Saturday, July 23, 2005
by Ghazi Hamad
On July 14, Palestinian security forces opened fire at a group Hamas members on their way back from firing mortars at the southern Israeli town of Sderot.The mortars had been launched, according to Hamas, in reaction toIsraeli incursions into the West Bank on July 13 and 14 that had lefttwo dead - one a Palestinian Authority police man in Tulkarm and one an Islamic Jihad leader in Nablus - seriously wounded a second policeman and saw the arrests of a dozen members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas. TheIsraeli incursions came after a suicide bombing in Netanya, claimed byIslamic Jihad, killed five Israelis.The PA acted after one the mortar attacks on July 14 - one claimed bythe Fateh-affiliated Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, however, and not Hamas -killed an Israeli woman. Five Hamas members were wounded in theconfrontation, and Hamas immediately made clear it would not refrainfrom responding. Later that night, Hamas members attacked the headquarters of the national security services in Gaza City, and on July15, a gunfight between PA forces and Hamas members in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, resulted in the killing of two teenage bystanders and injuries to dozens on either side. Hamas rebuffed the PAforces and set fire to an armored personnel car.To muddy matters further, the Israeli army revived its assassination policy and killed seven Hamas fighters, in addition to bombing numerouslocations in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on July 16 threatened a full-scale invasion of the Strip and amassed troops on theborders of the Strip. On July 19, after several further skirmishes and injuries, leaders ofHamas and PA officials announced they had reached an agreement, after days-long Egyptian mediation, to end hostilities, but early on July 20 clashes continued, even if they were quickly quelled.
Relations between Hamas and the PA have not been this fraught in years. No one expected the tension between Hamas and the PA to reach such acritical point so quickly. In the past few years, mutual conflict has been limited to recriminatory statements. It is not completely surprising though either. Hamas has accused Fateh,the dominant party in the PA, of delaying PLC elections purposefully until it has a better popular standing. For its part, the PA has consistently warned Hamas and others against taking the law into their own hands and endangering the five-month-old truce President Mahmoud Abbas agreed with Sharon in February and subsequently with the factions in Cairo in March. Analysts and observers have been cautioning against confrontation, but it seems the "red line" that everyone warned about was crossed.Throughout the tensions, both the PA and Hamas repeatedly stressed that neither party was interested in civil war. Hamas released a statement saying that "what happened in Gaza is not a war on the PA, nor is it an attempt to put it out of power". On behalf of the PA, Prime MinisterAhmad Qrei' said, "We are not in competition with anyone. ... But if we don't increase our efforts to empower the PA then there is no place for it and the alternative is the Israeli occupation".
Writer Hani Habib argues there is an unacceptable contradictory point ofview in the PA. "The Authority has lost many opportunities in the past days and weeks to restore authority to its police and security forces by not acting against militia attacks, robberies, and the general state of lawlessness. [Now that they acted] people are leaning toward the idea that the PA does not serve to fight corruption, but rather to confront the resistance. Hamas took advantage of this perception on a large scale."However, political analyst Ashraf Al Ajrami sees the matter differently. He believes the ball is in Hamas' court: "The latest troubles are not based on resisting the occupation nor are they confined to the shooting of rockets at Israeli targets. Rather, it is truly a conflict over authority and the control of the Palestinian streets".Whatever their viewpoints, common to all analyses is the notion that the friction arises from the current binary authority that was effectively established with the degradation of the PA's reputation and influence and the growth of power and popularity that Hamas has enjoyed in the past years. In his July 16 speech, Abbas was quick to emphasize the PA's commitment to the truce and preventing the shooting of mortars and not to allow violations by either Palestinian factions or Israel. Leaders in the PA accused Hamas of "looking to start a riot," and the interior ministry confirmed in an official statement that, "We will not stand before these destructive and irrational methods with our hands tied". The PA promised to fight with all possible legal means to "protect national security". Hamas, for its part, accused Interior Minister Nasser Yousef of issuing orders to shoot at anyone who tries to fire rockets into Israel. The group demanded in a July 17 statement the resignation of Yousef, because"he is going to bring trouble to the PA and the Palestinian people". It is the long term issues of elections and authority that need to besettled, however. It is apparent that all the simmering conflicts between Hamas and the PA have been restrained during the "period of calm". But while Hamas and the PA have both announced their commitment to preserving the calm, it seems Hamas has a different understanding of how this should be maintained. As they declared in one statement, "the agreement to a truce that was given in Cairo was not given to protectIsraeli blood but instead to protect Palestinian blood. And the day thatPalestinian blood thins there will be no protection for Zionist blood.This period of calm is not a sign of weakness or cowardliness".This leaves the PA with a massive headache over how to prevent the factions from responding to Israeli aggression. And as a result it leaves people wary."People here are afraid that the riots are going to continue every now and then. This time it passed with a small number of victims but who can guarantee that matters don't become worse in the future. This is a prospect that scares the Palestinian citizen and confuses him greatly since he has no answer to the many questions he is already faced with,"observes Ajrami. - Published 20/7/05(c) Palestine Report