In Gaza, unity government is helpless against anarchy

May 19, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

JERUSALEM -- When the Palestinians unveiled their new unity government in March, they hailed it as an intellectual powerhouse. Educated at some of the top U.S. universities, the new ministers included physicians, engineers, university professors and authors.

But the violence that has engulfed the Gaza Strip this week suggests that solving the riddle of the deep divisions between Hamas and Fatah is beyond even this government's capabilities.

More than 50 Palestinians have been killed in some of the deadliest fighting between the two Palestinian factions, yet the power-sharing government, which was designed to end the bloodshed, has been helpless to restore calm.

Now the chaos of Gaza is spilling over into Israel. Hamas militants have launched dozens of rockets into Israel, a move that is widely viewed as an attempt to divert attention from their internal struggles and refocus the fight against the Jewish state.

In response to the assaults, Israeli planes have pounded Hamas targets in Gaza, killing 20 people in airstrikes against military compounds, suspected rocket-launching crews, and a car carrying senior commanders of the Islamic group, according to the Associated Press. Gunbattles between the warring Palestinian factions continued yesterday for the sixth straight day, with much of the fighting concentrated near Islamic University, according to the report.

The raging street battles that left Palestinians cowering in their homes underscore the growing feeling of anarchy in Gaza, where neighborhoods and streets are under the control of armed gangs of militants and residents have no one to call for help.

"I don't think the national unity government is able to do anything. I think the national unity government is irrelevant," said Ghassan Khatib, former Palestinian planning minister and political analyst.

More than 50 rockets have fallen on the Israeli town of Sederot, near Gaza, in the past three days, presenting Israeli leaders with the riddle of how to respond.

Some Israeli politicians have pushed for an invasion of Gaza, arguing that Hamas, armed with new weapons smuggled across the Egyptian border, is growing stronger militarily and must be confronted sooner rather than later.

But wary of getting drawn into a long battle with no clear exit in the densely populated Gaza Strip, the Israeli government has chosen to pursue targeted airstrikes.

Last summer in Lebanon, Israel fought for 34 days in a war that failed to stop Hezbollah's rockets until a cease-fire agreement was reached, and which strengthened the popularity of the Shiite paramilitary organization. Israel could find itself in a similar situation, bogged down in Gaza.

"We must understand that no one has a magic solution. We will have to act, and the time period will be determined by the circumstances," said Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister. The Israeli Cabinet is scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss whether to escalate the military operations in Gaza.

The tensions between Hamas and Fatah driving this crisis stem from their conflicting views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Led by President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah party has sought to enter negotiations with Israel to reach a peace settlement. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's Hamas movement, which won elections last year, refuses to recognize Israel and has continued to support armed resistance.

After months of fighting between militants of both factions, Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a unity government that they hoped would end crippling economic sanctions against the Hamas-led government and halt the violence. The sanctions continued, and now it is clear that the violence has returned.

Fighting this week was triggered by the continuing dispute over which faction will control the security forces in Gaza, prompting the resignation of Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh, an inexperienced Cabinet member with no law enforcement background who could not find a solution to the problem.

To many observers, the resulting gunbattles laid bare the shortcomings of the unity government.

"There was never a unity government. There are two political factions and their militias. That is the reality," said Hillel Frisch, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

During the past five days of fighting, Hamas has been on the offensive, attacking the home of a security commander and other symbols of Fatah power. Hamas has shown itself to be the more nimble, better trained and armed group.

"It shows that Hamas might not have only gained political ascendancy as they proved in the election, and now, at least in Gaza, they're showing their military supremacy," Frisch said.

But if Hamas is making a bid for a decisive victory in Gaza, it will run into outside interference. The United States, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, is backing Abbas' Fatah party. Congress recently approved $43 million to help beef up Abbas' 4,000-strong presidential guard.

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