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Fighting Between Hamas and Fatah Rages Across Gaza

June 13, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: The sounds of small-arms fire often clashed with the Muslim call to prayer, as violence intensified across the Gaza Strip today. Groups of gunmen loyal to two rival factions engaged in open battles across the 130-square-mile stretch of coastal land that is home to more than a million Palestinians.

Even a peace rally was not immune to warfare today. A gathering of 1,000 Palestinians scattered when gunmen opened fire during the march, killing at least two. More than 60 Palestinians have died in the spasm of violence that began over the weekend. At least two U.N. workers also were killed.

The conflict between Fatah and Hamas has paralyzed the already-fragile Palestinian national unity government. Fatah, the nationalist, largely secular party, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, appeared to be losing significant ground in northern Gaza to the Islamist movement Hamas, which won control of the Palestinian Legislative Council in elections in January 2006.

Abbas, whose West Bank compound was the target of Hamas mortar fire on Monday, today made an appeal for calm.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, President, Palestinian Authority (through translator): This is madness, the madness that is taking place in Gaza now. I don’t blame responsibility on any part. Each and everyone that carries weapon and opens fire or attack is responsible. In principle, all parties must stop.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, there was no sign of a let-up today, as Hamas gunmen routed the better-trained and -equipped Fatah security forces in Gaza; Hamas fighters seized the security force headquarters yesterday, killing 17.

According to human rights groups, the intra-Palestinian conflict has taken on a gruesome, personal tone, including knee-cappings, summary executions, and, in one case, a Fatah member who was handcuffed and thrown from a 15-story building.

The power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas, brokered earlier this year in Mecca under Saudi Arabian auspices, appears to be in tatters. Both sides have accused the other of attempting a power grab through violence, and one Fatah minister said their participation in the government hung in the balance.

AZAM AL-AHMED, Deputy Prime Minister, Palestinian National Authority (through translator): We haven’t decided not to participate in the government, but what we have indicated is that one of the steps we might take if the violence doesn’t stop is not to participate in the government.

KWAME HOLMAN: A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, told the Washington Post today, “Our aim to control these military posts does not have any political implications. This is not a coup. After all, we are the ones responsible for the legitimate institutions.”

Since Hamas surged to power in parliamentary elections, there has been tenuous, fitful cooperation between the factions, which hold differing visions of a Palestinian state. The U.S., Israel and European Union had cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority and refused to work with the Hamas-led government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, citing the group’s refusal to recognize Israel and its stated goal of destroying the Jewish state.

Today in Washington, a State Department spokesman made clear who the U.S. blames for the violence.

SEAN MCCORMACK, State Department Spokesman: As I said, it is this so-called military wing of Hamas that launched these attacks, started these rounds of violence. It has swept up innocent civilians in firefights, and gunfights, and shelling, and mortaring, just as Egyptian envoys were working to try to bring together elements of Hamas and Fatah, political elements of Hamas and Fatah, to come to some sort of political accommodation so they can lower the violence there.

KWAME HOLMAN: The U.S., which has funded and assisted in the training of Palestinian security forces, again today pledged its support for President Abbas.

An offer for truce

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
What we saw today in Gaza was a clear Hamas victory. They have won everything except for a small portion of Gaza.

JIM LEHRER: Some analysis of this now from Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He's now a visiting fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank. And Mark Perry, co-director of Conflicts Forum, an international organization that promotes Middle East peace, he was an informal political adviser to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Gentlemen, first, reports this evening of a truce, and then there were reports, "Oh, no, no, that was not true." Can you update us? Have you heard anything about a truce?

GHAITH AL-OMARI, New America Foundation: Yes, I mean, there has been an offer by Hamas for a truce, a conditional offer. Basically, what happened, Hamas -- or what happened is that the violent aspect of this confrontation seems to be decided in Hamas' favor. Now it moves to the political side...

JIM LEHRER: Now, wait a minute. Let's just stick to truce. Was the truce accepted or is it...

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Not yet. The conditions of the truce, if I may -- the conditions of the truce are being discussed right now. The conditions include Hamas' take over of the security sector, security system, and the removal of the Fatah leaders of the security organization. This is being discussed tonight within Abbas' government.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Have you heard the same things?

MARK PERRY, Conflicts Forum: Yes, the same things. And from the Hamas side, this is clearly an attempt by Hamas to give Fatah a face-saving measure for a way out. What we saw today in Gaza was a clear Hamas victory. They have won everything except for a small portion of Gaza. They can overrun what's left of the Fatah security forces.

They have offered the truce so that Abbas clearly has no other way except to accept a truce and find a face-saving measure to save what's left. I think that it's possible the truce may be accepted, but it means accepting a Hamas victory.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, first of all, that it may be accepted?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: It could be accepted, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that it would mean accepting a Hamas victory over Fatah in Gaza?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I don't think this is the case; it's not that simple. I think what's happening right now is that we're moving into the political phase following the military confrontations. I agree with Mark that the Hamas almost certainly won in Gaza. Right now...

JIM LEHRER: They now control Gaza?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: They control Gaza. However, there are other levers of control, the financial levers, other issues regarding to the government, the national unity government. Will it stick? Will it collapse? This is what's going to be discussed and determined in the next few days.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, that there's much more to -- if they do talk, they do stop killing, and they start talking, they're going to have to talk a lot more than just about the killing, right?

MARK PERRY: There is a lot to be determined. The national unity government is clearly being shaken. It's possible that the finance minister will resign. We don't know what the future will be and how the employees will be paid if he does, whether the money will be forthcoming from the international community, whether the national unity ministers will stay intact, what the Hamas role will be, whether the independent ministers stay intact. The next 72 hours will tell the tale; we just don't know the future.

Understanding the conflict

Ghaith al-Omari
Former Palestinian Presidential Adviser
Fatah, which has been in power for the last 40 years, felt that they could not relinquish power completely to Hamas and, from that moment on, there was a power struggle.

JIM LEHRER: Well, both of you, beginning with you, Mr. al-Omari, help people who don't follow this that closely understand why Hamas and Fatah are killing each other. What's not the long history, but just what's caused this conflict?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: It's basically a power struggle. Hamas came into power. They won in the election back two years ago. They won an election. They wanted -- after winning the election, they felt that they were entitled to control the whole Palestinian political and security system. Fatah, which has been in power for the last 40 years, felt that they could not relinquish power completely to Hamas and, from that moment on, there was a power struggle.

What compounded this and made it more difficult is this whole system, this whole regime of sanctions against Palestinian Authority, where there was no ground, really, for a constructive discussion between Hamas and Fatah. And the international community, with this boycott, was pushing Hamas and Fatah for this confrontation.

JIM LEHRER: What's your analysis? What would you add to that?

MARK PERRY: Ziad Abu-Amr, who is the foreign minister and not a member of Hamas or Fatah, today said that this is the result of outside meddling. What he means is the United States.

The United States trained and equipped a small, marginal group within Fatah to undermine Hamas. This group, a militia, under the command of Mohammed Dahlan, went into Gaza, I believe tried to undermine it, and Hamas struck back and won a clear military victory.

We don't see this going on in the West Bank, where Hamas and Fatah are running a competent and very uncorrupt government. This is not a civil conflict. This is a very localized struggle between Hamas and a very well-armed, armed by the United States, militia.

JIM LEHRER: Is it ideological?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: No. It is political. It's about power. Obviously, Hamas and Fatah come from different perspectives, especially in terms of, how do they want to run the domestic Palestinian institutions, in terms of Hamas is a conservative religious movement, Fatah has a much more liberal one? However...

JIM LEHRER: And more sectarian than Hamas, correct?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I don't think so.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I mean, in many ways -- and if I may comment to what Mark said -- I don't think that there is a good player and a bad player in this one. Yes, Fatah was being armed by the United States. However, Hamas was being armed by Iran.

When I talk about the regional players, everyone is involved. Iran is involved in arming Fatah. Syria is involved. I mean, sorry, in arming Hamas. Syria is involved in arming Hamas. And the same thing with Jordan and the United States are involved in arming Fatah.

So it's a much more complex regional game than simply a group of militias coming in and trying to undermine a government. Both Fatah and Hamas have been locked in this. There is no clean party in this fight.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody has guns.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Everyone has guns.

JIM LEHRER: And they're getting them from -- everybody has a source for guns, right, is what you're saying?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Oh, yes.

JIM LEHRER: And you agree, Mr. Perry?

MARK PERRY: Everyone has a source for guns. I would like to see how Iran gets guns to Hamas. I don't think that that's possible and true. These small arms are coming from all kinds of people, and these people are well-armed. There's no question about it.

The possible next step

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
We have to start recognizing legitimate Islamist groups that win elections. Hamas won an election.

JIM LEHRER: Let's move to the possible next step. Is it possible that we may have two Palestines? I mean, will we have one in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, and the West Bank, which is run by Fatah? Is that a possibility, with Israel in between?

MARK PERRY: It is a principle of the Palestinian political leadership that there is one Palestine. It is indivisible. It includes Gaza and the West Bank, and they will be united. And I haven't seen any Palestinian political leader who will renege on this principle.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I agree. I mean, this is really politically unviable. Any Palestinian leader who would call for this kind of separation, that would be the end of their political life. It is such a red line that will not be crossed.

However, what could happen, though, is that pressure might become so much that the whole Palestinian Authority might collapse. This is my biggest concern, because if that happens, we'll no longer see this kind of identifiable violence between Hamas and Fatah. We will see the complete disintegration, where street gangs, where clans, where all of these small groups will start fighting, the kind of situation that will allow for al-Qaida to infiltrate, that will create a much more difficult situation than we have right now.

JIM LEHRER: If they're such a uniting force, Mr. Perry, that this is unthinkable to separate Hamas from Fatah, then why are they killing each other?

MARK PERRY: This is politics. I agree with my colleague. This is about power and politics. This isn't secular versus religious; this is about who governs.

And I agree with my colleague on another point. Hamas is really a moderate organization. We don't look at an Islamist group as a moderate organization, but if Gaza and the West Bank descend into chaos, we're not going to get Fatah replacing Hamas. We're going to get al-Qaida.

It's time to start talking with Islamist moderate groups, no matter how distasteful we think about it. We have to start recognizing legitimate Islamist groups that win elections. Hamas won an election.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, as a basic principle?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I think, yes, I mean, I agree with Mark. I don't like Hamas. They're my political opponents. If they're in power, it means I'm not in power.

However, they are a reality in the Palestinian political system. They represent a constituency. It would be ridiculous to push them aside. They have to be engaged, again, within certain principles. They have to be pushed. They have to be pressured. However, they have to be engaged. If we push them away, we will get violence.

This is what happened. They were not allowed to govern, they resorted to violence. The only way that we can have stability is if we talk to them.

JIM LEHRER: And you agree with that?

MARK PERRY: I agree we ought to start talking today. And democracy is the great moderator. It pushes otherwise religious and even sectarian groups to moderate their views and to answer to the people and to their constituents. It's true of every political group. That's what democracy does.

JIM LEHRER: But do you see any signs tonight of that actually happening?

MARK PERRY: It hasn't happened tonight. It hasn't happened today. But when Hamas was elected, they began to listen to their constituency, and they began to provide good governance, and they do today in the West Bank. If allowed to govern, I've got to believe that, like every political party in a democracy, they listen to their constituency, they begin to moderate their views. That's what happened here in the United States.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: I think, if they govern, they will have to face a very difficult question of governance. How do you build a viable economy? How do you deal with an inflated bureaucracy? Difficult questions that they will have to answer, and they will have to engage in real politics. They will make good decisions and bad decisions. We will have our own campaign against them based on their decisions. It becomes more real; it becomes more mature and more stable.

Building a democracy

Ghaith al-Omari
Former Palestinian Presidential Adviser
Fatah knows that Hamas has a bigger constituency and is militarily superior. They need one another. If they don't work with one another, they will both collapse.

JIM LEHRER: But does the killing of Palestinians by Palestinians make this kind of arrangement that the two of you have been talking about more and more difficult, if not impossible?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: It is more difficult after now, what, three or four days of this violence. It's more difficult. However, there is no other option. The other option is continued violence.

Hamas knows that they cannot govern by themselves, that they need Fatah to help them open to the world. And Fatah knows that Hamas has a bigger constituency and is militarily superior. They need one another. If they don't work with one another, they will both collapse.

JIM LEHRER: I was just told, by the way, that the death toll in Gaza has been upgraded -- the total is now up to 33 this day. So what's your answer here about whether the killing makes all of this talk of peace and getting together more and more difficult?

MARK PERRY: A sad day for the Palestinians, but we've had in our lifetimes incidents like this. I can remember not so long ago in South Africa, when the African National Congress and other political parties were killing each other, and Mandela was called a terrorist, and we had democratic elections. And the ANC became a political party, and now South Africa is a democracy.

It's possible. It's not certain. It's not guaranteed. But I think we have to try it, and we have to see if democracy works. If we strangle the infant of democracy in the cradle, it won't work, and we know that. We have to stop meddling. We have to allow democracy to work.

JIM LEHRER: Allow democracy to work?

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Absolutely. It's the only way that you can get stability. Otherwise, you will get violence. You cannot advocate democracy only if it fits your agenda. You go for the democracy, you accept it, with the positive and the negative.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: Thank you.