by Austin Bay
July 20, 2005
The internecine Palestinian war has been an on and off strugglefor several years, but Yassir Arafat's death last November raised the stakesand 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 MinisterMahmoud Abbas) against Hamas and a host of Islamist "rejectionist"organizations such as Islamic Jihad. The rejectionists refuse any deal withthe Israelis. (Islamic Jihad is the group responsible for the Jul. 12suicide 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 ofselling out to "the Zionist entity" and "U.S. imperialism." However,Israel's military and intelligence resources give the PNA a huge combatedge.
The PNA also has something that arguably only one other Arabstate 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, Abbasmoved with unusual public courage. Abbas called the Palestinians' "secondintifada" a strategic mistake. While proclaiming the Palestinians' right to"resist (Israeli) occupation," he insisted on using peaceful means. Abbasframed Palestine's January election as a choice between responsible,peaceful politics and extremist violence. He also challenged the Palestinianelectorate to legitimatize the peace process with Israel.
But Hamas and the rejectionists believe "peace" means thedestruction of Israel.
The PNA and Abbas prefer a "two-state solution," with Israel andPalestine coexisting. At some point, coexistence would becomemutually-beneficial economic cooperation.
Arafat's dismal legacy politically hinders Abbas. Arafat skimmedaid money targeted for impoverished Palestinians and the PNA remains riddledwith corrupt politicians.
Palestinian disgust with PNA corruption creates a politicalopportunity for a genuine democratic political opposition. Hamas' currentleaders, however, prefer bullets to ballots.
On Jul. 14, Hamas launched a mortar and rocket attack on an Israeli settlement inGaza while Abbas was visiting the area. (Israel intends to withdraw fromthese Gaza settlements next month.)
The fact the attack occurred on "Bastille Day" is acoincidence -- the attack announced Palestine's Prime Minister was a target.It is the kind of coincidence Hamas' European propagandists may eventuallytout.
The attack kicked off a series of gunbattles between Hamas andthe Palestinian police that left at least 16 injured and two dead. On Jul.15, police in armored vehicles fought with Hamas in "pro-Hamas" Gazaneighborhoods.
The impending Israeli pullback from Gaza would be a hugepolitical victory for Abbas and his "peaceful means." That's why someanalysts argue Hamas and other rejectionist factions have an immediate ifironic interest in derailing or delaying the Israeli pullback -- a curiouscommon ground with Israeli militants who oppose the withdrawal and "land forpeace" deals. There's even an echo of civil conflict in Israel: This week,Israeli militants staging "anti-pullout marches" battled with Israelipolice.
On Jul. 16 Abbas accused Hamas of seeing his "patience" with itsviolence 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 acivil war. But if they (Hamas) insist on breaking the truce without abidingby the (political) consensus, let them bear the responsibility." Abbas saidthe PNA would not allow an "alternative so-called government or authority."
Abbas now casts Hamas as a front for turncoats -- a sharp act ofpolitical judo in the midst of a crisis. If he can convince the Palestinianpeople, he's well on his way to winning this inevitable civil war.