The eruption of internal clashes between Fateh and Hamas last Sunday in Gaza was a renewal of the fighting that blighted the Strip in the months before the agreement to form a unity government. It came as little surprise since tensions have been running high and the Mecca agreement failed to deal with the underlying causes.
From the beginning, Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, adopted a highly critical position of that agreement and the subsequent unity government. Prominent members argued that the Mecca agreement involved political concessions that would expose Hamas to public criticism since the platform of the Palestinian national unity government marked a significant departure from the Islamist movement’s original political positions.
In fact, an interesting debate has emerged inside Hamas since its election victory in early 2006. Immediately after that election, Hamas was united around the idea that the movement could combine forming a government and undertaking any consequent political task with continuing the resistance. With time, and with the difficulties in running the government, those in Hamas who won the election and assumed positions in the government started to realize the difficulties in combining governance with resistance.
That view was not shared by the military cadres, who argued that sacrificing the resistance for the sake of running the Palestinian Authority would undermine the popularity of Hamas,
Second, the attempts by President Mahmoud Abbas, his security chief, Mohammad Dahlan and others, to reform the Palestinian security apparatuses to safeguard the political positions of the president alarmed the military wing of Hamas. The main cause of direct tension in Gaza has been over who controls the Palestinian security services and how efficient these services are.
Third, Hamas leaders outside the occupied Palestinian territories were piqued at the fact that the clause in the Mecca agreement calling for “reform” of the PLO was not implemented. That clause was meant to ensure that the “partnership” between Fateh and Hamas was not limited to the Palestinian Authority but to the overall representative of the Palestinian people, where Hamas leaders, in particular Khalid Meshaal, were supposed to be included.
Finally, the general situation in Gaza is such that any confrontations are extremely difficult to contain. A multitude of armed groups have emerged in recent years and have managed to develop independent sources of income, especially through smuggling. This, in turn, had led to independent sources of arms that were brought in through the tunnels under the Gaza-Sinai border.
With their own supply of money and arms, these groups became less amenable to directions from a central authority. And even though most of these are splinter groups, in time they have developed their own narrow vested interests, such as controlling this or that neighborhood or tunnel, which are best served by the ongoing chaos.
These direct causes of tensions are not enough, however, to explain the persistence of this tense and chaotic situation. One has to look at the deeper and more long-term factors. Among these, Israel’s decision to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank and to isolate it almost completely from the rest of the world looms large.
This isolation of Gaza has caused poverty and unemployment to soar and, in combination with the international sanctions against the PA, debilitated the central authority’s ability to provide people with jobs and basic services such as education, health or personal security. In addition, the Israeli strategy of neglecting the Palestinian side as a political partner and abandoning the political process ended any hope for political independence among Palestinians.
Together, these factors have all served to undermine the PA and allowed for the increase in the role and power of non-state actors, whether militias, tribes or brigades. Joining a militia has become a source of income to unemployed and hopeless young people as well as a means of personal protection for those the state lets down. With such a profound absence of any political and economic prospects in Gaza, chaos and anarchy are inevitable.
Israel is now complicating matters further. Hamas appears to have successfully provoked Israel to re-engage in Gaza. This will have two consequences: Israeli airstrikes will weaken Hamas militarily, but weaken Fateh politically.
Hamas has been proclaiming that it is obliged to fight against the elements in the Palestinian security services the movement says receive their orders from Israel. The implication is that the enemies of Hamas in Gaza are collaborators. This argument is now consolidated and strengthened by Israeli airstrikes, with Hamas now appearing to fight both Israel and Fateh.
Dragging Israel back into Gaza may be a significant strategic move. Hamas has found itself in a trap. It is in charge of an authority that has very little chance of success regardless of who runs it. But Hamas’ stint in power has also coincided with what looks suspiciously like a civil war. This has not escaped notice in the region and Arab leaders, including leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is a part, have been critical.
Hamas was elected to this trap and thus cannot renounce its responsibility. But if the movement successfully escalates the situation with Israel, it may escape the trap through the backdoor, pushing the blame onto Israel. It is a strategy, however, that might see the end of the PA.