Palestinian `unity' doomed from start

Fatah, Hamas never settled who got control of guns

May 17, 2007|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah wage pitched battles in the streets of the Gaza Strip. Three truces have come and gone. In four days, at least 40 people have been killed, including at least 14 yesterday as an increasingly violent struggle threatens to bring down what had been called a Palestinian "unity" government.

When their new political power-sharing coalition was unveiled in March, leaders of Fatah and Hamas pledged to put an end to their fighting. But the ferocious violence shredding the Gaza Strip this week has made a mockery of the agreement.

Rank-and-file members of the two factions are again battling for supremacy on the streets as ordinary residents, worn down by years of economic and social chaos, are trapped in their homes.

The body count yesterday included five Hamas members allegedly killed by their own men by mistake. Fatah sources said the victims were in a car, under arrest by Fatah security forces, when other Hamas agents opened fire.

Earlier, five bodyguards to a top Fatah security official died when Hamas fighters stormed the official's home. In other parts of Gaza, smoke billowed from buildings set aflame.

The events this week have made increasingly clear that, from the outset, the "unity" effort was almost set up to fail, with neither of the two leading parties willing to give much ground where it counted most. Power in Gaza still flows largely from the barrel of the gun, and the rival organizations never really agreed who got to control the weapons.

The latest cease-fire was declared last night, one supported, for the first time, by Hamas' armed wing in addition to its political leaders. Gaza City residents reported that things quieted down in the first few hours after the truce was announced. But after the collapse of three previous agreements almost before they began, the city remained on edge.

At least two Israeli airstrikes, in retaliation for rocket launches by Hamas militants, added to the tensions. Seven Hamas fighters were killed.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised a "severe and harsh" response to any further rocket attacks. At least five rockets landed in the town of Sderot yesterday, with one woman severely injured when her home was hit.

The end of factional fighting in Gaza was supposed to be near when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, appointed Hani Kawasmeh as their interior minister after a rancorous dispute over the politically sensitive post that lasted for weeks.

Kawasmeh, widely viewed as an independent compromise candidate, was charged with drafting a plan to integrate the competing Palestinian security agencies into a unified force able to quell the violence. But Kawasmeh, as a career academic and civil servant, was a neophyte with regard to law enforcement.

Analysts say that the choice of someone without the necessary credentials and clout reflected a lack of genuine political will to solve the factional riddle.

"Selecting Kawasmeh by itself was a signal that they were not serious," said Bassam Nasser, who runs the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza City. "They selected a person who is weak, not experienced, not affiliated with any party. He is the last [person] to impose order in Gaza."

Kawasmeh quit his job Monday in protest over the spiraling violence. He spoke scathingly about his bosses, saying they never invested him with the authority needed to push through the reforms he was supposed to implement.

Indeed, one of Abbas' first acts after the unity government was installed under the auspices of Saudi Arabia in March was to name Muhammad Dahlan, Fatah's strongman in Gaza, as his new national security adviser.

The appointment undermined Kawasmeh and fueled suspicion among Hamas members, despite pledges by some officials of the radical Islamic organization to take Dahlan at face value. Dahlan, sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Abbas, is reviled by many in Hamas as a turncoat because of his aggressive crackdown on Islamic militants during the 1990s as part of the peace process with Israel.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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