The two main Palestinian factions announced yesterday that they were moving closer to an agreement that would implicitly recognise Israel. It is an attempt to end international sanctions and seen as a response to the plan whereby the US, UN, and Russia endorsed an EU plan to funnel humanitarian aid to the Palestinians while bypassing the anti-Israeli government. Parallel to the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel is a power struggle between the two main political parties; Hamas and Fatah.
Fatah, the inheritors of Yasser Arafat’s power, have been the long-standing power in Palestinian politics. They have dominated elections since 1996, when Hamas boycotted the poll, allowing Fatah to sweep to victory over a handful of independents. Hamas came in from the political cold this year and contested the January 2006 elections. They capitalised on corruption within the Palestinian Authority (PA) and beat Fatah in a stunning landslide election victory. Hamas now have 76 of the 132 seats compared to Fatah’s 43. Fatah still control the presidency under Mahmoud Abbas. Crucially he retains official control over the Palestinian security services.
Since then tensions have increased between the two factions. In early May, three people were killed in clashes between the groups. A spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings led to the death of a Hamas member and as a result Hamas gunman fired a shoulder-held missile into a government vehicle, killing two Fatah members of the security forces.
Fatah is a reverse acronym of Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filistiniya (Palestinian Liberation Movement) and means "conquest" in Arabic. Arafat founded the party in the 1950s to promote the armed struggle to liberate Palestine from Israeli control. It led the peace process in the 1990s after recognising Israel’s right to exist. Most of the bureaucrats in the Palestinian Authority are Fatah members and they also control the 70,000 strong police and security forces. Abbas is leading the fight to gain recognition of the West Bank and incorporate it with Gaza into a Greater Palestine. Their militant wing the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has held an informal ceasefire since 2005 but has breached it on occasions which it calls retaliatory attacks against Israel.
Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) and means "zeal" in Arabic. They were formed in 1987 with a dual purpose: social welfare and armed resistance against Israel. These goals have earned the support of the Palestinian oppressed but saw them designated a terrorist organisation by the West. Their charter seeks Israel's destruction. Hamas’s Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister, has said that a long-term truce with Israel possible if Israel withdraws from territory occupied in 1967. Their armed wing is called Izzedine al-Qassam brigades and they too have a ceasefire in operation but they also claim the right to retaliate against Israeli attacks. According to the U.S. State Dept, Hamas is funded by Iran, Palestinian expatriates, and private benefactors in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Because of Hamas’s status, outside funds to the PA have dried up. Banks refuse to handle emergency donations fearing US penalties. An impending financial meltdown of the PA is possible which could cause a major humanitarian crisis. As the police force is controlled by Fatah, Hamas has deployed a 3,000-strong shadow security force including its supporters to tackle lawlessness in Gaza. The move exacerbated tensions with pro-Fatah security agencies sparking gunfights between the groups.
The Palestinian Authority was set up as a direct result of the Oslo peace accords signed by in 1993 between Israel and the PLO under the auspices of US President Clinton. Initially the Accords gave the Gaza Strip and the city of Jericho in the West Bank to the PA. The aim was to set up a Palestinian state covering Gaza and the West Bank. The status of Jerusalem was not addressed. The 2000 Palestinian Intifada known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada caused the Oslo Accords to be seen as increasingly irrelevant.
It has been superseded by the so-called “Road Map for Peace” in 2002. The road map set out by President Bush called for an end to Palestinian violence, political reform and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. This would be followed by an internationally led Palestinian economy recovery leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. In August 2005, Israeli troops disengaged from the Gaza Strip and in June this year Israeli PM Ehud Olmert announced he will meet Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace talks.
Abbas remains the key. In May 2006 he took the initiative back from Hamas by proposing a referendum to accept an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If he can get Hamas to accept this, then Palestine stands a chance to exist. If Hamas turns its back on the proposal, they will remain outcasts and, although electorally popular, they will leave Palestine as an international pariah. Israel can only stand to gain from this outcome.