuels fratricidal conflict between Hamas and Fatah

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The article below appeared in the January 2007 issue of Socialist Action. It offers a clear-sighted analysis of the reasons for the tensions between Hamas and Fatah and the role of Israel and the U.S. in inflaming these antagonisms.

Inter-Palestinian conflicts continue to increase despite the attempts of the leaderships of the various organizations to achieve a common front against Israel.

The internecine warfare between Hamas and Fatah took a sharp upturn after three young children of a Fatah official were assassinated, presumably by Hamas supporters, on Dec. 11, 2006. Also in mid-December, the Fatah president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, announced that he was calling for a new election. Hamas, which won the last election only about a year ago, denounced his proposal as a “coup d’etat.”

On Jan. 5, Abbas declared the Hamas militia illegal. The response of the Islamic group was that they are going to double the size of their force, to 12,000 fighters. The following day, Jan. 6, Fatah staged a huge rally in Gaza, marked by bellicose talk. In this situation, if Abbas tried to enforce his order, it would mean full-scale civil war.

In the recent period also, the main Palestinian groups have been unable to maintain the truce in Gaza, in which the Israelis agreed to stop strikes against the resistance there and the Palestinian organizations, including the Palestinian Authority, agreed to prevent the firing of handmade Qassam missiles into Israel.

The agreement went into effect Nov. 26. The Palestinian Authority deployed thousands of security forces in northern Gaza to try to enforce it. However, by Dec. 27, the Israeli authorities claimed that 60 Qassams had been fired into their territory. One missile that landed in the closest Israeli town, Sderot, on Dec. 26 seriously injured two young boys.

The organization that claimed credit for most of the firings is the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, a mainly military formation, which did not clearly commit itself to the truce, although it did not announce that it would defy it.

On Dec. 27, the Israeli authorities announced that they intended to resume strikes in Gaza against the missile launchers. Islamic Jihad said that if the Israelis resumed their attacks, they would fire even more missiles. It claimed that it had been firing the missiles in reprisal for Israeli operations against its leaders in the West Bank.

Thus, the level of
desperation and bitterness in the Palestinian territories — which have been fomented by Israeli attacks and repression — seems to have reached the point where the official leaderships are unable to control the fighters. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem issued a report at the end of 2006 that over the past year Israeli forces killed 660 Palestinians, three times the number killed in the previous year.

Moreover, the cutting off of funding of the Palestinian Authority by Israel and its imperialist allies has inflamed the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, since it has prevented the Palestinian Authority from paying the wages of its employees, most of whom are supporters of Fatah.

The pretext for stopping the flow of aid and tax and customs money to the PA was the refusal of Hamas, now in control of the PA government, to formally recognize Israel. Thus, the PA’s failure to pay wages is a result of a siege of Hamas, from which the mainly Fatah employees of the Authority suffer. The result is bitterness between the two Palestinian organizations, with Fatah blaming Hamas for imposing unbearable hardship on the Palestinian people and Hamas blaming Fatah for capitulation to Israeli pressure.

The U.S. and Israeli support for Abbas against Hamas is evident. The latest and most dramatic evidence is the shipment of thousands of guns and a big store of ammunition from Egypt to Abbas’ presidential guard with the approval of the Israeli authorities, without which it would not have been possible. Haaretz gave a detailed account of the arms transfer in its Dec. 28 issue, but some officials in Abbas’ government are trying to deny it.

Obviously, it is embarrassing to Fatah to be seen to be supported by the Zionists. This embarrassment was noticeable in the TV clips of the meeting between the Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, and Abbas in late December. Olmert was effusive. Abbas was grim, with a disgusted look on his face.

Although he, and probably a large part of Palestinian public opinion, may consider it necessary to give way to Israeli pressure in this instance, it is nothing they can be proud of.

Some polls indicate that Fatah would win new elections, undoubtedly because many Palestinians have been demoralized by the economic siege of the Hamas government. But in the Dec. 28 issue of Haaretz, Danny Rubenstein wrote: “In preparing for the civil war, Fatah is in an inferior position as compared to Hamas. Certainly this is the case in Gaza. And it is primarily the case with respect to the internal organizational level. Fatah’s leadership institutions are not functioning.

“The branches are falling apart and Fatah’s secretary general, Farouk Kaddoumi, is cooperating openly with Khaled Meshal in Damascus.”

Rubenstein cited a number of reasons for Fatah’s weakness, but he noted: “The truth must be acknowledged, and it is that most of Fatah’s weakness stems from the fact that its diplomatic agenda has failed. The political process that started with the Madrid Conference in 1991 and perhaps even earlier, with the Palestine Liberation Organization Council in Algiers in 1988, which recognized Israel, was led by the top Fatah leadership and reached a dead end. Not now, but six years ago when the bloody clashes started. Since then, the tendency has been clear: Fatah is on the retreat.”

Rubenstein continued: “The Oslo Accords [which set up the PA] were perceived by Israel as a license to expand the settlements in the West Bank and to build new neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. The facts are known: The number of residents in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem doubled during the 1990s.

“Hamas gained strength not necessarily because the Palestinians have become more religious, but because West Bank residents woke up in the morning and out of their windows, in front of their eyes, they saw more and more fences and roadblocks, and more bypass roads. ‘Get up in the morning and see my death approaching,’ wrote a resident of a village near Ramallah.”

The Haaretz writer came to the conclusion that Abbas could only win his confrontation with Hamas if the U.S. and Israel offered him some serious concession, some hope of progress for the Palestinian people. All past experience indicates, however, that this would be unlikely.

What Israel and its allies are offering Abbas most concretely is guns to fight Hamas. And however much that may temporarily reinforce his security forces, it can only further discredit him and ultimately lead to his downfall. Moreover, the failure of the principal Palestinian organizations to control their fighters, which has become evident in recent weeks, indicates that the fighters do not trust any of their leaders and will not accept orders from any of them to stop attacking Israel.

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