Copyrighted material


by Peter Hirschberg

on Palestine Split Apart

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Khaled Mashaal sounded anxious. Almost panic-stricken. The exiled Hamas leader insisted his Islamic movement had no intention of taking over the Palestinian Authority, that they recognized Mahmoud Abbas as their President, and that they wanted to work with his Fatah movement.

Mashaal's comments came in the wake of Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, during which dozens of militants from the more moderate Fatah -- and some members of their families -- were killed by the Islamic movement's militiamen, some of them execution style.

The Damascus-based Hamas leader appeared to be having a reality check: now that his organization was solely in charge in Gaza, they were fully responsible for the 1.2 million residents there.

Governing, he realized, would not be simple, especially without Abbas and Fatah, who were already being courted by the international community as the desirable, moderate partner on the Palestinian side. The U.S. and the EU also subsequently announced the renewal of financial aid to Abbas and to the Fatah-led West Bank government, but not to the Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Hence the conciliatory comments toward Fatah, which had been part of a Hamas-led national unity government until the Gaza mayhem. For now, with Fatah leaders in the West Bank still smarting over the Gaza takeover and the bloodletting, a renewal of talks between the two movements is not on the horizon. They will have also been stung by Hamas taunts, during the Gaza assault, that they are collaborators with Israel.

Abbas has responded by declaring a state of emergency, disbanding the Hamas-led unity government and setting up an alternative emergency government in its stead. Hamas, which trounced Fatah in parliamentary elections in January 2006, has refused to accept Abbas' decree, arguing it lacks legitimacy.

Earlier this week, Abbas referred to Hamas as "murderous terrorists" and accused the Islamic movement of undermining Palestinian aspirations for independence.

"It's a fight between the national project and this small kingdom they want to establish in Gaza, the kingdom of Gaza, between those who are using assassination and killing to achieve their goals, and those who are using the rules of law," he said, in his first public speech since the Hamas takeover of Gaza.

The Palestinian leader accused Hamas of trying to assassinate him by setting off explosives under his car. His office released a videotape which it said showed Hamas militants in a tunnel in Gaza City about to plant an explosive device as part of a plan to kill the Palestinian President. Abbas' security forces have also been cracking down on Hamas members in the West Bank, raiding their institutions and detaining them.

"The coup seekers," he continued, "through their madness have given a golden opportunity to those who want to separate Gaza from the West Bank."

Hamas will be desperate to prove it can govern effectively and that Gaza will not remain an impoverished, resource-starved prison whose residents have been shorn of all hope for a better life.

It will first have to improve its image in the international community. This explains why one of its first moves has been to focus on securing the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped in Gaza earlier this year and is still being held captive.

"If they can get Alan Johnston released it will be a way to show they can deliver for the international community," says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), an East Jerusalem-based think tank.

Abdul-Hadi told IPS that Hamas would have to "reconstitute contact" with Fatah and would have to "show respect" for Abbas' leadership. "They don't want to be the ones taking the responsibility for dividing the Palestinian people and killing the idea of a Palestinian state," he explains.

Hamas has released Fatah members it had detained in Gaza and has tried to issue soothing messages, telling Fatah supporters in the strip that they will not be harmed. But Abdul-Hadi says that Arab states like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will have to be intensely involved in mediating between Hamas and Fatah. "They will have to be more than just go-betweens," he says.

He also suggests that Hamas "water down their euphoria. They will have to assure people they are not creating political Islam in Gaza."

But the onus is not on Hamas alone. Abbas will also have to deliver in some key areas. First, he will have to ensure that the violence in Gaza does not spread to the West Bank.

Abdul-Hadi says the Palestinian leader will also have to "fulfil his commitment to deliver for show that the Palestinians are one people. And to ensure Gaza is not isolated."

With Gaza controlled by Hamas and with Israel and the U.S. intent on keeping the coastal strip isolated, that would seem like an impossible mission. But Abdul-Hadi believes it can be done -- "not by a leader, but by a hero. Abbas has to show a visible presence in Gaza. He needs to be visible on Gaza soil. I want to see a hero who is willing to sacrifice. Otherwise the split (between the West Bank and Gaza) could remain in place for a long time."

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Albion Monitor   June 21, 2007   (

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