Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Analysis: Fatah, Hamas face internal divisions

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem - The Israeli assault on Gaza has deepened the tensions between Hamas and the ruling Fatah party of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. But the attack also has revealed fractures within each party, divisions that complicate efforts to negotiate a cease-fire.

On Monday, Hamas' political leadership in Damascus, Syria, dispatched delegates to talks in Cairo - even as its leaders in Gaza goaded Israeli forces deeper into their territory and vowed victory and vengeance.

Inside Fatah, Abbas headed for the U.N. Security Council to urge a cease-fire resolution - even as his likely replacement, imprisoned Fatah firebrand Marwan Barghouti, urged Palestinians to join Hamas in its resistance.

Some observers believe that the military assault will make Hamas more amenable to a long-term cease-fire while a weakened Fatah will have no choice but to accept a peace deal more favorable to Israel.

The hatred between Fatah and Hamas boiled over as the first Israeli jets began their bombardment of Gaza on Dec. 27. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called for a "third intifada" - a military one against the Israeli occupation and a peaceful one to overthrow Fatah in the West Bank. Hamas leaders branded Abbas a "collaborator" and accused him of feeding intelligence to the Israeli army.

Abbas hit back by blaming Hamas for inviting the Israeli assault by unilaterally ending a fragile six-month cease-fire.

"We have warned of this grave danger," Abbas said last week. "We talked to them and we told them, 'Please, we ask you, do not end the truce. Let the truce continue and not stop.' "

Many West Bank Palestinians, while still hating Israel, have developed a special loathing for Hamas. They recall the 400 Fatah supporters murdered in Hamas' bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip in summer 2007. At a rehabilitation center in Ramallah, dozens of young men are trying to rebuild their lives after being brutally tortured and maimed by Hamas fighters.

But the Fatah distaste for Hamas has been tempered by the scenes from Gaza. While Abbas has denounced Israel's "barbaric aggression" and called for a cease-fire, increasing numbers of Fatah leaders have broken ranks and given their support to Hamas. Barghouti - Abbas' most likely replacement as president when his term expires on Friday - on Sunday threw his considerable moral weight behind Hamas.

"Fatah and its men are an integral part of this battle and in confronting the aggression," Barghouti said in a message from an Israeli prison where he is serving five life terms for murder arising from terror attacks during the recent intifada.

Barghouti urged all Palestinian factions to put aside their differences and unite in resisting the Israelis in Gaza.

"The Israeli aggression is directed against all the Palestinians and their cause," he said. "This is the time to join forces in combatting the Israeli occupation."

Ziyad Abu Ein, the Fatah deputy minister of prisoners' affairs, called on Hamas to return all the weapons they seized in the June 2007 Gaza coup so Fatah supporters - including U.S.-trained security personnel - could join the fight. "We have over 70,000 men in Gaza, including the former security forces, who can help repel the Israeli aggression," he said.

Mohammad Yaghi, a fellow of the Washington Institute focusing on Palestinian politics, said Hamas "seeks to drive a wedge into an already divided Fatah. It has urged Fatah radicals to join the battle against Israel, insisting that its problems with Fatah are limited to Abbas and his authority, not the general movement. Some members of Fatah are clearly sympathetic to Hamas and any confrontation with Israel."

But Hamas leaders, clearly surprised by the ferocity of the Israeli assault, have their own problems. There have been tensions for some time between the Damascus-based leadership under political chief Mashaal and the hard-line Gaza leadership headed by Mahmoud Zahar, who has long sought the replacement of Mashaal's protege, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. In late 2007, supporters of Haniyeh and Zahar clashed in the Shati refugee camp and in Dir El Balah.

Two weeks ago, Zahar pointedly rebuked Mashaal for announcing the end of the cease-fire before the move was approved by leaders in Gaza.

Internal Hamas documents published by the Haaretz newspaper in October revealed deep divisions between Gaza and Damascus over policy toward Egypt and the make-up of Hamas' secret governing shura council, where the Gazans want to increase their representation from 34 to 51 percent.

"We have certain indications that the political level of Hamas headquartered in Damascus realizes that the more the fighting goes on, the more the risk for them of losing everything they have created over 21 years of their existence," said former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, pointing to the Hamas decision to join talks in Egypt today as a sign that they were becoming weakened and split.

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