Palestinian unity government confronts divided police forces

After seven years apart, Hamas and Fatah face a challenge to merge their rival security forces. The story of two cops in Gaza underscores the task ahead.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
A Palestinian employee paid by the Palestinian authority waits to withdraw cash from an ATM machine outside a bank, in Gaza City last week. Hamas and Fatah have been at loggerheads over the integration of their security forces – a kerfuffle that prompted Hamas to shut down banks in Gaza last week. The banks have since reopened.

On paper, Abu Kamal is a policeman in Gaza. He collects a monthly paycheck from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which hired him in 2001. 

But when Hamas seized control of the tiny coastal territory in 2007, PA President Mahmoud Abbas ordered Abu Kamal – along with the tens of thousands of PA security forces – to stay home. He hasn’t worked a day since.

His friend Mohammed reported for work as usual at the police station after Hamas’s takeover. He earns far less than Abu Kamal and the last time Hamas paid him was in May, when he received his wages from March. He recently sold his motorcycle and walks the two miles to work because he can’t afford transportation.

After seven years in which Gaza was run by Hamas and the West Bank by the Fatah-dominated PA, a new unity government was appointed June 2 to jointly administer both territories. In theory, Abu Kamal and Mohammed are now colleagues again. But they represent opposite sides of a divided Palestinian house. Making reconciliation work requires Fatah and Hamas to merge two parallel security forces, pay overdue salaries, and resolve differences on everything from the rule of law to freedom of expression – as well as heal social divisions that have left many embittered.

Earlier this month, after Abbas refused to pay the overdue salaries of Hamas employees like Mohammed, Hamas policemen shut down Gaza’s banks and ATMs so that Fatah employees like Abu Kamal could not withdraw their salaries. If we’re not getting paid, you’re not getting paid, was the ultimatum.

While Gaza’s banks reopened last week and the PA says it is working to get Arab donor countries to pay Hamas salaries, the kerfuffle illustrates the depth of the rift that remains.

“How could [Abbas] say, ‘I will not pay salaries for employees of the government of Gaza?’ This is totally against reconciliation,” says Ismail Radwan, the minister of religious affairs in Gaza until the new government was ushered in. “Is it morally acceptable that the one sitting home is [receiving] salaries and the one working is not being paid? The balance here is upside down.”

Key obstacles to reconciliation

Hamas, which trounced Fatah in a 2006 election, was initially bolstered both by Palestinians and regional powers that saw it as a more effective counterweight to Israel than its secular rival.

But the burden of governing took its toll, both on Hamas’s image and its pocketbook. It is effectively insolvent after Egypt’s destruction of most of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza, which provided substantial tax revenue for Hamas. In addition, the winds of the Arab Spring blew against Hamas, which lost sponsors in Iran, Syria, and Egypt.

Many in Gaza feel that Abbas has taken advantage of Hamas’s weakness to push it into a corner. While the new government was supposed to represent both Hamas and Fatah, only 4 of the 17 ministers are based in Gaza and some criticize it as little more than a puppet government under Abbas.

To be sure, Abbas’s job is not easy. In addition to the turf wars between Fatah and Hamas, he also faces a risk of jeopardizing his main source of funding – the US and the European Union – if his government funnels money to Hamas, which the West has deemed a terrorist organization. 

Paying salaries directly to Hamas employees is problematic. So, too, are government stipends to Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, which some say was behind Abbas’s insistence on dissolving the Ministry of Prisoner Affairs and replacing it, over Hamas' objections, with a committee that is non-governmental, on paper.  

But one of the thorniest problems is how to merge the two Palestinian security forces. Fatah's PA security forces coordinate closely with Israel to prevent terrorist attacks in the West Bank, an arrangement that has been strained by the hunt for the kidnappers of three Israeli teens. Hamas opposes coordination with Israel; its security forces include the Al-Qassem wing that preaches armed resistance against Israel.

According to the 2011 Cairo agreement between Fatah and Hamas that formed the basis for the recent reconciliation, an Egyptian committee is supposed to adjudicate the merger of forces. 

But Fatah members say many Hamas operatives are unqualified for their rank, due in part to the influence of local religious leaders on hiring and promotion. While Mohammed's only recent training was a free class in reading the Quran, Abu Kamal completed two years at an Algerian police academy. The two are also far apart on pay: Abu Kamal has been promoted twice since 2007, raising his salary from 3,100 shekels to 4,300 shekels a month ($1,240). Mohammed only collects 2,850 shekels. It's unclear what would happen to their ranks and pay scales in a unified police force. 

There are also concerns that those affected by Hamas’s heavy-handed tactics for enforcing law and order in Gaza, will seek retribution now.

“There is a huge fear of revenge,” says Mohammed. “If Ramallah takes control, people are afraid that … anyone who was punished or attacked by Hamas policemen will look for revenge.”

Social reconciliation

The brutal street clashes between Hamas and Fatah in 2007 saw people thrown out of high-rise buildings, shot in the legs, and dismembered. Many families seek revenge, or at least resolution, for killings that did nothing to advance the Palestinian cause.

Just ask Abu Ahmed, who lost one of his five brothers – a PA security officer – on the last day of fighting in 2007, when Hamas snipers killed him.

“Did the one who shot my brother liberate Jerusalem?” asks Abu Ahmed, who was on the phone with his brother when he heard an explosion and the line went dead. He had to identify his slain brother by a bleach spot on his underwear, so badly mutilated was the body. 

While a committee has been established to compensate relatives of those killed, the family’s eldest brother, Mohammed, says they haven’t received anything.

“I was wishing one of those dogs would come on TV and say, ‘We apologize for those 800 people who were killed for no reason,’ ” shouts Mohammed, nearly falling out of his plastic chair outside the family's home in the city of Khan Younis.  “But no one did that.”

After calming down, however, he suggests that a little easing of the financial situation could go a long way.

“If you improve economy, give them their salaries, they will not only forget about everything, they will sing for you, too,” he says.

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