The world is now trying to make sense of the new political reality in Palestine which has Fatah running the West Bank and Hamas now in firm control of the Gaza Strip. In Gaza City yesterday, the green flag of Hamas flew over public buildings where last week the Palestinian flag had been. Over a hundred people have been killed in the violence that enveloped the coastal strip for five days.
The cause of the Gaza violence is threefold. The most proximate cause is access to financial control of Gaza. Hamas was desperate to bring the Fatah-led security force under its control. Its leader Muhammad Dahlan, a former protégé of Yasser Arafat, wanted to use the force to bolster his own presidential bid. Dahlan ran a highly profitable protection racket which will now fall under the control of Hamas. Looters stripped his villa yesterday as well as attacking the presidential compound left vacant by Mahmoud Abbas.
The second reason was to kill off the struggling 1993 Oslo Accords which first gave voice to the ‘two state’ proposal for Israel and Palestine. Fatah under Arafat agreed to the Accords believing it could make a state out of the West Bank and Gaza. Out of the accords was born the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, however, has a mandate for a single contiguous Palestine that has no place for the Jewish state of Israel. It wants to see a country that inherits the 22,000 square kms of the old British Palestine mandate, not the 5,000 square kms as accepted by Fatah.
The third underlying reason for the violence is the deep-rooted philosophical difference between Fatah and Hamas. The secular Fatah’s vision for a democratic Palestine is radically different from the theocratic entity prescribed by Hamas. It wants Sharia Law not Western civil law. In the 18 months since it won the election, Hamas has attempted to “Islamise” Gaza with beards compulsory for men and hijabs for women.
In the West Bank, President Abbas sacked Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya on Thursday and replaced him with Salam Fayyad, an independent lawmaker and former World Bank economist. The appointment is likely to strengthen Abbas’s case to get international aid sent to a PLO account to avoid it coming into the hands of Hamas. Fatah also began rounding up Hamas members and sympathisers in the West Bank. They also burned and looted Hamas offices and killed at least one of their leaders.
Amnesty International has condemned Hamas and Fatah for their actions during the week’s violence. In a statement yesterday, it said both groups have shown utter disregard for fundamental principles of international law and have committed grave human rights abuses. It condemned indiscriminate attacks and “reckless gun battles” in residential neighbourhoods that left beleaguered occupants prisoners in their own homes. People protesting against the violence have also been targeted. Gunmen in Gaza City and Khan Younes fired on unarmed demonstrators who were calling for an end to the armed clashes, killing one protester and injuring several others.
The two groups have been in an uneasy power sharing arrangement since Hamas had a breakthrough win in the legislative elections in January 2006. Fatah leader Mamoud Abbas remained President leading to an effective stalemate. Due to Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel, the mediating Quartet (EU, US, Russia and the UN) threatened to cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority. In June 2006 it appeared as if the two groups were moving towards an agreement on Israel in the face of international pressure. However Hamas dashed these hopes by saying their political settlement with Fatah did not contain an implicit recognition of Israel. That settlement too was short-lived.
Hamas will now rule Gaza alone although with significant help from Syria and Iran as well as moral support from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas’s Covenant which was established in 1988 states that the organization's goal is to "raise the banner of God over every inch of Palestine”. It promises to obliterate Israel and believes that Palestine is an Islamic Trust (“Waqf” in Arabic) which cannot be negotiated away by political leaders. However Israel still has immense power over the strip. It controls the borders and has the power to cut off water and power.
During the second Intifada of 2001, Yasser Arafat told an Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Hamas was a creation of Israel. He blamed Hamas for the violence and claimed that then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave them money and “more than 700 institutions, among them schools, universities and mosques” in the late 1980s. Arafat went on to say Hamas was constituted with the support of Israel. "The aim was to create an organisation antagonistic to the PLO,” he said.
Arafat was not alone in this view. Several former US intelligence officials say that Israel gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years. Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies says the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO and a former CIA operative said Israel's support for Hamas "was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative". Israel’s long cherished dream has now turned into a reality of three states: a Jewish one in Israel, a secular Arab one in the West Bank, and an Islamist one in Gaza.