It was a bloody weekend of confrontation between Hamas and Fatah, in which 11 people were killed and more than 90 — including 12 children — were wounded in the Shujaiyyah neighbourhood, east of Gaza City, bringing back the scenes of horror thousands of Gazans are already used to experience. Except this time the blood couldn’t be blamed on Israelis.
Fear was in the air: shops were closed and few people dared to out and pass through the checkpoints Hamas security forces established around the region.
The escalation proves once again that the word “fracture” is not strong enough to describe the Palestinian political situation. In a dual-world Palestine divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, there are different problems, different priorities, different governments and a deep divergence on the latest crisis.
Despite Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority efforts to keep business as usual, officials and observers fear the Gaza clashes could quickly spread to the West Bank and expose the ruling party’s internal divisions.
In Gaza, however, some analysts believe the Hamas military operation is being inflated by the foreign media and the instability is not as bad as it seems.
It was bad enough for more than 180 Palestinians — presumably Fatah members — who escaped the Strip and fled to Israel, following a special request from Fatah president Mahmoud Abbas to allow them to enter Israeli territory.
They had good reason to want to flee. Anyone taken prisoner by Hamas can expect harsh hospitality and a severe violation of human rights — and it’s not much better in the West Bank for Hamas activists. Last week, two human rights groups found that both groups have tortured prisoners, and that three prisoners have died in detention in Gaza and one in the West Bank.
What made this weekend’s conflict different was that it transcended the level of politics into something resembling a mafia family struggle. The battle began on Saturday, when Hamas militants stormed Gaza City searching for members of the Hilles clan, one of the biggest and most influential of Gaza’s families, known for its traditional support for the secularists from Fatah.
According to Hamas sources, the family was behind the explosion of a car bomb that killed six militants last week near the beach. The Hilles claim they have no connection to the bombing and accuse the Islamists of using the incident to bring down their powerful and wealthy clan. The family patriarch, Ahmad Hilles, has already threatened that Hamas will pay for the blood spilt — which could lead to a newly-escalated conflict in the region.
Gaza journalist Sameh Akram Habeeb, who witnessed the weekend violence, told PJM that the clashes and the fleeing Fatah members represent the “grande finale” of the Hamas coup when it took power a year ago.
“The neighborhood is under siege and Hamas is still hunting for suspects, which makes the atmosphere really tense, despite the illusion of calm. Everything can change at any time. The Hilles were Fatah’s last bastion of support in Gaza and Hamas has been hunting them for a long time. They are not only a big family, but they have many affiliates in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other military organizations with arms, a lot of ammunition and close contacts to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Hamas claims that these people must be brought to justice, but many innocent civilians have paid the price of this confrontation with their lives.”
Dr. Hussam Adwan, a political analyst and president of Gaza’s University Teachers Society, tried to minimize the clashes, saying there is no reason for any concern for possible civil war in the Gaza Strip. There is still hope that both parties can overcome the differences and reach the path of national reconciliation, he said. “What happened this weekend is not a big issue, just a small security operation. Palestinians from both sides already understand there are no winners in this fight, only losers. Both Hamas and Fatah must apologize to the whole Palestinian people as these clashes are in vain. We must act now to ask for the intervention of the Arab League: we lack mediation in the model the one was successful in Lebanon. The only problem is the Arab League cannot act due to American and Israeli pressures. The Americans do not want to see Mahmoud Abbas talking to Hamas, but if Abbas is wise, he is going to do it as soon as possible. We need a taadiah (cease-fire) in order to move forward. Otherwise, I can foresee another serious political combat in January 2009, when his mandate is due to come to an end.”
Despite all the attempts to predict what will happen next, it is still unclear exactly how serious this last chapter in Gaza’s unfortunate history will turn out to be.
Major media outlets seem to have missed a vital point of this conflict: tension now is definitely moving towards the West Bank and exposing a well-hidden crisis in Ramallah. After many months of speculation, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad gave the first public signs that their relationship might be heading for a crisis.
After asking Israel to allow Gaza’s refugees to the West Bank, they revoked the decision and Israel is already sending these Palestinians back home. Earlier, Nimer Hamad, a political adviser to Abbas, said anyone wanted by Hamas would be allowed to stay in the West Bank for their safety. However, Fayyad has since pointed out that allowing the men to stay would mean handing Hamas another victory in the Gaza Strip by eliminating Fatah’s last opposition force. The final decision as to whether to grant them asylum in the West Bank seems to change from hour to hour.
In Ramallah, Abbas called for an international boycott of Hamas. Four years after Yasser Arafat’s death, the Fatah movement seems to be paralyzed. Its members barely overcame the leadership loss and cannot overcome internal disagreements. The factional conflicts inside Fatah worries many of its veteran members.
Former Deputy Foreign Minister, Ahmad Soboh, the party is in urgent need of renovation and constitutional reformulation. “The last national Fatah meeting was in 1989 in Tunis. Since then, we haven’t updated our platforms nor discussed our aims. Nowadays we even don’t know how many affiliates we really have. We started recounting our affiliations and never succeeded in finish the process for many reasons, from the inability of reaching far villages due to the occupation to the national political split. We must work to elect 21 members for the central committee and establish law and order.”
With tensions reaching new heights, it seems the Palestinians can only hope for a peaceful solution to the political impasse.
Otherwise, the third Intifada might definitely be on its way, as another former senior Arafat aide predicted. “This one won’t be a Palestinian Intifada against Israel, nor a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, but a military or popular coup to topple the Palestinian Authority and restore the entire nation’s political structure. Palestinians are getting fed up with a a fake administration, totally unable of presenting any solution, nor any alternative for a different future.”