The latest confrontation between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip has deepened the chasm separating the two largest Palestinian political movements.
The “Battle of Shijaiyeh” raged for 48 hours in the eastern suburbs of Gaza City, leaving 11 people dead and 110 injured. Several buildings and homes were completely destroyed. Dozens of Fatah activists, including some allegedly responsible for the Gaza beach bombing of 25 July which killed six people, among them a six-year-old girl, were arrested.
Hundreds of members of the Fatah-allied Helis clan fled to Israel after Hamas’s forces overran their neighbourhood.
Some of the escapees were killed while others were turned back by Israeli troops, only to be arrested by Hamas.
A majority of the clansmen have now been allowed to return to their families after Hamas leaders declared that their “security campaign” did not target a particular family but rather “criminals and murderers” hiding in the Shijaiyeh neighbourhood.
Initially, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had requested that Israel return all the “refugees” back to Gaza “because we don’t want to leave Gaza for Hamas”. His stand triggered an outcry among Fatah’s rank and file in the West Bank, with some Fatah leaders accusing Abbas of betraying his followers by delivering them to Hamas to be tortured and killed. Eventually Abbas relented and asked Israel to allow the escapees to enter the West Bank.
Israel, which is reaping the fruits of the inter-Palestinian conflict it has fanned, first incarcerated the fleeing Fatah men after forcing them to undress before TV cameras. This humiliating conduct drew no reaction from the PA leadership in the West Bank. Then, on 4 August, more than 100 members of the Helis clan were driven to Jericho where they were housed in a makeshift camp on condition they remain within the confines of the desert town and not move to other parts of the West Bank. Other escapees were taken to an Israeli military prison without any explanation.
In the West Bank the Fatah-dominated PA retaliated with sweeping arrests of religiously-oriented figures suspected of sympathising with Hamas. The crackdown targeted religious scholars, journalists, elected city council officials, civic leaders and public officials. Hamas said hundreds of its supporters were arrested as PA security forces closed down dozens of Hamas- associated institutions, including cultural and sports clubs and community centres. Hamas reciprocated by arresting Fatah political leaders in the Gaza Strip, including Zakaria Al-Agha, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee, and Ibrahim Abul-Naja, a local Fatah politician.
The arrests of Fatah political leaders drew sharp reactions, even from some Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza who castigated the unprecedented measure as “crossing a red line” and amounting to “emulating Fatah’s lawless behaviour”.
The criticisms forced Hamas to release all the political detainees and re-open Fatah- affiliated offices and institutions closed days before on the orders of Said Siyam, Hamas’s interior minister in Gaza. In Ramallah, Abbas had earlier ordered the release “political detainees” rounded up by PA police last week, though as of press time many still remained in custody.
The defeat of Fatah in the Shijaiyeh neighbourhood has put an end to whatever hopes Fatah may have had of wresting Gaza from Hamas by force. Fatah had hoped that sporadic bombings and localised insurrections would generate sufficient turmoil and chaos to provoke a popular uprising against Hamas rule. Now the war between the two, for a time at least, is confined to words.
Ziyad Abu Ein, one of Hamas’s most implacable foes within Fatah, has called on the PA leadership to “outlaw Hamas once and for all” and to declare Gaza “a breakaway region”.
“Gaza must be retaken through violence, fire and blood,” he railed.
It is a rhetoric echoed by other Fatah leaders, who have called for the deployment of Arab and international forces in Gaza as well as the prosecution of Hamas’s leaders for crimes against humanity, and which has met with ridicule in the Strip.
Hawkish Hamas leader Mushir Al-Masri scoffed at the “sabre-rattling” coming out of Ramallah, calling Abu Ein “preposterous and foolish”. Another Hamas leader, Sami Abu Zuhri, warned that the militant group could overrun the West Bank just as it took over the Gaza Strip, if provoked by Fatah.
“Fatah can expect an uprising against them if they continue to repress Hamas in the West Bank. If arrests and other forms of repression continue, they will lead to spontaneous responses, whether from resistance fighters or common people,” said Abu Zuhri.
Neither Fatah’s threats to retake Gaza by force nor Hamas’s threats to overrun the West Bank can be taken seriously. Given realities on the ground Fatah could retake Gaza only if the Israeli army reoccupied the coastal enclave and then handed it over to PA President Abbas, in which case Fatah would be viewed by Palestinians and Arabs as a quisling entity vis-à-vis Israel and a Palestinian civil war would ensue.
Hamas and Fatah both appear to know that Israel is the ultimate winner and the Palestinian people the losers in this increasingly tribal conflict. Unfortunately, neither group appears as yet willing to abandon the parochial calculations that are driving the confrontation.