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On Point

The Palestinian Civil War Has Left the Alleys Moved to the Streets


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 edge.

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 tout.

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 neighborhoods.

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 police.

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.

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