Saturday, May 20, 2006

Plunging Towards a Civil War?

Unfortunately, such reports as the one cited below are developing at a rapid pace; as the tit-for-tat skirmishes multiply, one cannot but recall the adage, 'united we stand, divided we fall'. It can only be hoped that the coming weeks will herald the return of stability and a renewed focus of energy towards enhancing the status quo in the Occupied Territories.

- posted by Lili, 21/05/2006

Fatah-Hamas tension raises specter of civil war

By Joshua Brilliant

UPI Correspondent

Published May 19, 2006

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Rival Palestinian security forces engaged in a late night gun battle in the heart of Gaza City heightening fears of a deterioration to civil war.

The fighting erupted at about midnight, Thursday, at a police station whose men reportedly answer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the secular Fatah Party. The gunmen outside belonged to a new force formed by the new government composed of members of the radical Islamic Hamas.

Tension has risen this week as each side sent armed men into Gaza's streets.

There is a cold, brutal struggle for power over who will control the Palestinian Authority, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the security apparatuses, said Israeli intelligence Brig. Gen. in the reserves Shalom Harari, a Fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism.

It was not immediately clear what had triggered the shootout.

Tawfiq Abu Khousa, the Interior and National Security Ministry's former spokesman who is now Fatah's spokesman, told United Press International that a Hamas patrol armed with rocket propelled grenades attacked policemen at the entrance to the police headquarters. They injured a policeman and later fired at a military vehicle, wounded its driver and stole the car. The policemen returned fire and wounded Hamas gunmen who were evacuated to an unknown destination to avoid arrest, Abu Khousa added.

The government's spokesman, Gazai Hamad, downplayed the incident's significance, blaming anonymous provocateurs.

There was no shooting between the force and the police," he added.

The shootout was, however, one more incident in a series of what Bir Zeit University political science professor Ali Jarbawi termed, "skirmishes."

Wednesday, for example, a member of Hamas' Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades was shot and killed while passing outside Abbas' residence in Gaza. The same day a bomb exploded at the entrance to the home of the director general of Border Crossings Col. Salim Abu Safeya, in Jabalya, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported.

Every day the situation becomes more and more explosive, Harari told UPI. In recent weeks the Israeli Navy caught three shipments of tons of TNT that fishermen tried to smuggle into Gaza. The price of TNT has risen there because demand had increased. It goes to both sides, he said.

Fatah has dominated Palestinian politics for nearly four decades. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, won 62.5 percent of the votes in the January 2005 presidential elections, far outstripping all his rivals. Hamas presented no candidate.

The Islamic movement, however, won a staggering victory in the January 2006 Legislative Council elections. It is one seat short of a two-thirds majority there.

Its victory was partly a result of a unique elections system in which each voter got two ballots. One was to elect his preferred list for 66 seats divided proportionally. The other was to choose the region's representatives on the basis of winners-take-all. In the race for the second batch of 66 seats Fatah members ran one against the other and Hamas benefited.

If one ignored the winner-take-all system then 41 percent of the voters favored Fatah and 45 percent Hamas, reckoned Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

Hamas was still ahead but not by that much. It failed to recruit coalition partners so if election system were different, Fatah might have formed the government.

All these calculations would be of minor significance in a country with an enshrined democratic tradition. The Palestinians are not there yet.

In recent weeks Abu Mazen moved to retain control over key security apparatus, notably the Preventive Security. Hamas failed to penetrate the Palestinian Authority's historical security systems and therefore established a parallel organization, Harari said.

The government described it as an auxiliary force of 3,000 men drawn from Hamas' Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Popular Resistance Committees and even factions of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Interior Minister Saeed Siyam argued the regular security forces' weakness "Is clear to everyone. There is stealing, kidnapping and killing, so there is a real need for this (new) force."

"The force ...will put an end to efforts to portray the government as incapable of dealing with the security situation," he added.

The gunmen in camouflage uniforms appeared on the streets Wednesday, sometimes masked.

Abbas reacted swiftly. He ordered "members of all the security forces to deploy as rapidly as possible in Palestinian towns," an official at his office said according to the Palestinian Media Center.

"Mr. Abbas also told security force personnel to refuse any orders delivered by any authority but his own," the official added.

A cohort of bare-chested members of the Presidential Guard Thursday morning ran through Gaza's streets demonstrating support for Abu Mazen. Hamas' gunmen watched silently but that night the shootout erupted.

"The situation is crawling towards a civil war in the Gaza Strip," Harari said.

"I don't see any way out of it," Jarbawi maintained sadly.

Jarbawi predicted deterioration at the end of June, or July, when the economic crisis will deepen.

The government is bankrupt and failed, again, to pay salaries to some 165,000 employees. Since each working person feeds about eight people, according to the World Bank's latest report, the situation is extremely bad. Even if goods are available, people don't have the money to buy them.

Jarbawi's prediction tallies with one of the scenarios presented by Israeli Col. In the reserves, Moshe Elad, who had held senior positions in the West Bank and Gaza.

Elad predicted in bitterlemons.org: "Economic pressure would simply 'not wait' for political developments to catch up and the Palestinian street would speak by generating total anarchy, 'every man to himself.' Under these circumstances street fighting, looting and pillaging could become the order of the day and the civil war that Palestinians are so concerned about would rage."

"It's bleak," said Jarbawi.

Matters could get out of hand much earlier, maintained Harari.

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