Hamas Gaza victory a blow to US policy

Following the near-complete seizure of military control of the Gaza Strip on June 14 by armed supporters of the Hamas party, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the leader of the rival Fatah party, issued a decree dissolving the PA Hamas-Fatah "national unity" government, dismissing Hamas PM Ismail Haniyeh and declaring a "state of emergency" in both the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Reuters reported that Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, rejected Abbas's decrees, calling them "worthless". Haniyeh, he said, "remains the head of the government even if it was dissolved by the president. According to the law the government remains a caretaker government".

However, the Maan news agency reported that Salah Bardawil, a spokesperson for the Hamas bloc in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, the PA's parliament, said that "it is the right of the president to declare" a state of emergency" for one month", and to appoint "an emergency government. After this, he must go back to the PLC, in order to renew the state of emergency or to seek a new government".

The armed supporters of the two major Palestinian parties have fought sporadically since Hamas-aligned candidates won 74 seats in the January 2006 PLC election (with 44.5% of the popular vote) and Fatah won only 45 seats (with 41.5% of the popular vote).

Following the formation of the new Hamas cabinet in March 2006, Israel, the US and the European Union imposed an economic and financial embargo on the PA, pushing at least 85% of Palestinian households below the poverty line. Israel, the US and the EU classify Hamas as a "terrorist" organisation.

In October 2006, armed clashes erupted after the Hamas-controlled interior ministry police forcibly dispersed a demonstration by Fatah-controlled Palestinian National Security police demanding payment of their salaries.

Under public pressure to end these armed clashes, Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement in February to form a coalition government, hoping this would lead to the lifting of the financial embargo. However, Israel and Washington have maintained the embargo.

Clashes between armed Hamas and Fatah supporters in Gaza escalated on June 12 after Abbas' presidential compound in Ramallah was hit by mortar fire and Haniyeh's home in Gaza was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

In a June 14 press statement, Hamas PLC spokesperson Salah Bardwil accused the Fatah-controlled Palestinian National Security force in Gaza of being a "Lahdist group" — a reference to the General Antoine Lahd's South Lebanese Army, which collaborated with the Israeli military during Israel's 1983-2000 occupation of south Lebanon.

Bardawil told Maan that "Fatah and Abbas were not able and were not interested in controlling these influences within Fatah, which is why we fought this battle."

On June 13, after a three-hour emergency meeting, the Fatah central committee "suspended" Fatah's involvement in the National Unity government. According to Maan, the Fatah leadership "urged the Palestinian Authority and Fatah members to frustrate 'the attempted coup' led by some members in the Hamas movement".

In response to the Hamas-Fatah clashes, several thousand Palestinian civilians took to the streets in Gaza City carrying Palestinian flags and chanting "Stop the killing!"
Fifteen demonstrators were injured when unidentified gunmen opened fire on the protests.

Reporting from Jerusalem on June 14, Time magazine correspondent Tim McGirk commented that the "fall of Gaza to the fighters of Hamas has dealt a serious blow to US policy toward the Palestinians", because "the US policy of bolstering Abbas's authority and prestige in order to weaken" Hamas and "restore Fatah to power has suffered a serious setback. The US had spent millions of dollars training security forces that were supposedly disciplined and loyal to Abbas, but as Hamas militia advanced across Gaza this week, many of these simply cut and ran."

"For months, Abbas, urged on by US advisers, had been strengthening his security forces in Gaza", McGirk noted. But when a showdown came, "the 18,000-man police force on Abbas' payroll failed to help the president's men... 'We are fighting for our faith', one Hamas spokesman explained to a radio interviewer, 'and Fatah are fighting for their salaries. That is why we will win.'

"Israeli officials say Washington had tried to avert the rout of Fatah in Gaza by pleading with Israel to rush in a new supply of arms. But Israeli intelligence sources told TIME that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office refused to help Abbas, fearing that the arms would fail to make the difference and would end up in the hands of Hamas. Western diplomats blame Olmert's government for consistently undermining Abbas, thus strengthening the Islamic militants. 'Israel has one policy with the Palestinians', this diplomat said, 'And that's 'Keep them weak'."