Gaza vs. West Bank / Yet Another Last Chance

Fatah and Hamas have been waging a propaganda campaign in the past few days concerning which of the rival organizations has succeeded more in imposing order over the Palestinian population under its control: Fatah, massively assisted by Israel, in the West Bank - or Hamas, in the besieged Gaza Strip?

After years of rampant anarchy in Gaza, a major effort is being made by Hamas to convey the fact that law and order have been restored. Hamas' Executive Force, which, prior to Fatah's defeat, was primarily utilized against its ideological rivals, is now busy with the task of reeducating the strip's criminals. Hamas does not shrink from challenges, whether big or small. It not only has gone after the Doghmush clan, to free kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston, but also tackles two-bit crooks on the beach.

Several days ago, residents complained about youths who had dishonored young women by using mobile phones to photograph them at the beach without their consent. The Executive Force was called in, descended upon the teens' beach encampment, beat them severely and dragged several off for interrogation.

A Gazan driver who accidentally stopped half a meter beyond the line at an intersection was surprised to receive a verbal reprimand from a Hamas man standing at the traffic light, along with a warning not to do it again.

But as is usual with fanatics, the growing sense of personal safety on the strip's streets also has a downside. Hamas has appointed itself guardian of public morality. Its actions in this realm make Gazans worry that the organization seeks to institute an Islamic regime. At the Commodore Hotel in Gaza, Hamas men forbade women to wear bathing suits to swim in the pool, even on days designated for women only, on the grounds that there were men peeping at them from beyond the fence surrounding the hotel. Hamas men even shut down a coffee shop where men and women used to sit together (and where, rumor has it, lovers sometimes held hands).

Any attempt to protest the new rules of the game is suppressed with an iron fist. A demonstration sponsored by Fatah in Khan Yunis last Thursday was, for instance, dispersed by Hamas gunfire.

On the West Bank, matters are taking a completely different course. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his new prime minister, Salam Fayad, notched up a considerable achievement in ostensibly dismantling Fatah's armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Under an agreement with Israel that grants them immunity from assassination or arrest, 178 key operatives agreed to hand over their weapons and sever all contact with the Brigades. But Fayad, an internationally respected economist, is a political rookie where armed gangs are concerned. The Palestinian premier may soon discover what Abbas already knows: that he is totally dependent on Israel's help, but also on the willingness of every 17-year-old boy armed with an M16, from the Balata refugee camp or Jenin, to lay down his weapon.

Israel is still formulating its policy with respect to Fayad. For now, it boils down to a willingness to restrain the offensive activity of the army and Shin Bet security service against Fatah networks. Any actions against the latter will focus on people defined as "ticking bombs." The operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad will continue, but perhaps take a lower profile.

One danger that looms in the new situation is that Hamas has a growing interest in launching terror attacks from the West Bank, which could complicate further the mess Abbas and Fayad are in already. For the moment, Israel is giving Fayad a chance - one last chance, after a series of them.