Palestinian Infighting: Wrong Course, Wrong Time

Palestinian Infighting: Wrong Course, Wrong Time

  • 8 June 2009

Fatah and Hamas movements have started fighting each other again, at a time when the regional political scene is busy putting together ideas and initiatives to reactivate the Arab-Israeli peace process and to revive it from it from its present comatose state. The city of Qalqilya, north of the West Bank, recently became the scene of armed clashes between the Palestinian security forces of Fatah and Hamas activists, which caused scores of fatalities on both sides. The violence is ominously reminiscent of the Gaza clashes between the two sides in mid-2007, which led to the takeover of Gaza by Hamas.

Both parties have held each other responsible for the recent outbreak in tensions and violence. On the one hand, the Palestinian Authority has accused Hamas of inciting its supporters in the West Bank into committing acts of violence against the security forces in an apparent repeat of events in Gaza. Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade—the armed wing of Fatah—described events in Qilqilya as a clampdown by security forces against a group that it claims has strayed away from the patriotic path and aims to vitiate the security situation. For its part, Hamas dubbed the outbreak of violence in the city as “aggression by proxy” and vowed retribution against those who directed their actions against its members. It went further, and its spokesman instructed Al-Qassam Brigade—the military wing of Hamas—to deal with the Palestinian security forces like they deal with “occupation forces.” In addition, certain voices within Hamas called for suspending Palestinian dialogue, which is sponsored by Cairo. Hamas also launched a campaign of arrests against those it describes as “outlaws” in Gaza. The campaign targeted scores of Fatah members and leaders in Gaza and accused them of collecting information on the locations of political leaders of resistance fighters and of passing it to Palestinian Authority (PA), which is then directed to Israel, which is said to be developing a database on Hamas members in the Gaza Strip. In addition, Hamas claims that Fatah is “spreading rumors and chaos and conducting attacks that are threatening the security of citizens.” These charges have been rejected by Fatah movement and it claims that Hamas is promoting Israeli objectives by distracting attention from the international political pressure exerted on the occupying power, particularly after the recent position taken by the Obama administration.

Some observers view the security campaign launched by Palestinian security agencies against Hamas activists in the West Bank as a reflection of the PA’s growing sense of insecurity over a repeat of events that were witnessed in the Gaza Strip in mid-2007, when Hamas seized control of the territory. Exacerbating their concerns have been media reports that suggest that Hamas is setting up its secret military cells within the West Bank. Colonel Adnan Al-Dameery, spokesperson of the Palestinian police force, gave vent to such concerns candidly, when he said that his security agencies had reliable information that Hamas is either seeking to carry out a coup in the West Bank, or at least trying to cause problems for security. He said that Palestinian security agencies will not wait for the occurrence of another Gaza-like coup and so they are preparing to take any necessary action. For its part, Hamas views these security campaigns as a means to implement Israel-US agenda, which is aimed at destroying the Palestinian resistance movement. In a bid to substantiate its claim, Hamas points out that three of its fighters killed in recent clashes were wanted by Israel for the last five years. Questions have been raised over efforts to achieve Palestinian national reconciliation in the wake of the level of distrust by both parties.

The internal conflict occurring in the occupied Palestinian territories between Fatah and Hamas seem incomprehensible to many observers and to those sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause. The challenges and dangers plaguing the Palestinian cause should have gained precedence over internal differences among Palestinian factions, and that their individual political interests should have been overlooked in its wake. However, what has been happening is quite the opposite.

An internecine Palestinian feud has erupted just when the extreme, right-wing Israeli government—headed by Benjamin Netanyahu—is trying to invalidate all signed peace agreements with Palestinians. Moreover, this Israeli government is averse to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, has intensifed the Judaisation of Jerusalem, and is increasing the number and size of colonies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Still, such Israeli policies have failed to unite Palestinian ranks and the very future of the Palestinian cause is at stake. Still, the intensity of differences, tensions and conflict is rising among Palestinian brothers, which is the result of their individual factional interests gaining precedence over larger Palestinian concerns.

In addition, renewed Palestinian infighting is taking place at a time when the US position on the Palestinian cause is undergoing an important and positive change after President Barack Obama became US President. Obama has openly endorsed the two-state solution and called on Israel to make “difficult decisions” by putting a freeze on the construction of its colonies. He has also called on Israel to open the passageways and routes for the supply of essential goods to beleaguered Palestinians, and has rejected Israeli demand to concentrate on the Iranian nuclear file before focusing on any other issue in the middle East. He believes that achieving progress in the peace process would help restrict Iranian influence in the region. Just as Obama was demonstrating his good understanding of the Palestinian cause in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo on June 4 2009, armed conflict broke out in Qalqilya between security agencies and Hamas activists on that day. He affirmed that his country would not turn its back on the legitimate aspirations and dreams of Palestinians, and that it would not support ongoing construction of Israeli colonies, which he considers undermine efforts for achieving peace.

One cannot benefit from the positive approach of the US administration for achieving the aspirations of the Palestinian people given the current divisions and conflict between Fatah and Hamas movements. At a time when Washington is talking about its adherence to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, some observers point to the existence of two Palestinian states—one in the West Bank and the other in the Gaza Strip—with each taking opposite directions. These observers also wonder which Palestinian side would hold negotiations over the establishment of the Palestinian state. If the Palestinian Authority, responsible for the negotiations, reaches an agreement on the matter, then how can this apply to the Gaza Strip? They predict that this positive approach of the US administration could be another missed opportunity for the Palestinian cause if this internal division and conflict continues.

Observers also indicate another adverse impact of the Palestinian internal discord, which could lead to additional complications for the success of any Palestinian national dialogue, which began a few months ago in Cairo. Little was achieved in the five rounds of talks between different Palestinian factions, particularly between Hamas and Fatah, over the agenda of national enterprise. Despite failure of these sessions in resolving issues among Palestinian factions, the talks were helpful in narrowing differences over some matters. However, renewed clashes between Fatah and Hamas increased the mistrust between the two sides, which are scheduled to participate in a new round of talks this month in Egypt. Some observers are increasingly skeptical of this new session of dialogue and fear that a new wave of violence and confrontation might ensue from them.

The infighting among Palestinian forces gives Israel a free hand and helps it wiggle out of its international commitments on the pretext of not having a ‘viable’ Palestinian partner. Thus, it will able to get around international pressure over reviving the peace process. Will Palestinian factions be mindful of putting the national interests of the Palestinian people above their own factional interests? This remains to be seen.