How Hamas turned on Palestine’s ‘traitors’
It started as a well-planned settling of scores between rival political factions. But by the end of last week Palestinians seemed on the brink of civil war as two conflicting governments vowed to defeat each other
The first intimation something was different about the explosion of violence in Gaza between the forces of the government Islamist party Hamas and the Fatah fighters of President Mahmoud Abbas came with a no-show.
A week ago, as four senior Fatah officials sat down with Egyptian mediators hoping to negotiate an end to months of spiralling violence, a message arrived from Hamas that it would not be coming. A resurgence in fighting between the two sides made it too dangerous to travel to the meeting.
It was not true. Tired of the endless round of street battles and tit-for-tat assassinations between the two sides, which since the election of Hamas early last year had brought Gaza to the brink of anarchy, the leaders of Hamas had in mind a different solution to Gaza’s corrosive security crisis: a definitive attack on the faction inside Fatah it blamed for the escalating violence. Hamas was planning for war, not peace, and the target would be the security institutions still controlled by Fatah and Abbas, which had been bolstered by US funds.
Discreetly, Hamas had forged links with members and former members of Fatah with whom it was happy to deal. It had drawn up a list of buildings belonging to the security forces of Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to be overrun, and lists of Fatah loyalists it blamed for the murder of Hamas members. Finally, it had briefed journalists on the Hamas-controlled television channel al-Aqsa TV on the message to broadcast to Gaza’s 1.4 million people to reassure them, as the fighting turned from clashes to an all-out assault on Fatah-held positions.
It was a message that would dramatically underline the nature of last week’s assault. It was not an attack on Fatah, the broadcasts would insist, or Gaza’s people. Instead, those under attack, the supporters of Gaza’s head of the Preventive Security Force, Mohammed Dahlan, were ‘collaborators with Israel and the US and traitors’.
What they did not say, but what was understood by all Gazans, was that the leadership of Hamas has a more personal grudge against the deeply unpopular Dahlan. Specifically, they blamed him for ordering a series of killings of members of Hamas that in their view had fuelled the cycle of violence that stepped up after Hamas swept Fatah from power in January last year.
The killing that would end with more than 100 dead and as many injured, started last Sunday like any other broken ceasefire in Gaza with accusations on both sides. It would end with an offer from Hamas to continue working with Abbas as usual. Which leaves what occurred last week as more like an episode from the Godfather films than a coup (albeit one by an elected government) – a violent settling of scores.
According to the Hamas account, it began when Fatah gunmen snatched Imam Mohammed al-Rafati from his house near the Islamic University, leaving him severely wounded. Fatah has its own version, saying the violence began when Hamas kidnapped an officer in the Force 17 Presidential Guard unit loyal to Abbas and threw him from the 15th floor of a tower block in Gaza.
By Monday, however, the killing was spreading rapidly. In Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, the killing of a Fatah bodyguard and a Hamas fighter triggered a spiral of violence. Armed men had stormed the hospital – not for the first time – executing three men, including one in the operating room. Clashes had also broken out in Gaza City, as gunmen fired on the offices of Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister and Hamas leader, as he was holding a cabinet meeting.
By Tuesday, after a year and a half of factional violence that had claimed more than 620 lives since the election of Hamas, a point of no return had finally been reached. Although it is still unclear who gave the order, the results were instantly obvious: an all-out assault by Hamas fighters on the security strongholds controlled by Fatah. By mid-afternoon, much of Gaza had fallen to Hamas.
A sense of how organised the assault was came from one resident of Beit Hanoun who spoke to The Observer by telephone on condition of anonymity. ‘None of us has been able to leave the house. You can hear the shooting in the background. That’s Hamas in the cars they have taken from the Preventive Security. They took control of the speakers on the mosques and announced this was a controlled military area and told us not to go out. It was the same message on the television,’ said the resident, a woman.
‘Hamas says it wants to control all of the security institutions. It has taken all the uniforms and weapons of those who have surrendered. It has investigated some it captured here, tortured others and killed some it says were responsible for crimes. The only media who were allowed to come in and see what it was doing here were those loyal to Hamas.’
It is not only this woman who described Hamas’s fighters dividing its Fatah rivals and dealing with them separately. Other eyewitnesses have described individuals in the Fatah-controlled security forces being singled out for death, an impression strongly reinforced by Hamas’s leaders themselves, who spoke on Friday of ‘cleansing’ a group within Fatah, not the group itself.
By Thursday, with the presidential office in Gaza taken and looted, Hamas was mopping up the last diehard Fatah fighters in their strongholds, detonating a bomb in a 220-metre tunnel that had been dug under a Fatah headquarters in Khan Younis, a further indication of how carefully the operation had been planned.
In the end, as most people in Gaza – whether they are supporters of Fatah, Hamas or neither – are quick to concede, Hamas won because, as in last year’s elections, they were organised. And Fatah was again shambolic.
The clearest indications of Hamas’s careful preparations for purging Fatah’s membership was not to be found in the violence but in its aftermath. As Hamas consolidated its grip on the narrow coastal strip last week, it produced a former senior member of Fatah – Khaled Abu Helal – on its TV station to say that he welcomed Hamas’s cleansing of Fatah of its collaborators and traitors. He announced too that he would be forming a new Fatah committee to oversee the organisation.
The collaboration of Fatah members with Hamas was also suggested strongly by other witnesses. One told The Observer that some officers in the Presidential Guard had sent their men home as the fighting began. Another Hamas official, the spokesman for its Qassam Brigades, Abu Obaida, insisted there was co-ordination between the two sides as the purge went on: ‘Today is a day of mercy and unity,’ he said on Friday. ‘Hamas has issued a full pardon to all the security leaders and personnel who participated in the fight against Hamas. Our fight is not against Fatah, the one with the long history in the struggle, but against just one group of Fatah agents who were following the Zionist agenda. The decent people of Fatah were co-ordinating with us and are happy we have got rid of the corrupt people of Fatah. Now we have to enforce law and order.’
‘What is there to say?’ asked Mahdi al-Shala, a resident of Rafah on Gaza’s southernmost tip, wearily. ‘Fatah were no match for Hamas even if they had more men. First they killed the Fatah men and stole their weapons, then they took control of the streets. Now we are all Hamas. There was fighting. And now Fatah is finished, and Hamas has everything. It has the streets. Hamas has the guns. It will stay quiet now.’
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, Hamas officials quickly moved to insist that, despite Abbas’s dissolution of the unity government, they still recognised him as President.
How did Hamas win? In the eyes of Gaza residents, the fight and subsequent defeat were inevitable because Fatah’s forces in Gaza were widely considered nothing more than an undisciplined series of criminal gangs.
‘[They won] from motivation, not fighting for money,’ said another Gaza resident. ‘They are not getting salaries. It’s not a question of Hamas having more fighters, I don’t think there were more, but the quality of the men carrying the weapons is totally different.
‘Some fought for four days without going home. They believe in what they’re doing. The others, Fatah security forces, fought for their thousand shekels (£120) or a packet of cigarettes. Dahlan had used poverty to recruit the people. The majority didn’t even turn up to defend their stations, many stayed at home. Most were in plain clothes. Dozens called the Qassam and said, “We want to leave, give us security and a safe passage.” Most of the decent security people don’t want to fight for Dahlan, or Israel or America. They don’t feel they should be killed for the American or Israeli agenda.’
‘These guys [Fatah] would join either Hamas or the Israelis tomorrow if someone would pay them,’ said one local journalist. ‘They don’t care who they fight for, as long as they get paid.’ And they performed like it last week.
What happens next is the critical question. For despite Hamas overtures, it was clear that President Abbas was prepared to risk an even more dangerous confrontation with Hamas, swearing in a new emergency government yesterday after both he – and Hamas’s bitter enemy Dahlan – had met senior US diplomats.
‘The good thing about Hamas is also the bad thing,’ said the journalist. ‘If their leaders tell them not to shoot, Hamas won’t. But the problem is that if their leaders tell them to kill everyone in the street, they will.’
Although many believe that, for now at least, security in Gaza will improve, what is not clear is what Hamas’s real agenda is. Although reports have been quick to dub Gaza under their rule as Hamas-stan and suggest it is now an Islamic republic, Gazan society has always been markedly more socially and religiously conservative than the West Bank.
The separation of Gaza and the West Bank – which some have warned about as a consequence – also has long been a reality for the vast majority of Palestinians, enforced by Israeli travel restrictions.
And while Hamas might have been victorious, it may quickly prove to be a poisoned chalice. Gaza depends for its survival on co-ordination between Israel and Palestinians at the crossings into the strip, which has already been jeopardised by last week’s violence.
What does seem certain in the harsh polarisation of Palestinian society is that unity no longer seems an option.
The deadly divide
· The Islamic Resistance Movement is a radical Sunni group begun in 1987.
· It first entered politics in January 2006, when it won parliamentary polls.
· Popular for bringing security, schools and health services back to lawless Gaza.
· Better armed and organised than Fatah.
· Its main backers are Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Iran has pledged financial support, but it is not clear how much has reached Gaza. Its violent wing is the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade
· Shunned by the international community and subjected to a financial boycott because of its stated long-term goal of destroying the Jewish state.
· Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian PM and senior Hamas figure in Gaza, appeared at odds last week with Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s overall leader who lives in Syria.
· The name is a reverse acronym in Arabic for the Palestinian National Liberation Movement.
· A secular, centre-left group that has monopolised power since the 1960s and was led by Yasser Arafat until his death in 2004.
· Numerically stronger than Hamas, but lacks structure and morale.
· Lost the 2006 election because it was seen as corrupt and inept by most Palestinians.
· Led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it has a history of (unsuccessful) negotiations with Israel.
· The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades translates the movement’s political line into terrorist activity against Israel and has been responsible for suicide bombings. source: