Fatah, Hamas split widens amid Gaza war

Members of the secular Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian Authority, are divided over how the group should respond to the ongoing Israeli offensive against Hamas.

Mohammed Muheisen/AP
West Bank vigil: A pro-Palestinian protest.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Gaza Pain: Palestinians in Gaza City surveyed the damage from an Israeli strike on Wednesday.
Allan Tannenbaum/Zuma Press/Newscom/File
First intifada: The first intifada, or uprising, started in the Palestinian territories in 1987. Hamas is calling for a new uprising.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

As Israel's battering campaign in Hamas-run Gaza continues, pushing the Palestinian death toll toward 1,000, the Fatah-controlled West Bank has been largely quiescent.

Fatah is keeping a lid on protests, not letting West Bankers draw it into Israel's war on Hamas. Senior voices in the secular party that runs the Palestinian Authority (PA) see restraint as key to its quest for statehood. Getting entangled in Gaza, they say, would only embolden Hamas.

Others say Fatah is making a fatal mistake. Its inaction will irreparably damage its standing in the eyes of Palestinians and erode support for the group that both America and Israel view as peace partners.

Worse, some say, Fatah is left looking like it supports Israel's military campaign. Some of the Arab media portray Fatah as sitting on the sidelines, hoping to regain control of the coastal enclave from which it was ousted in a violent June 2007 coup by Hamas.

A letter within Fatah, penned and signed by disaffected activists and sent to the office of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, shows the extent of frustration.

"We were used to the situation in which Fatah was the leader in any confrontation against the occupation, and for the first time, we find ourselves outside the standoff. This is going to cost us dearly, especially when it comes to public support, and it is going to harm our credibility in the eyes of the people," it reads.

Fatah appears to be looking at lessons from the past in how it chooses to deal with the Gaza crisis. Twenty-one years ago, an Israeli military jeep accidentally crashed into a crowd in occupied Gaza, killing four Palestinians. Rage and rioting spread to the West Bank and an intifada was born.

While Hamas leaders have called for a third intifada, those calls have not led to an uprising here. The PA has set strict guidelines about where protests are permitted. No rallies are allowed in proximity to Israeli military posts or settlements, virtually eliminating opportunities for angry activists to find themselves "a stone's throw" away from Israeli soldiers.

But Moheeb Awwad, a Fatah official, says many in the young ranks of his movement are losing patience. "At the least, they will leave Fatah and start their own splinter organization. This segment has to find a venue through which it can vent.

"There is social and popular support for our brothers in Gaza," Mr. Awwad says. "But the internal Palestinian conflict has cast its shadow on the response of people in the West Bank, which is lukewarm."

President Abbas has been a vocal opponent of the offensive, calling for an immediate cease-fire, and has taken part in intensifying talks going on in Egypt.

On Wednesday, the Israeli newspaper Haartz reported that Hamas appeared willing to agree to the Egyptian brokered cease-fire deal as United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon arrived in Cairo. "It is intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict," he said.

On the war front, Israel continued to press into Gaza, hitting some 60 targets. Militants in Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel for a second time, but no injuries were reported. Israel responded by firing artillery shells into South Lebanon.

Fatah, which reached a peace deal with Israel in 1993, is perched to play an important role in Gaza. A proposal being discussed in Egypt calls for a temporary cease-fire, followed by a longer-term truce and the opening of Gaza's border crossings with the presence of PA security forces loyal to Abbas.

But Awwad says the road that will lead Fatah back to Gaza is through a true national reconciliation with Hamas. That road cannot be paved with the tracks of Israeli tanks, he says, echoing the outlook of many Palestinians here.

"We're counting on the political results of the war, not the military outcome," he adds. "Fatah is ready to go back to Gaza in agreement with Hamas, not in agreement with Israel."

Akram Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security force here, concurs. All the speculation about whether Israel's final stages of the war include plans to overthrow Hamas, which still rejects any kind of reconciliation with Israel, short of a temporary cease-fire, is deeply wrongheaded, he says.

"Fatah is not planning to take over or to control Gaza again. If there are some elements inside Fatah who think along these lines, they are dreaming," he says.

"Those who think otherwise are not being realistic. Going back to Gaza should be coordinated between the [PA] and Hamas," Mr. Rajoub says. The reality, he says, is that Hamas cannot be destroyed. "Hamas may have been harmed significantly and suffered heavy losses militarily, but on the street, they will remain strong."

Besides preventing the conflict from engulfing the West Bank, which has been experiencing a relative upswing in stability in the past year, Rajoub acknowledges a blunt truth: He doesn't want to give Hamas a chance to start calling the shots.

"Our approach is fully understood by the Palestinian public," he says. "If we had taken a laissez faire attitude, people would be getting killed in the West Bank every day. What's going on in Gaza is enough."

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