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Palestinian Infighting Continues to Divide Gaza City

May 16, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, that deadly Palestinian power struggle. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Gunfire rang out across Gaza today, the fourth day of fighting between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas. More than 40 people have been killed in the latest battles, the highest toll since the unity government was forged two months ago. The interior minister resigned two days ago in frustration.

In a pre-dawn attack today, Hamas militants stormed the house of the Fatah security chief, killing six of his employees. The security chief was not home at the time.

Yesterday, fighters loyal to Hamas killed nine when they attacked presidential guard troops. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah, has appealed to end the fighting.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, President, Palestinian Authority (through translator): The Palestinians’ first priority is ending lawlessness and chaos, and also we must do that by implementing the security plan, without any reluctance or delay, to put an end to civil strife and the ghost of internal fighting.

RAY SUAREZ: Israel unilaterally evacuated Gaza two years ago and has also been drawn in to this conflict. Yesterday, Hamas launched a salvo of rocket attacks on a town just outside Gaza, wounding five Israelis. Today, Israeli helicopters responded, firing missiles at a Hamas command center in southern Gaza, killing at least four.

But the latest fighting pits Fatah against Hamas. Fatah has dominated Palestinian government and politics for four decades. The Fatah government of President Abbas has financial backing from the U.S. and other nations, including $43 million for Abbas’ presidential guard.

Hamas refuses to acknowledge or negotiate with Israel. It won parliamentary elections last year. But the U.S. and European Union refused to release money to a Hamas government because of its stand on Israel and terrorism.

That forced the two parties to the negotiating table in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, two months ago, where they forged the power-sharing unity government. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh spoke to reporters just after the agreement.

ISMAIL HANIYEH, Prime Minister, Palestinian National Authority (through translator): The Palestinian people — Fatah, Hamas, and all the factions — God willing, will prove to the sons of the Arab nation that they are able to undertake this responsibility, they will protect this agreement, will be committed to implementing it. It will have positive effects on our people.

Disagreement over Israel, politics

RAY SUAREZ: Several cease-fires between Fatah and Hamas have been declared, including one today, but so far they've not held for more than a few hours.

Now some analysis of what's behind the strife in Gaza. We get that from Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, a nonpartisan organization in Washington that advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And Oliver McTernan, director of Forward Thinking, a British nongovernmental organization that promotes conflict resolution in the U.K. and the Middle East. He's in Washington after meetings with Hamas and Fatah officials in the Middle East.

Rafi Dajani, the truces that have been called have, you know, lasted merely hours before the killing goes on unabated. What are Hamas and Fatah fighting each other about?

RAFI DAJANI, American Task Force on Palestine: I think Hamas and Fatah are fighting each other over two fundamental disagreements. The first disagreement is how to deal with Israel and the occupation. And the second disagreement is over actual power sharing within the Palestinian political system.

It's important to remember that, for Hamas, hasn't quite resolved the issue in terms of how to deal with Israel. What comes after the end of occupation? Does it recognize Israel? Does it want a state in all of Palestine or only the part that is occupied after 1967?

Whereas Fatah has resolved that issue. It wants a state on the land that was occupied after 1967 and has decided and adopted a platform of negotiating with Israel and doing it through the use of nonviolence.

RAY SUAREZ: But if there's that difference in approach, why does it end up with armed men in the streets shooting at each other, if they've got a political difference about how to move forward, tactics and strategy for dealing with Israel?

RAFI DAJANI: Because they haven't been able to resolve those political differences through negotiations, and the armed violence is sort of an extension of the political process through violent means.

RAY SUAREZ: Oliver McTernan, these parties have clashed before. Is there a difference this time in the level of violence?

OLIVER MCTERNAN, Director, Forward Thinking: I find agreement with Rafi's overall analysis. I wonder whether, in fact, what we're witnessing on the streets of Gaza is, in fact, Fatah against Hamas or is it factions within Fatah fighting with factions within Hamas. The latter would be my opinion. And, therefore, I think there is hope that it can be solved, the immediate fighting, and then address the political issues, as Rafi rightly said, that need to be addressed.

An over-armed society

RAY SUAREZ: Well, even if it is factions within these two opposing parties, there is no other armed authority above them. If you've got parties that are armed parties, who is there, in the occupied territories or in Gaza, to make them stop?

OLIVER MCTERNAN: Well, I think this is part of the problem, and I think it's a problem that has been partially created by the international community. The international community's response to the Hamas victory in the election was isolation. You know, we put preconditions before engagement; that has resulted in severe economic hardship.

And, as a consequence, as I think when you have an over-armed society, it's inevitable that you will get tension spilling into the street. Recently, $84 million was given in rearming the security forces, which are fully identified with Fatah. Now, if the international community had given that $84 million to pay salaries, put bread on the table, I doubt whether we would be seeing these clashes at the moment that we're witnessing now.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree with that analysis, that the preference toward Fatah, in fact, stokes the violence by arming one side and not other?

RAFI DAJANI: Well, I think that the policy of strictly isolating Hamas, whether through economic sanction or other means, hasn't worked, because it hasn't forced Hamas to face its basic identity crisis of whether it is a movement that calls for an Islamic state in all of Palestinian or part of historic Palestinian, whether it negotiates with Israel or not.

And I think the way out of this is for the international community to engage in a meaningful political process with Abbas and with the government, which will force Hamas to face up to its identity crisis and force it to answer the questions of whether it, in the final analysis, will negotiate with Israel, will renounce violence, and will accept a Palestinian state in the lands occupied after 1967.

RAY SUAREZ: But the outside world, often in these cases, in this particular part of the world, makes cessation of hostilities a precondition toward moving forward with a political solution, and these two groups seem unable to stop killing each other.

RAFI DAJANI: Yes. We have, obviously, a very serious situation where the paralysis in the government, a government that was really not as much a unity government as actually a coalition government, has not resulted in the international community responding in the way that the government initially hoped it would.

You know, the initial hope was that the government would be formed and then international sanctions would at least be alleviated. They haven't, because the international community has stuck to its conditions of the -- the quartet conditions, of recognition of Israel, of renouncing violence, and of respecting past agreements. And I think that is the way forward.

A difficult transition for Hamas

RAY SUAREZ: Oliver McTernan, help us understand a little bit of just what we're talking about here. Is this a standing army? Is it a constituted militia? Are these people who maybe, at other times during the week, are in an auto repair shop or a bakery or a store and take up arms episodically? Who are these people?

OLIVER MCTERNAN: I think it's a mix of what you described. Several months ago, Hamas made the decision to bring the executive forces onto the street, to give them a uniform, give them a purpose. Now, the explanation behind that was to help them to buy into the political process, because Hamas is essentially a resistance movement that is in the process of becoming a political party.

Now, that's a very difficult transition. And I thought it was a very wise move by them to give young men who are armed, who would otherwise be idle, to give them a purpose, give them a sense of daily responsibility. Sadly, I don't think that was understood, and it was seen as a threat to the security forces under the president, Abu Mazen.

Again, I would come back to the role of the international community. We expect two parties that have different political outlook horizons to get an agreement and then stick by it. We've done nothing to help them understand each other. We haven't facilitated a dialogue with them.

I think, had the wider community brought Fatah and Hamas together, helped them to realize there can be no future without them working together, I think it would have been a much more positive response.

RAY SUAREZ: You saw in the earlier report, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas-aligned prime minister, saying that there could be an agreement, that it could be worked out. One solution, one suggested solution, was to take both armed forces and put them under a unified military command. Are these people grasping at straws? Or is this the germ of an idea that could...

OLIVER MCTERNAN: No, I think that's obvious way forward. What I think has to happen is now the political will on both sides to make this work. I was worried, when I heard this recent outbreak -- I was in Gaza just a few days ago, and the situation was very tense -- I was worried with this recent outbreak, is that the political leaders on both sides were actually losing control of the militant sections.

Hopefully, that's not so. Hopefully, there are enough people in both in Fatah and in Hamas who see that it's not in the Palestinian interest what's happening now and will work to find the sort of solution that you've suggested.

Forces barely under control

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. McTernan's point, Rafi Dajani, brings up the question, are these groups under some sort of control of somebody? Or could the fighting get to the point where it goes on, whether the Haniyehs and the Mahmoud Abbases say yes or no?

RAFI DAJANI: Well, at this point, I think they are barely under control. But as the violence spirals, if it does, and as the fighting becomes out of control, then these heads, Haniyeh and Abbas, will have less and less control over the forces on the ground, and we'll see splits within the forces where local groups won't answer to national groups anymore. And that is the real danger, because they will no longer have control on telling them to stop the fighting.

RAY SUAREZ: Then what does Israel do? We saw today some, because of an over-border incursion, Israeli retaliation. Today, the Israeli foreign minister said, "Until now, we've demonstrated restraint, but this is not a tolerable situation."

OLIVER MCTERNAN: I think the greatest fear at the moment is that the ordinary people, whether they're Fatah supporters or Hamas supporters, are losing confidence in the political process.

Now, if that happens, I think the inevitable result will be a collapse of the Palestinian authority. That will be the biggest security threat for Israel, because they will have chaos on the doorstep. They will have legal responsibility to administer a chaotic society. And I think what we will witness is violence that will spread beyond the borders of Israel, and that is the real risk.

RAY SUAREZ: Oliver McTernan, Rafi Dajani, thank you both.

RAFI DAJANI: Thank you.