High Noon in Gaza!

Fighting between fractions from Palestinian Hamas and those from the Fatah movement has reached a bloody climax in the Gaza strip. Christian Sterzing, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation branch office in Ramallah, reports with an appraisal of the situation

It is said that after the suicide attack in Eilat some Palestinians have placed their hopes on another Israeli invasion in the Gaza strip as a way to end the deadly internal clashes between armed Fatah and Hamas fractions.

This "anecdote" – whether true or not – underscores the despair of many Palestinians over the latest escalation of the inter-Palestinian fratricidal war, which has recently taken the lives of 34 people, including 5 children.

After the bloody weekend a (tense) calm has again returned to Gaza – without an Israeli invasion. Representatives of the Islamic Jihad (!), which together with two other Palestinian militant groups claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb attack in Eilat, successfully negotiated a ceasefire between Fatah and Hamas.

The clashes, which started on the Palestinian “Black Friday” and left 14 dead, were of a hitherto unimagined ferocity, especially between Fatah-affiliated forces, the Preventive Security Forces (PSF), led by Mohammed Dahlan and the Hamas-affiliated Special Executive Forces (SEF)under the command of Interior Minister Siad Siam.

Hope for a unity government

Hopes now rest on resuming power-sharing talks over forming a Palestinian national unity government, which were scheduled to end 14 days after President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal met last week.

Also increasing pressure for reconciliation is the invitation extended to both parties by the Saudi king to hold talks in Mecca. But after the insistent, but largely ineffective Egyptian efforts to mediate between the hostile fractions, the positive response of Hamas and Fatah to this invitation does not necessarily signalize a new readiness to compromise: It is simply not so easy to reject such an invitation to the holy city of Mecca!

The disputes between the Palestinian rivals persist. At present they are less about the fundamental questions of the strategic orientation of Palestinian policy vis-à-vis Israel for ending the occupation and the response to the three conditions set by the Middle East Quartet.

In recent weeks the conflict has focused on the “New Order of Security Forces.” While President Mahmoud Abbas has ordered the dissolution of the Hamas-affiliated Special Executive Forces (SEF), Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has called for subordinating all armed forces under the aegis of the Ministry of the Interior.

Bloody duel

Especially in the Gaza strip the inter-Palestinian conflict has thus increasingly taken the form of a bloody duel between the new strong man in Fatah, Mohammed Dahlan, on the one hand, and Palestinian Interior Minister Siad Siam, on the other: High noon in Gaza!

Many political observers are currently at a loss over how this power struggle can be peacefully resolved, even if most of the checkpoints of the armed groups in the Gaza strip have been dismantled, and no abductions or assassinations of high-ranking party functionaries and their families have been reported.

The repeated threats of President Mahmoud Abbas to call new elections has not helped to ease the situation. On the one hand, Hamas feels deprived of the fruits of its election victory in January 2006, has called the threatened presidential decree a “coup,” and threatens to boycott these elections, which would turn them into a farce.

On the other hand, an early call for new elections is probably irreconcilable with Palestinian Basic Law. Even Fatah is restrained in its support for Abba’s proclamation, especially as its internal party reform process has yet to yield any significant progress.

The threat of new elections is intended to put more pressure on the fractions to resume negotiation talks over forming a unity government. Many see this as only chance to prevent a civil war.

Difficult negotiations

But Hamas has survived this autumn’s period of weakness. With the failure of the financial boycott by the West, Hamas’ obvious military strength in the Gaza strip, and opinion surveys, which indicate that Hamas has suffered no major loss of popularity despite its difficult economic and social situation, Haniyeh feels his hand has been strengthened: There is no reason to capitulate. Thus, negotiation talks will prove to be extremely difficult.

Only a pacification of the internal fighting and an end to international isolation will legitimize negotiations over a unity government. Even if talks lead to a “Government of National Unity” as a result of internal and external pressure, it is to be feared that this government will hardly be capable of acting.

So far the compromise formulas devised to overcome the deep-seated political differences and inter-Palestinian rivalries are much too thin. Thus even a new government will at best only be able to provide a respite in the inter-Palestinian fighting.

Christian Sterzing

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce


Ceasefire in the Middle East
Signs of Attrition
The Gaza Strip remains under siege. With Hamas and Fatah apparently incapable of compromise, it's likely that the current ceasefire in the Middle East will not withstand the next storm. A commentary by Christian Sterzing

Dealing with Hamas
The Islamists' Dilemma
Hamas's Catch-22 situation, caught between massive international pressure and its domestic commitments, seems almost insoluble. Will the organisation stop being a radical resistance movement and become a political party? Helga Baumgarten takes a critical look

The Women of Hamas
"Islam Protects Us"
The burgeoning fundamentalist religious forces have not only radicalized the conflict between Israel and Palestine. A new generation of Palestinian women is also increasingly looking to the Islamists for salvation. Kai Adler reports