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Palestine: Hamas, Fatah and Civil War

A detailed look at the situation in June 2006, the tentions and the hidden story that shapes Palestinian policy. This is largely ignored by the general media, and particularly the UK media who strongly support Palestinain government by seem to find the actual details not worth report.
- 25/6/06 ZOTW

Will There Be a Palestinian Civil War?

By Pinhas Inbari, Jerusalem Issue Brief Vol. 5, No. 27 on 25 June 2006
Source: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

The Prisoners Document

The June 25 Palestinian attack from the Gaza Strip on an IDF military post inside Israel, and the accompanying escalation of fighting between the two sides, is directly connected to the Hamas-Fatah struggle over the "Prisoners Document," which may be put to a Palestinian referendum. The core of that document calls for the unification of all armed factions to carry out joint operations against Israel. What remains in dispute is who exactly will lead the new unified front. Essentially, Hamas' Khaled Mashaal is telling Fatah that it will not determine for the Palestinians how to conduct the "resistance."

The Palestinian legislative elections on January 25, 2006, that brought Hamas to power have created an acute, two-fold crisis in the Palestinian Authority: economic and constitutional. Due to the holding back of international aid, the Hamas-led government has had difficulty paying the salaries of its 160,000 employees, who form the backbone of the Palestinian economy. At the same time, there is a constitutional crisis over the distribution of authority between PA Chairman Mahmud Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, both of whom were elected to lead the Palestinians.

The dispute over authority has exposed the PA to the danger of civil war, which has sharpened since Abbas called for a national referendum to approve the Prisoners Document formulated by imprisoned Fatah-Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti. Abbas hopes its adoption will enable the Hamas-led government to meet the international requirements necessary to allow the resumption of international aid. However, this document neither recognizes Israel in a straightforward way, nor calls for an end to terror. It calls for accepting the PLO as a roof organization for all factions and for the adoption of its past resolutions, thus implying the recognition of Israel based on the PLO's previous statements of recognition.

With regard to terror, the document calls for uniting all factions under a unified command to continue the "resistance" inside the territories and accepts the establishment of a Palestinian state inside those territories, but without renouncing the fundamental Palestinian right of return to areas inside Israel.

All Hamas leaders, including Prime Minister Haniyeh, have made it clear that they reject the document. This rejection may be seen clearly on Hamas websites, although Haniyeh says Hamas is "studying the document in order to change it." Haniyeh has also questioned whether Abbas has the constitutional authority to declare a referendum.

In another Fatah-Hamas showdown over authority, Hamas Interior Minister Said Siyam, who is responsible for security, deployed an armed force in the streets of Gaza. When Abbas ordered the disbanding of this force, the Hamas government ignored him.

Both Abbas and Haniyeh have repeatedly declared that "civil war is not in our vocabulary." Moreover, when I asked Abbas on the eve of the legislative elections why he had decided to allow them, knowing that this might lead to the rise of Hamas to power, he replied: "for the sake of Palestinian unity." That is to say, Abbas believed it was necessary to risk the continuation of Fatah rule in order to avoid an Algerian-style civil war, and Haniyeh thanked Abbas for this position.

Fatah sources have said that the referendum initiative was designed not to lead to a major conflict with Hamas but rather to offer Haniyeh a ladder with which to climb down from the current stalemate. However, the sources added that Abbas did not properly calculate the veto power of Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas' Damascus-based political bureau.

Alternative Scenarios

Haniyeh himself has raised another scenario: not a civil war, but the dismantling of the PA, which could threaten the stability of the whole region. Israeli security sources are indeed concerned for the future of the PA as a functioning system, and they are discussing ideas on how to transfer more responsibilities regarding the Palestinians to international organizations.

Abbas does not mention the possibility of dismantling the PA, but during his May European tour he threatened to disperse the government and call for new elections. Haniyeh, however, has said that there was no need to return to the voters only a few months after the last elections, in which all the programs were presented to the people. On a different occasion Haniyeh threatened to "turn the tables" if his government collapses. So calling for early elections could well lead not to new elections but to the collapse of the PA. In such a case, Hamas would end its period of "calm" with Israel. Thus, instead of internal civil war, full-scale fighting against Israel could erupt that unites all the Palestinian factions.

Another possible outcome could be a split between a Hamas-led government in Gaza and a Fatah-led government in the West Bank. Fatah sources have said Abbas was considering holding the referendum only in the West Bank.

Fatah's Post-Election Plans

Fatah-Tanzim leaders close to Barghouti had stated their plans on the eve of the parliamentary elections. They had assumed that Fatah would win by a small margin and had intended to propose to Hamas to join forces in a new command structure for the fight against Israel, ending the current situation in which Hamas and the PLO were launching separate military campaigns. This new joint campaign was to be limited to the territories and have as its target the toppling of Israel's security fence. In this way, they were hoping to disconnect the Palestinian "legitimate resistance" from al-Qaeda-style terror, and this is reflected in the Prisoners Document now under dispute by Hamas and Fatah.

Internal Struggles Inside Hamas

The chairman of Hamas' Damascus-based political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, views Hamas as in the Iranian-Syrian orbit, while Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Gaza identifies his government as part of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement. However, both view Hamas as affiliated with outside power centers. Haniyeh is also limiting his horizons to the PA, while Mashaal has a broader vision of the global spread of Islam. While Mashaal declared that the Hamas electoral victory was the beginning of a Muslim takeover of Europe, Haniyeh restricted his narrative to the borders of Palestine.

According to senior Fatah sources, Mashaal had rejected the very idea of Hamas running in the elections. Once they were held and the Hamas-run government began to sink into difficulties, Mashaal tried to create a mood inside Hamas to have it abandon the idea of running a government, as something that had occurred "too early," and to return to "clandestine resistance." According to these sources, the main problem for Haniyeh is that Mashaal maintains direct command of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, and this limits Haniyeh's ability to confront Mashaal.

Hence, while in the dispute over the Prisoners Document Haniyeh has tried to soften his non-acceptance in ways that leave the door open for the continuation of contacts with Abbas, Mashaal expressed his total rejection right away. By the end of June, Mashaal had softened his tone, but one can suspect the sincerity of this change.

Israeli security sources say Haniyeh has demanded that Mashaal help him calm the tensions. Yet both senior Fatah sources and Israeli security sources believe that at the end of the day Mashaal will impose his will on Haniyeh against any compromise with Abbas on any subject, and especially over the referendum. Fatah sources said that before Abbas launched his referendum initiative, he told Haniyeh that once he "distances" himself from Mashaal, Fatah will protect him against the Qassam Brigades. In other words, Abbas encouraged Haniyeh to split Hamas; Haniyeh ignored the offer.

Internal Struggles Inside Fatah

In Fatah, there is a similar internal struggle, though it is much less acute, given the fact that, unlike Hamas, much of the "outside" leadership arrived in the PA territories after the Oslo agreements. However, there were hardliners that rejected the Oslo agreements and stayed behind in Tunis under the leadership of the head of the Fatah movement, Farouq Qaddumi. Like Mashaal, Qaddumi is linked to the Syrian-Iranian orbit. He openly rejected the parliamentary elections, and after they were held he declared that the new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was subject to the PLO parliament-in-exile - the Palestinian National Committee (PNC). In the current crisis, Qaddumi supports Hamas' stand of not recognizing Israel. However, unlike the situation in Hamas, the Fatah leadership in the PA is prevailing over the outside leadership since the bulk of that leadership is now in Ramallah.

Nevertheless, differences inside Fatah can play a role in deciding whether the Palestinians will move toward civil war. Once they arrived in Ramallah, the former Tunis leadership developed a dislike for the younger local leadership led by Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, and Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, commanders of the newly established Preventive Security forces. The fact that the Prisoners Document was produced by Barghouti - the bitter enemy of the old Tunis echelons - created tensions inside Fatah between the Old Guard and Abbas, whom they suspected of secretly nurturing the Young Guard at their expense. While the Old Guard of Fatah did not easily accept the loss of power to Hamas, and urged the hesitant Abbas to take action, the advent of Barghouti as the one who is controlling the development of events has led the Old Guard to limit their support of Abbas' initiative. While Abbas has so far proved reluctant to initiate a confrontation with Hamas, it is of crucial importance for him to ensure the backing of his fellow Fatah colleagues.

The Hamas Conspiracy Against Jordan

Support for Abbas in a showdown with Hamas could come from the alarmed Arab governments that feel threatened by the rise of Hamas in the PA, and especially Jordan, which uncovered several attempts by Hamas in Syria to operate inside Jordan. The capture by Israel of Ibrahim Hamed, the military commander of Hamas in the West Bank, led to the exposure of far-reaching plans by Hamas to attack Jordan from the West Bank, according to directives coming from Mashaal in Damascus and backed by Tehran.

Abbas expressed "shock" when first informed in Amman of the details and scope of the Hamas conspiracy against Jordan, and this may have been a turning point in his stance toward Hamas. He has again raised the possibility of dispersing the Hamas government and calling for new elections, has accelerated the establishment of a new militia in Gaza to counter Hamas' new force, and has ordered the formation of a new militia in the West Bank as well.

Abbas' New West Bank Militia: Aimed at Hamas or Israel?

At the same time, Abbas may also be building a military force to confront Israel in the territories in line with the stated intentions of the Prisoners Document. Fatah PLO member Yasser Qaraqe' said that Hamas should not reject the document as it does not recognize Israel. Abbas advisor Ahmad Abd a-Rahman told Al-Jazeera on June 9 that the document seeks only to strengthen the Palestinian position inside the territories. Fatah senior officials have tried to convince Hamas that once "legitimate resistance" inside the territories is recognized, then "let's see what happens."

Serious doubts about the possible outcome of the Prisoners Document increased with the nomination of wanted terrorist Mahmud Damra (Abu Awad) as the commander of Fatah's Force 17 in the West Bank. Dimra's connections with Hizballah and Iran raise the question of whether this opened up an opportunity for Iran to penetrate Abbas' new force, and whether this force is meant to confront Hamas - or Israel - as specified in the Prisoners Document.

A "Lull" Means Rocket Fire at Israel

Despite the tempting incentives for Hamas to adopt the document, they have so far rejected it, not only because it is written in Fatah terminology and imposes on Hamas the authority of the secular PLO, but also because it demands that Hamas stop supporting the launching of missiles into Israel. This is the distinction between a "tahdiya" (lull) and a "hudna" (ceasefire or armistice). While a tahdiya is perceived as limiting the "resistance" to the launching of missiles at Israel while stopping terror attacks inside Israel, a hudna means a complete cessation of violence. Haniyeh even spoke of a hudna in terms of "an end of conflict."

Studying the course of the dialogue launched by the Palestinian factions to avoid a civil war, one can hardly conclude that Hamas was convinced by Fatah's arguments. Abbas advisor Ahmad Abd a-Rahman wrote in Al-Ayyam on June 10 of the unbridgeable division that was uncovered during the dialogue. Hamas flatly rejects the fundamental Fatah worldview including the basic asset of PLO diplomacy - international legitimacy. Hamas also rejected the Arab League and Saudi initiatives. Furthermore, Hamas is willing to recognize the PLO as the Palestinian roof organization only on condition that far-reaching reforms be adopted that will result in Hamas becoming the leading force in that body. Hence, the dialogue has served to expose the inherent differences between Hamas and Fatah.

Notably, Abd a-Rahman also discerned conflicts between the West Bank Hamas and the Gaza-based Hamas. While the West Bankers appear to be closer to Fatah's point of view, the Gazans blocked them from reaching an agreement. Hamas forced Abbas to move the dialogue to Gaza due to its distrust of the Hamas leadership in the West Bank.

What Will Happen Now?

Overall, there appears to be a strong possibility of a major eruption that might topple the PA, either through civil war or a renewal of fighting with Israel, the drying up of Palestinian financial resources, or all combined. Aware of this potential, Abbas and Haniyeh share a common interest in avoiding civil war.

Mashaal and Qaddumi are loosely aligned to prevail over the local leadership and are linked with the Iranian-Syrian orbit. They are both interested in the collapse of the PA. Mashaal is prevailing over Haniyeh, while Abbas is prevailing over Qaddumi.

The main problem inside Fatah is between Abbas and the Old Guard. They first criticized him for delivering the PA to Hamas rule, then for his hesitance to disperse them, and now for his apparent link-up with Barghouti and the Fatah warlords.

Mashaal, on the one hand, and the Fatah warlords, on the other, are pushing in the direction of a collision, and are now engaged in a major military build-up for D-Day. At the same time, Haniyeh and Abbas are still committed to internal calm. Despite the current low-scale conflict between Fatah and Hamas that is claiming lives in Gaza every day, the two leaders are trying their utmost to prevent a major showdown.

Other scenarios can also materialize, including the complete and final collapse of the PA, or a split between Gaza, that will remain under Hamas rule, and the West Bank, that will return to Fatah rule.

While there is no reason to suspect Abbas' rejection of a renewed armed conflict with Israel, his build-up of a new militia based on Force 17 personnel who are in contact with Hizballah does raise concerns.

*     *     *

Pinchas Inbari is a veteran Palestinian affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper, and currently reports for several foreign media outlets. He is the author of a number of books on the Palestinians including The Palestinians: Between Terror and Statehood.

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