Boys' killings raise tensions between Hamas, Fatah

2 Palestinian groups ramp up violence

December 23, 2006|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- It was Monday morning, and Baha Balousha's mobile phone alarm sounded, reminding him it was time to hurry his three sons off to school. He gave them a kiss goodbye before they left in his family's chauffeured car.

Moments later, three masked gunmen opened fire with automatic rifles, spraying the sedan carrying the Balousha children, killing all of them: Osama, 9, and his brothers, Ahmed, 6, and Salam, 3.

"I could hear my children screaming. ... Salam was hit by 50 bullets. There was nothing left of his fingers," said Balousah, a senior Palestinian intelligence officer, who was at his apartment a half-block away when the shootings occurred.

"I lost my children," he said. "How many others will lose theirs?"

Violence is common in the Gaza Strip. But the killings Dec. 11 of the three children of Balousha, a high-ranking Fatah leader, inflamed the long-simmering tensions between the ruling Hamas movement and Fatah loyalists, triggering one of the worst rounds of internal Palestinian fighting in a decade.

During the past two weeks, gunmen from various Palestinian factions have engaged in tit-for-tat abductions, executions and deadly street battles that many Palestinians feared might erupt into something resembling a civil war.

A two-day-old truce that had halted factional violence was in shreds yesterday as fresh gunbattles broke out between Hamas and Fatah militants, leaving analysts wondering if any truce would be strong enough to calm the conflict.

Complicating any resolution, both Palestinian and Israeli analysts say, is the meddling of outside forces.

Shunned by the West after its defeat of Fatah in elections this year, Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence, has fallen deeper into the arms of Syria and Iran. While the United States, the European Union and Israel have subjected the Hamas government to crippling sanctions, Iran and Syria have emerged as eager sponsors of the new Palestinian government.

Likewise, the more secular Fatah movement, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is receiving backing from the United States, which supports Abbas' calls for negotiations with Israel to reach a two-state solution.

"What we are seeing is a demonstration of a struggle of greater powers than the local Palestinian factions. It is not a secret that the U.S. is backing Abu Mazen and Fatah on one hand and Iran and Syria are backing Hamas on the other," said Jonathan Fighel, a senior researcher at Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, referring to Abbas by his other name.

At stake in this conflict is more than local politics, Fighel said. It is a contest between Iran's desire to create a radical Islamic presence in the Palestinian territories made in its own image versus the West's hope to create an open, more democratic, secular society with Fatah, Fighel said.

"This is a struggle that has a lot of symbolism," Fighel said. "It is not about the unity government or who will lead the way or just an internal debate. It is much more than that. Syria and Iran are on an axis of radicalism, and they have an interest in destabilizing the region. From their perspective, any compliance from the Palestinians who are moderate - meaning Abu Mazan and Fatah - is a kind of corruption and kind of betrayal."

Iran, under increasing international pressure over its nuclear program, also has an interest in creating trouble for U.S. interests in the Middle East by befriending Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas and other organizations that the U.S. regards as sponsors of terrorism or terrorists, said Ali Jirbawi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

"Iran is interested in having a bloc that is standing against U.S. interests in the region as a whole," he said.

Iran and Syria have been active players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, providing financial and logistical support for militant activity against Israel in Gaza and the West Bank. Damascus is the base of Hamas' top leader, Khaled Mashal, and a sponsor of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad.

"They are very much in the background, very much interested in provoking instability, and they have the money, especially Iran," said Fighel.

Jirbawi said the role of Iran and Syria in stirring up violence among Palestinians underscores the findings of the Iraq Study Group, the U.S. bipartisan panel. The panel concluded that efforts to stabilize Iraq must go hand-in-hand with a Mideast peace plan.

What is most disappointing for Palestinians, Jirbawi said, is that Syrian and Iranian involvement has distracted them from their goal of ending the Israeli occupation and achieving statehood.

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