by Austin Bay
July 20, 2005
The internecine Palestinian war has been an on and off struggle
for several years, but Yassir Arafat's death last November raised the stakes
and set the stage for something more violent and perhaps more conclusive.
The war pits the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Fatah
(Arafat's old political organization, now led by Palestinian Prime Minister
Mahmoud Abbas) against Hamas and a host of Islamist "rejectionist"
organizations such as Islamic Jihad. The rejectionists refuse any deal with
the Israelis. (Islamic Jihad is the group responsible for the Jul. 12
suicide bombing in the Israeli town of Netanya that killed five people.)
The PNA has two powerful allies: Israel and the United States.
They can be politically-awkward allies. The rejectionists accuse Abbas of
selling out to "the Zionist entity" and "U.S. imperialism." However,
Israel's military and intelligence resources give the PNA a huge combat
The PNA also has something that arguably only one other Arab
state in the Middle East has at the moment: a national democratic mandate.
(The other state is Iraq.)
Here's why: Following Arafat's death in November, 2004, Abbas
moved with unusual public courage. Abbas called the Palestinians' "second
intifada" a strategic mistake. While proclaiming the Palestinians' right to
"resist (Israeli) occupation," he insisted on using peaceful means. Abbas
framed Palestine's January election as a choice between responsible,
peaceful politics and extremist violence. He also challenged the Palestinian
electorate to legitimatize the peace process with Israel.
But Hamas and the rejectionists believe "peace" means the
destruction of Israel.
The PNA and Abbas prefer a "two-state solution," with Israel and
Palestine coexisting. At some point, coexistence would become
mutually-beneficial economic cooperation.
Arafat's dismal legacy politically hinders Abbas. Arafat skimmed
aid money targeted for impoverished Palestinians and the PNA remains riddled
with corrupt politicians.
Palestinian disgust with PNA corruption creates a political
opportunity for a genuine democratic political opposition. Hamas' current
leaders, however, prefer bullets to ballots.
On Jul. 14, Hamas launched a mortar and rocket attack on an Israeli settlement in
Gaza while Abbas was visiting the area. (Israel intends to withdraw from
these Gaza settlements next month.)
The fact the attack occurred on "Bastille Day" is a
coincidence -- the attack announced Palestine's Prime Minister was a target.
It is the kind of coincidence Hamas' European propagandists may eventually
The attack kicked off a series of gunbattles between Hamas and
the Palestinian police that left at least 16 injured and two dead. On Jul.
15, police in armored vehicles fought with Hamas in "pro-Hamas" Gaza
The impending Israeli pullback from Gaza would be a huge
political victory for Abbas and his "peaceful means." That's why some
analysts argue Hamas and other rejectionist factions have an immediate if
ironic interest in derailing or delaying the Israeli pullback -- a curious
common ground with Israeli militants who oppose the withdrawal and "land for
peace" deals. There's even an echo of civil conflict in Israel: This week,
Israeli militants staging "anti-pullout marches" battled with Israeli
On Jul. 16 Abbas accused Hamas of seeing his "patience" with its
violence as "a sign of weakness" and sought to undermine the PNA. On Jul.
18, he directly confronted the civil war question: "I don't want or accept a
civil war. But if they (Hamas) insist on breaking the truce without abiding
by the (political) consensus, let them bear the responsibility." Abbas said
the PNA would not allow an "alternative so-called government or authority."
Abbas now casts Hamas as a front for turncoats -- a sharp act of
political judo in the midst of a crisis. If he can convince the Palestinian
people, he's well on his way to winning this inevitable civil war.