October 17, 2002
The Turn to Civil War
Hamas-Palestinian Authority conflict could escalate to a deadly situation.
Some 60 miles southwest of Yasser Arafat's besieged Ramallah headquarters, supporters of the Palestinian Authority president are engaged in another confrontation. The new front is not against Israel, but against their Palestinian brethren -- Hamas supporters in the Gaza Strip, who are now openly challenging the Palestinian Authority.
This latest confrontation could lead the Palestinian society to a fitna (Arabic for civil war). The fear has a precedent: In the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, thousands of Palestinian Arabs were killed in bloody internal strife.
The current unrest in Gaza began with a blood vengeance. Imad Akel, 27, a resident of the Nusseirat refugee camp, and a number of his friends, shot to death Col. Rajah Abu-Lihyeh, Palestinian Authority riot police chief.
Abu-Lihyeh allegedly was responsible for the shooting of Akel's younger brother, Yussuf, in violent protests last year against the American war in Afghanistan. Five others were killed and dozens wounded in that unrest. Palestinian Authority police tried to detain Abu-Lihyeh's killers, to no avail. Akel, a senior activist in Hamas' military wing, found shelter among his friends. Riots broke out as Palestinian Authority officers tried to lay their hands on Akel and the other perpetrators. Four people were killed, but so far the Palestinian Authority has failed to bring Akel and his associates to trial.
As commander of the riot police, Abu-Lihyeh was one of the most hated persons in the Palestinian Authority. His people are responsible for the rough handling of any demonstration not to the Palestinian Authority's liking. It's no wonder, therefore, that Hamas enjoys growing popular support in its confrontation with the authorities.
But if one thing is considered off-limits in Arab regimes, it is a challenge to the security forces. Such a challenge is seen as an attack on the legitimacy of the regime. Given Abu-Lihyeh's position among the elite of the Palestinian Authority security forces, his assassination could be seen as a challenge to the Palestinian Authority's very existence.
It's not the first time Palestinian groups have flouted Palestinian Authority directives: When groups ignore Arafat's statements against terror attacks, the Palestinian Authority has not gotten upset, and, indeed, Israelis suspect a tacit division of labor. But the Palestinian Authority is not likely to allow a challenge of such magnitude to its security forces.
On Monday, thousands of Palestinians from Fatah marched through Gaza, warning Hamas not to undermine the Palestinian Authority.
"This is a show of force. This is a clear message to Hamas that if it tries to undermine or destroy the Palestinian Authority, Fatah will fight it to defend the authority," a senior Fatah official told Reuters.
Masked gunmen fired in the air and supporters carried posters of Arafat, shouting slogans of support as they warned rivals against taking the law into their own hands.
Despite the growing popularity of Hamas' uncompromising outlook, the Islamic fundamentalist movement also finds itself at a difficult crossroads. Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank is in ruins. Its top military leader, Mohammad Deif, barely escaped a recent Israeli assassination attempt in the Gaza Strip, which left him seriously wounded. Frequent Israeli raids on Gaza Strip targets strike at Hamas' power base.
For years, Arafat has ignored his commitments to disarm Hamas and make them subject to Palestinian Authority law. Analysts say it's not just because he doesn't want to fragment Palestinian society, but also because it has served his purposes to have militant groups carry out terror attacks supposedly outside of Arafat's control.
But some have warned that Arafat ultimately will have to bring all Palestinian factions to heel if the Palestinian Authority is to stay in power.
The example often cited is the Altalena ship, a 1948 incident in which Jewish militias tried to defy the nascent Israeli government and import arms illegally. Despite his reluctance to fight other Jews, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the ship bombed before it reached port; it sank, killing several men.
The dissident Jewish groups condemned Ben-Gurion for the attack. But it was a watershed in Israeli history that made clear that challenges to the central authority would not be tolerated.
Israelis believe Arafat must eventually have his own Altalena, which would benefit not just Israel by eliminating the threat from nominally renegade groups but the Palestinian Authority itself by strengthening order and central control.
Mohammad Dahlan, former head of Palestinian security forces in Gaza and now Arafat's security adviser, is pushing for such a confrontation. He knows that unless the killers are handed in, the Palestinian Authority may lose its grip on the population.
Dahlan, sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Arafat, reportedly has grown so frustrated with Arafat's unwillingness to impose his rule that he recently tendered his resignation, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported Monday. Arafat has yet to act on the letter.
Yet Arafat may keep postponing the showdown. In the face of growing Israeli pressure, Arafat feels that his only chance to survive is to avoid internal rifts at all costs.
Hamas, however, is not willing to play by Arafat's rules. In addition to the Gaza riots, two suicide bombings last week -- one near Bnei Brak that killed an Israeli, another that was foiled near the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv -- show that Hamas is determined to pursue its violent agenda, provoking Israeli countermeasures that further weaken Arafat.
In addition to his fronts against Israel and Hamas, Arafat also faces popular pressure from the Palestinian street -- and the U.S. administration -- to reform his corrupt and ineffective administration.
Experts expect Arafat to struggle to buy time. He spent last weekend holding intensive consultations on a new Cabinet, ahead of planned elections early next year. His associates promised over the weekend that a new Cabinet would be named within 10 days.
One of the first victims of the reshuffle may be Interior Minister Abdel Razek Yehiyeh, who was appointed recently with the blessing of Israel and the United States to restructure the Palestinian Authority's armed forces. Arafat apparently wants to put the blame on Yehiyeh for having failed to dismantle the various militias, particularly Hamas. It's not clear how that would go over in Jerusalem, Washington or even Ramallah. Domestic criticism of Arafat, which abated somewhat during Israel's siege of Arafat's presidential compound earlier this month, remains strong.
The Israeli daily Ma'ariv reported last weekend that Mahmoud Abbas, mentioned as another possible Arafat successor, strongly criticized Arafat during his recent visit to Moscow. Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, agreed with the Israeli argument that terrorism should be stopped before negotiations resume -- but predicted that "the Palestinian Authority would find it extremely difficult to exert its authority over the rejectionist organizations."
Arafat may postpone a showdown as long as possible, but ultimately, it seems, he will have no choice but to face the internal front as well.
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