More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in the past month in violence between Fatah and Hamas that flared up after Fatah-aligned President Mahmoud Abbas called on December 17 for new presidential and legislative elections. Hundreds more have been wounded in the violence, which intensified in the Gaza Strip late last year and has now spread to the West Bank.
The bitter factional struggle is a result of the ongoing international aid embargo on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA), which has been cynically exploited by Fatah in an attempt to reassert its traditional dominance. Hamas won 75 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council in elections in January last year, with Fatah winning only 47. Hamas described Abbas's decision to call new elections as illegal, and as a coup attempt against the elected representatives of the Palestinian people.
At a January 8 press conference, Hamas spokesperson Fouzi Barhoum reported that in the past month there had been 70 cases of attacks against Hamas leaders, buildings and establishments, including the parliament building and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's office.
Hamas militants assassinated senior Palestinian Preventive Security Service officer Muhammed Gharib at his home in Gaza on January 4, killing two other gunmen in the same raid. Israeli news service Ynet News reported on January 4 that Hamas said it raided Gharib's house "after he and the other gunmen who had taken refuge in the house and opened fire at Hamas security forces earlier in the day, killing one".
In the West Bank, Fatah released the Hamas-aligned deputy mayor of Nablus, Mahdi Hamdali, on January 8, having kidnapped him and held him for two days. Fatah militants targeted the shops of Hamas supporters with firebombs overnight on January 7, deliberately attacking civilian targets for the first time.
Abbas bans the Executive Force
On January 7, tens of thousands of Palestinians attended a rally in Gaza City marking the 42nd anniversary of the formation of Fatah, in the largest pro-Fatah demonstration seen in Gaza since 1994. Speaking at the rally, Abbas said he intended to proceed with early elections and declared Hamas's Executive Force, established by PA Interior Minister Said Siam, to be an illegal organisation.
Senior Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan — reviled by Hamas and other Palestinian groups for his role of collaborating with Israel security forces and the CIA in attempting to crush the armed resistance to the occupation throughout the 1990s as head of the Preventive Security Service — labelled Hamas "murderers and thieves" at the rally, and warned that Hamas leaders would not be safe from attack.
On January 8, Abbas passed a decree that the Executive Force be disbanded. As president, Abbas is in command of most of the 45,000-strong security apparatus in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and he views the Executive Force, which comprises 5000-6000 well-trained fighters, as a serious threat as it is outside of his control.
For months, the US has been negotiating with Abbas to strengthen his own elite paramilitary force of 3700, the Presidential Guard, and the Bush administration is asking Congress for US$86 million in aid that would be specifically earmarked for the force. The New York Times reported on January 5: "The aid, mostly training and supplies, according to an American document obtained by Reuters, is intended to 'dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza'."
In response, Hamas issued a statement from Gaza saying this is part of "a campaign of incitement that began in the US State Department", and the Interior Ministry announced it would be doubling the Executive Force to 12,000 fighters, and that any attempt to physically disband the group would be met with force.
In a December 19 Electronic Intifada article, Jonathan Cook wrote, "Palestine is in ferment because ordinary Palestinians are torn between their democratic wish to see Israeli occupation resisted — in free elections they showed they believed Hamas the best party to realise that goal — and the basic need to put food on the table for their families. The combined Israeli and international economic siege of the Hamas government, and the Palestinian population, has made a bitter internal struggle for control of resources inevitable."
By imposing a brutal siege on the PA, which has brought Gaza's 1.4 million residents to the brink of starvation, Israel and the Western imperialist countries have created a humanitarian catastrophe — and strengthened Fatah financially and politically by only dealing with the presidential office in place of the PA. In a period of dire food crisis, money can buy political loyalty, and Hamas's inability to pay the salaries of the PA's 175,000 civil servants was a major point for Fatah to exploit in order to gain support.
The latest escalation in the conflict by Fatah, in calling for new elections and banning the Executive Force, comes as the Palestinian population are becoming increasingly desperate — and, significantly, as Haniyeh was making some important gains in overcoming the Western embargo and procuring funds for the PA. Haniyeh's tour of Middle Eastern countries in December resulted in promises of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar and Iran. Qatar pledged to pay the salaries of 40,000 Palestinian teachers for the next six months, while Iran pledged to pay tens of thousands of public servants.
However, Haniyeh was held up by Israeli forces — with the support of Egyptian officials and European Union border monitors — as he tried to re-enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on December 14, carrying $30 million in cash. Abbas's Presidential Guard then opened fire on Hamas members who attempted to cross the border. Later that evening, Fatah gunmen fired on Haniyeh in an assassination attempt that Hamas claims was orchestrated by Dahlan.
Any success for the Hamas government in overcoming the blockade, or in securing the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, would be met with overwhelming support in the OPT, something which Fatah will apparently do anything to prevent — even if it means allying itself with the Israeli occupation and the international siege. However, Israel National News reported on Januray 4 that Fatah was not united behind this approach: "PA President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected calls by members of the Fatah central committee to dismiss Muhammad Dahlan, whom they accused of incitement against Hamas."
'What binds us together is greater'
Israel has used the opportunity presented by the factional fighting to launch a series of deadly raids in the West Bank, largely targeting Hamas activists. On January 4, Israeli forces killed four Palestinians in a raid in Ramallah targeted at Rabiah Hamad, a senior member of the Fatah-aligned Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Hamad escaped the operation, which included Israeli armoured vehicles, bulldozers and helicopter support.
The Palestinian Information Center reported on January 10 that Israeli forces "rounded up 60 Palestinians within the past couple of days in various West Bank cities, villages and refugee camps".
Writing from the West Bank on January 10 for the PIC, Khaled Amayreh reported an Israeli incursion into Dura, near Hebron: "Eyewitnesses said as many as 20 army vehicles carrying dozens of crack soldiers raided the town in the quiet hours before dawn Wednesday amid sounds of shooting and blasts."
However, in nearby Hebron, Hamas and Fatah lawmakers held a joint demonstration on January 8, declaring unity in the face of the occupation. Speakers from both factions declared their "determination to prevent factional strife from spreading to the Hebron district".
PIC reports that Hatem Qafisha of Hamas said, "We must stand united against the ominous specter of violence and civil war with all our strength ... We must be vigilant and not allow our enemies to make us kill ourselves with our own hands." Fatah activist Akram Haymoni told the townspeople, "What binds us together is far greater than that which would keep us apart".