Tensions Between Hamas and Fatah Overshadow Work of Reconciliation Government

Rivalry between Palestinian groups grows with mutual recriminations, perhaps fanned by recent poll showing huge popularity boost for Hamas.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Hamas supporters at a rally in Ramallah, August 30, 2014.
Hamas supporters at a rally in Ramallah, August 30, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The regular tension, hostility and suspicion between the two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, have resurfaced strongly again in recent days, despite declared intentions by both sides to maintain the reconciliation government of technocrats.

Tensions ramped up even more Thursday as anonymous gunmen fired on Hassan Khreisheh, a member of Hamas’ Change and Reform faction in the legislative council – the Palestinian Parliament – and its second deputy speaker. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was quick to announce an investigation into the attacks.

Mutual accusations, reports on arrests and persecution of activists from the other faction, and fierce rhetoric are now serving as the chilling background music as the first postwar aid attempts get underway: Care for the wounded; distribution of emergency aid funds to the needy; talks on rebuilding Gaza; and creating the committees necessary for assessing the damage and long-term planning.

The Fatah Central Committee accused Hamas this week of targeting and persecuting activists in the Gaza Strip during the fighting, and putting them under house arrest. It also claimed that Hamas government security personnel shot activists in the legs (the Hamas government has been officially dismantled, save for its Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security issues).

A source in Gaza told Haaretz that some 300 individuals – not just Fatah activists – were targeted for daring to express opposition to Hamas, and were quieted by gunfire in attempts to deter and silence others. Fatah has not published the names of its members that were attacked.

Palestinian human-rights field researchers have tried to obtain more information – names, dates and types of injuries – but their efforts have so far proved futile. One Fatah member from the West Bank told Haaretz that he knows for certain that the reports are true, from colleagues in Gaza, and that the movement apparently did not want word to get out during the fighting, to avoid harming public morale.

During the fighting, the same Fatah member stated that his Fatah contacts in Gaza all expressed support for the armed struggle led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and even complained that Hamas did not allow them to join in the fighting.

Fatah’s central committee also accused Hamas authorities in Gaza of confiscating donated materials coming in from the West Bank (clothing, mattresses, water, food, etc.) and distributing them alone. At least during the fighting, Hamas complained that aid distribution was not coordinated with high-ranking officials that were nominated during its single rule and are now officially part of the reconciliation government, but rather with Palestinian Authority officials who had been inactive during the seven years of Hamas government. Therefore, officials from the former Hamas Social Affairs Ministry took charge of the distribution of aid.

Behind the mutual recriminations is both sides’ desire to monopolize the role of aid distributors and benefactors, though the accusations also reflect the political-bureaucratic difficulties facing the government of technocrats.

Hamas spokespersons have repeatedly stated that the reconciliation government is responsible for rebuilding the Gaza Strip, and that it is dragging its feet. In response, government officials have complained that Hamas has not allowed four ministers – all Gaza residents – to fulfill their duties in accordance with their appointment and in coordination with Ramallah. Meanwhile, many in Gaza – not only Hamas supporters – are wondering why Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah have not yet gone to Gaza.

In recent weeks, Palestinian Authority security personnel have forcefully dispersed Hamas protests in Gaza, which have been marked by an abundance of green separatist flags. Over the last week, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank arrested 10 Hamas activists – some of them university students; broke into Islamists’ homes and offices, including the offices for the student movement associated with Hamas at Al-Quds University; and summoned another seven activists for questioning.

Hamas has claimed this constitutes political persecution. A statement published on Wednesday read, “These arrests and attacks are done as part of Fatah and Palestinian Authority attempts to slander and distort the victory of the resistance [the armed factions] in the Gaza Strip, and an attempt to steal from it [the resistance] the fruits of victory.”

There may be a connection between the heightened tensions and a poll released this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), attesting to a drastic increase in public support for Hamas and its leaders.

Based on interviews with 1,270 men and women, Fatah representatives and PA officials received the lowest ratings in the poll. Only 35 percent rated Hamdallah positively, with 39 percent positive for Abbas and 36 percent for the Palestinian Authority in general. On the other hand, 78 percent of respondents rated positively the performance of exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, 88 percent rated Hamas positively, and 94 percent expressed satisfaction with Hamas’ military performance.

If an election was held today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would be voted president, defeating both Abbas and imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, and Hamas would defeat Fatah in a parliamentary election. At the same time, a press release from PCPSR highlighted that previous wars also led to increases in support for Hamas that eventually returned to their preconflict levels.

Most of the respondents – 72 percent – believe that the armed struggle in Gaza should be replicated in the West Bank in order to achieve statehood.

According to the poll, the public is showing more support and optimism regarding the reconciliation government than it did during a similar poll in June about its chances of survival (69 percent today, as opposed to 26 percent then).

Every day, the PA “Voice of Palestine” radio station devotes two hours to a program called “Bridges to Gaza.” Various experts are interviewed about the aftermath of the war, and they highlight the damage, destruction, loss of life and psychological damage, particularly among children, rather than victory.

According to the poll, 79 percent of the Palestinian public believe that Hamas defeated Israel during the war, 3 percent believe that the victory was Israel’s, and 17 percent believe that both sides lost.

The poll was conducted in the West Bank and Gaza, starting on the last day of the war, August 26, until August 30, when Hamas media outlets and Al Jazeera hailed the cease-fire agreements as victory. But even then, respondents’ answers about the cease-fire were more reserved: 63 percent believed the cease-fire was in line with Palestinian interests, and 34 percent believed the opposite. Fifty-nine percent of respondents stated that the balance between the agreement’s achievements and the loss of life and property in Gaza was reasonable, while 31 percent said it was not. At the same time, 86 percent would support renewed rocket fire on Israel if the blockade on Gaza is not lifted.

It is difficult to reconcile this last response with reports coming from Gaza residents, especially as the heightened tension between the two factions in the Strip adds to the harsh prevailing mood there and increases fears of renewed warfare.

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