Tuesday, 12 July 2005

Hamas, Fatah face off over Gaza

With imminent Israeli pullout, Palestinian factions vying for future control over area to be evacuated

Friday, July 15, 2005


Special to The Globe and Mail

JERUSALEM -- With only six weeks left until Israel begins its unprecedented pullout from the Gaza Strip, Palestinian political factions are jockeying for position to see who can reap the most benefits.

They are also vying for physical control over the land to be evacuated -- more than 30 per cent of the Gaza Strip, including settlements, army outposts and access roads -- and, by extension, control of the entire area.

Yesterday, Hamas and soldiers of the Palestinian Authority waged fierce gun battles in northern Gaza, Reuters reported, after militants launched a rocket from the area that killed an Israeli woman.

The fighting was the worst in years among Palestinians in the occupied territory, underscoring the tough challenge Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas faces to consolidate his control in Gaza before the Israeli pullout.

Observers had already started questioning whether the security forces -- who are hand-picked for their loyalty to the mainstream Fatah grouping of Mr. Abbas -- are up to the job of controlling Gaza.

"I don't see that the Palestinian Authority has the intention or the capability to take control of the areas to be evacuated," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. State Department official with special responsibility for Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

Politically and militarily, the main rival to Fatah is the Hamas Islamic Resistance Movement, which appears to be partly shedding its terrorist past in favour of a new-found political pragmatism.

Hamas is now poised to play a major role in the government of the Gaza Strip after the Israeli pullout, a period which many observers see as a test of whether the Palestinians can run their own affairs in an area free of Israeli occupation.

The Palestinian leadership and Hamas are locked in a complex political dance over whether and how to share power in post-occupation Gaza, and what implications such an arrangement might have for the future of Palestinian politics.

Hamas has proposed the establishment of a "national-Islamic committee" to run Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority has invited Hamas and other factions to join the existing administration. Each side has rejected the other's proposal, for fear of ending up as the junior partner.

For decades, Fatah has been the dominant force in Palestinian politics. Recent surveys by leading pollster Khalil Shikaki suggest they would still romp home with 44 per cent of the vote if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow.

But Hamas, which has boycotted previous elections because it rejects the recognition of Israel implicit in the Oslo accords, took a strategic decision this year to enter politics, emerging as a potent political opposition.

Mr. Shikaki predicts Hamas would win 33 per cent in parliamentary elections.

In recent municipal elections Hamas won about 50 per cent of the vote in Gaza, while Fatah remained dominant in the West Bank.

The growing popularity of Hamas poses a potential threat to the traditional hegemony of Fatah, and also presents Israel and the international community with the dilemma of how to talk to a group that remains committed to the destruction of Israel and the perpetration of suicide-bomb attacks against civilians.

"The call [for coalition] is a result of a crisis within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority," said Ghazi Hamad, head of the Islamic Salvation Party and editor of the pro-Hamas weekly Al-Risala.

"I think Hamas will be very wary about getting involved, as they have no interest in solving Fatah's problems. Hamas does not want to be pushed into a government which is facing a crisis and which has problems."

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