The reason for the latest disruption in Hamas' relations with Fatah can be found in a brief video clip aired by an Israeli television station on Rosh Hashanah eve. It showed a disabled Fatah operative from the Gaza Strip, who is currently hospitalized in Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center. The man was recovering from wounds he had sustained several months ago in fights with Hamas operatives.
The wounded Fatah man walked up to a group of Israel Defense Forces soldiers who had been wounded in last week's Qassam strike on the IDF basic training base in Zikim. The Palestinian wished the soldiers well and told them that, contrary to Hamas, he and his friends were in favor of peace.
Back in Gaza, Hamas' spokespeople seized the opportunity by issuing a torrent of condemnations of the Fatah man congratulating the soldiers of the Zionist occupation. Both Hamas and Fatah never miss out on an opportunity to slander and inveigh against the other. Recently - and this trend is confirmed by opinion polls carried out in the territories - Hamas' popularity seems to be declining. In the meantime, Fatah appears to be getting stronger.
This development stems in part from the violence Hamas' Executive Force, which is in control of Gaza's streets, employs against Fatah. A well-known example is the footage of prayers held in the streets of Gaza. Fatah's Gaza operatives have declared that they would rather pray in the street than enter the mosques where sermons are delivered that include incitement against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas' Executive Force responded by saying that praying on the street constitutes a disruption of public order, and dispersed the worshipers by force.
The result was a plethora of pictures showing Hamas men beating supplicants. The Palestinian public was outraged. Human rights organizations in Gaza and in the West Bank declared that preventing people from praying was an unpardonable crime.
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' prime minister in Gaza, and his men are practically begging to engage in dialogue and to reconcile with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. But he remains intransigent. He will only talk to Hamas if its leaders undo the bloody coup they staged in Gaza and issue an apology. That is not going to happen, and so the gulf between Hamas and Fatah has remained - and possibly even widened.
This ongoing rupture affects a host of issues, first among them the negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier Hamas abducted more than a year ago, and his exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners. Everybody realizes that it would be a great achievement for Hamas if negotiations were to succeed and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners would be released after having been convicted for security-related offenses.
All the parties involved - the Egyptians, Abbas' men, European and Arab mediators and Israeli representatives - do not wish to present Hamas with any sort of achievement. And so the talks have become stuck in a stalemate.
The rupture between Hamas and Fatah is a serious factor adding difficulty to the regional summit on the Middle East that the Americans are planning for November in Washington. It limits the conference's chances of success.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to promote the summit in her visit to the region, but in the past few days it has become doubtful whether the meeting will take place at all. There is no exact date, no list of participants. Naturally, there is no agenda either.
Syria isn't invited. The Saudis are hesitant about participating without securing an Arab consensus first. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says it's better not to hold the summit, because its failure could cause crippling damage. Abbas, who will be heading to the United Nations General Assembly next week, is disappointed in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because he and his representatives won't commit to a schedule for the negotiations or the implementation of the Agreement of Principles.
Palestinian sources says Israel's government - which is interested in the summit taking place - should make much more effort (concessions, in other words) to make the Arabs attend the Washington conference. But the same sources add that Israel's representatives are hesitant about reaching compromises with Abbas because of his weakness and Fatah's rupture with Hamas.
The conclusion is that it's best to be pessimistic. The upcoming weeks will see much talk about negotiations, but not about political changes. Least of all, there will be discussion over significant changes in the reality in the West Bank and Gaza.
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