Friday, August 22, 2008

A Civil War in the Making in the Middle East

Analysis by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani | Inter-Press Service

CAIRO, Aug 22 - Recent weeks have seen the worst fighting between rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas since the latter’s takeover of the Gaza Strip last summer. Hamas accuses the “treasonous faction” within Fatah — which worked with U.S. military intelligence in last year’s failed bid to destroy the resistance group — of instigating the violence.

“Hamas’s accusations are understandable,” Abdelaziz Shadi, political science professor and coordinator of the Israeli studies programme at Cairo University told IPS. “Instability in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip would be in Fatah’s interests.”

In the 14 months since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in a pre-emptive coup, after winning elections in 2006, mutual animosity has been largely confined to a war of words. In recent weeks, however, the dispute between the two movements — which now head rival governments in Gaza and Ramallah — escalated into open conflict.

On Jul. 25, a bomb went off on a crowded beach in the Gaza Strip, killing five major figures in Hamas’s military wing and a six-year-old girl. Hamas, currently party to a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian resistance factions, accused elements of Fatah of carrying out the attack.

Despite official denials by Fatah, Hamas security forces in Gaza carried out a territory-wide campaign of arrests of Fatah personnel suspected of involvement. Fatah retaliated in the West Bank by detaining scores of Hamas-affiliated activists, along with a number of civic leaders not associated with the resistance group.

After human rights groups condemned the arrests — in both territories — as “politically-motivated”, the majority of detainees from both sides were soon released.

Fatah is usually described by the western media as “moderate” because it supports negotiations with Israel, held regularly since last November’s Annapolis summit in the U.S. Hamas, meanwhile, often described as “extremist”, maintains a policy of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, noting that negotiations have so far failed to achieve a single breakthrough worth mentioning.

The inter-Palestinian rivalry took a drastic turn for the worse on Aug. 2, when fighting erupted between Hamas security forces and members of the prominent Helles clan in Gaza City’s al-Shejaeya district. According to Hamas security officials, certain pro-Fatah members of the clan were suspected of involvement in the Jul. 25 beach bombing.

After a 48-hour-long battle that left 11 dead and much of the neighbourhood in ruins, Hamas security personnel reportedly detained dozens of Helles members for questioning. In an unprecedented development, an estimated 180 clan members — fleeing Hamas security forces — sought refuge in Israel.

“The situation has become so grave that partisans of Fatah actually fled to Israel for protection,” said Shadi.

Following an appeal by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli authorities eventually took in the Fatah men — but not before making them undress before television cameras.

“Israel publicly humiliated its own agents,” Magdi Hussein, political analyst and secretary-general of Egypt’s frozen Labour Party, told IPS. He described the episode as “more proof that cooperation with Israel can only lead to degradation and loss.”

The Helles members were later reportedly transported through Israel before being permitted to enter the Fatah-run West Bank.

According to local analysts, Hamas’s claims of Fatah complicity in attempts to destabilise Gaza are not easily dismissed.

“Hamas’s accusations are not without foundation,” Hussein said. “When news of the beach blast was initially broadcast on PA television in Ramallah, it was accompanied by triumphant music and patriotic anthems as if it were a victory.”

Continued . . .

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