After a week of fighting, Gaza finds uneasy calm
Palestinian factions have stepped back from the brink of civil war, but tensions remain.
BEIT LAHIYEH, GAZA STRIP — One day before an Islamic sulha, or reconciliation, for last week's gun battles between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), an AK-47 rifle rested on a neatly arranged desk in the local office of the ruling Fatah party.
"I carry my weapon with me because I was part of the clashes," says Abu Shadi, clad in black combat pants and a matching T-shirt, from behind the desk. "We are in a chaotic situation here, so we should be careful."
After the first-ever confrontation between forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and rival Islamic militants, tensions are still smoldering. But the scheduled August 17 withdrawal from Gaza is intensifying a power vacuum that threatens to embroil Palestinians in new domestic turmoil and reignite violence with Israel, as well.
What began with a barrage of dozens of Kassam rockets that nearly triggered a broad Israeli invasion of Gaza ended last week with Palestinian groups on the verge of sparking a civil war.
The order by Interior Minister Nasser Yousef to snuff out Hamas' shelling of Israel sparked nearly a week of fighting which left several dozen injured, police officers kidnapped, and a Hamas office torched.
The damage control was evident on Gaza's dusty boulevards this week, as road workers accompanied by a security detail plucked the green banners of Hamas, and the yellow of Fatah, off the top street lampposts. The collection effort is intended to foster bipartisanship ahead of the pullout, but supporters of Hamas who looked on were suspicious.
"I am annoyed to see my flag coming down," says Rafik el Mahadi, looking up with disdain. "It's a sign of my thinking, my religion, and [my] movement."
The Islamic militants are worried that the PA will reap all the rewards from the Israeli pullout and are frustrated by Abbas's June decision to postpone indefinitely ballotting for the Palestinian legislature, an election which could transform the movement's growing popularity into more political power. If Hamas remains sidelined during the disengagement, it's likely to resort to attacks on Israel to pressure the PA, analysts say.
"With Hamas outside this political structure, they are not going to be good boys," says Said Zeidani, a Palestinian political analyst. "They are continuing to challenge the authority in many ways, and the easy way is to attack Israel. They say they are exercising their right to resist the occupation, but by these acts they are putting pressure on the authority, because they want political rewards," he adds.
Following a shooting attack that killed two Israeli civilians inside a heavily guarded road connecting Israel to the Gush Katif settlement enclave in Gaza, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that continued militant attacks would draw a fierce response.
Ms. Rice finished up a weekend visit to the region on Sunday. Her trip was aimed at monitoring the Israeli-Palestinian efforts to coordinate the withdrawal.
The US wants Israel to help strengthen Abbas. Separately, Israeli military chiefs have requested that the landmark evacuation of the Jewish settlement be carried out in one fell swoop, instead of four phases, which are supposed to be approved by the cabinet at each stage. Speeding up the withdrawal, they ague, would reduce the chance of fighting breaking out with Palestinian militants.
Back in the Fatah office, Abu Shadi, who used a pseudonym rather than give his own name, unleashed a torrent of complaints as he slammed a fist on his gun in frustration.
If Israel is truly interested in peace, he says, it must boost Abbas with economic gestures rather than threaten Gaza with incursions. Without any sense of prosperity, Hamas will be free to provoke both Israel and the Palestinian government.
"We are worried that Hamas and other factions will suddenly become the leaders of the national cause after the disengagement," he says. "They will say, 'We liberated Gaza.' "
The clashes took place in the cinderblock warrens of Gaza's Jabaliyah refugee camp, known as a hotbed of Hamas militancy. Sami Sweilan, a resident of the neighborhood where the first shootout took place, says he was awoken at 5 a.m. by the shooting.
Mr. Sweilan says he is worried about the prospect of civil war.
The clashes were reminiscent of a wave of arrests against Hamas activists ordered by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1996. But now, the PA is in a much weaker position and has been accused of corruption.
"People are bitter about the Palestinian Authority," says Sweilan. "The fact that there are no jobs makes" people see them as the problem.
Despite the bitterness, Hamas and Fatah representatives are "moving positively" in a dialogue aimed at reaching a series of "understandings" aimed at preventing future infighting, says Ziyad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and an expert on the Islamic movement.
Hamas is demanding that Abbas commit a date for new elections and give members of the Islamic movement representation in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which speaks for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, as well as the diaspora.
The Palestinian Authority wants a commitment from Hamas that it will uphold a five-month truce with Israel. And while Hamas says it will honor the truce, it is demanding a power-sharing arrangement in Gaza with Abbas.
"They haven't fully solved the problem," says Ghazi Hamad, an editor at Al-Risala, a weekly paper affiliated with Hamas. "The biggest problems are still under the surface, like fire under the ashes."
Israel and the US have been pushing the Palestinian president to confront the Islamic militants with force, but Abbas had relied on negotiations until last week.
Although the sides have pulled back for now, a wider conflict between the PA and Hamas has only been postponed, says Hillel Frisch, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.
"It's a log jam. Nothing has been solved," he says. "Hamas has support in Gaza and Fatah has the guns. I don't think [Abbas] is the type of guy for showdowns," he adds. "He's not going to risk civil war so early on in the negotiations."