Clashes halt progress in 'unity' cabinet talks

Factional fighting between the armed wings of Fatah and Hamas resumed on January 25 when a vehicle carrying members of the Hamas Executive Force was bombed. Two EF fighters later died as a result of their injuries. The subsequent bloody clashes between rival militants, which took place mainly in the Gaza Strip, left 19 people dead, including a two-year-old boy and eight civilians.

The renewed factional violence between Hamas, which won the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, and the defeated Fatah party of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, halted the process of discussions for a "national unity" government, which had been making some progress in recent weeks. More than 50 Palestinians have now been killed in internal fighting since Abbas, backed by the US, heightened tensions on December 16 by saying he planned to call early PLC and presidential elections.

Hamas suspended the talks on January 26, and the New York Times reported on January 28 that Abbas said he expected the unity government discussions to last "at least another three weeks". If the talks fail to produce a national unity government by then that is satisfactory to Abbas, he has threatened to push ahead with early elections, which Hamas has labelled a US-Israeli coup attempt against the PA.

The descent into renewed violence is a major setback to the progress that was recently made through the establishment of a "national dialogue committee" to negotiate a unity cabinet, which was announced in a joint press statement issued by Abbas and Hamas's Damascus-based political bureau chief Khalid Meshal.

According to the Palestinian Maan news agency, during the discussions the two leaders agreed on four main points: (1) internal Palestinian fighting is to be prohibited, and all incitement to such fighting must cease; (2) dialogue and the efforts to form a "national unity" cabinet will continue for two weeks, with a national dialogue committee to be formed in Gaza to support the dialogue; (3) steps will be taken over the coming month to reactivate and rebuild the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO); and (4) all parties to the dialogue will uphold the core Palestinian national demands (i.e., right of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, formation of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital) and to reject "temporary solutions".

The refusal to accept "temporary solutions" is an outright rejection of the proposal by Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni to establish a Palestinian state with "temporary" borders, defined by Israel's illegal apartheid wall. The construction of the wall (referred to by Israel as a "security barrier") has led to the annexation by Israel of large swaths of Palestinian territory and natural resources.

While Livni's proposal was being considered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had met with Abbas the previous week to try to restart the discredited US-sponsored "Road Map to Peace", it has been rejected by Abbas.

The January 18 Cairo Al Ahram Weekly reported that Palestinian PM Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, accused Rice of trying to "sedate the Palestinians" with empty promises. Referring to Rice's January 18-24 visit to a range of Arab countries, Haniyeh said: "She is coming up with dangerous ideas which we should be wary of. It's clear that the Bush administration will not exert any pressure on Israel to give up the stolen land."

Since Hamas won the January 2006 PLC elections, Israel, the US and the European Union have imposed an economic blockade on the Palestinians to punish them for voting for Hamas, which Tel Aviv and Washington denounce as a "terrorist organisation". Sections of the defeated Fatah party, led by Abbas, have used the economic blockade to try to reassert their dominance over the Palestinian political landscape.

Pressure from the Palestinian population for an end to the Hamas-Fatah fighting has mounted in recent weeks. The January 18 Al Ahram Weekly reported that in "several Palestinian towns, conferences, seminars, marches and rallies have been taking place to highlight the gravity of civil war and to commit to avoiding it.

"In Hebron, the most populous Palestinian district, thousands swore, by raising their hands, to refrain from taking part in any activity against any other Palestinian. In Tulkarem, Fatah and Hamas leaders held joint rallies and meetings to fend off the spectre of civil war.

"Meanwhile, the estimated 11,000 Palestinian prisoners languishing in Israeli jails declared Sunday 14 January a day of fasting in order to protest the showdown between Fatah and Hamas.

"One prisoner blasted both groups, saying during a phone-in show broadcast on local radio: 'Shame on you, shame on you, shame on you! We are sacrificing the days, months and years of our lives for you, and you are killing each other like wild animals. What are you fighting for? Have you forgotten that our country is occupied by Israel, that Jerusalem has been Judaised, that Israel is stealing our land and confining us inside ghettos and camps? Have you lost your senses so much that you can no longer know your brother from your enemy ...?'

"These and similar cries seem to have had a certain sobering psychological effect on both sides, prompting their respective leaders to assure society at large that they will not allow civil war to gain any foothold among the Palestinians."

The Palestine News Network reported that the first meeting of the national dialogue committee was held on January 23 in the PLO offices in Gaza City, with all Palestinian political parties participating.