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Attack on Hamas Politician Sparks Fighting in Gaza

December 15, 2006 at 6:05 PM EDT
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JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITV News Correspondent: Mayhem in Ramallah, Palestinians not fighting Israelis, but each other, their would-be Palestinians state hurtling towards what both sides acknowledge could be all-out civil war.

Police and soldiers loyal to the president taking on protestors who support the prime minister; a power struggle between their parties boiling over onto the streets.

These battles breaking out are for Hamas accused Fatah of trying to assassinate its prime minister.

The trouble began last night, when Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was returning to Gaza via Egypt early, his attempt to stop more violence at home ironically making a bad situation worse, for hundreds of its Hamas supporters stormed the border crossing, after Israel, which has no troops here, nevertheless refused to let Haniyeh in.

But a Hamas leader was carrying suitcases full of cash — some $35 million, reportedly — which Israel claimed to be used to fund attacks against it. Security forces loyal to President Abbas tried to keep the Hamas crowd back but failed, the violence leaving over 20 people wounded.

Haniyeh was allowed in after leaving his money behind. That cash possibly from Iran, Qatar, or Sudan, the Hamas lifeline in the absence of direct aid from the U.S. or the E.U. But as the PM’s heavily armed convoy sped into the night, it came under attack, wounding Haniyeh’s son and killing one of his many bodyguards.

By the time of that bodyguard’s funeral in Gaza today, Hamas was putting out the word that one of President Abbas’ most senior advisers had tried to have the prime minister assassinated.

At Abbas, Hamas rally in Gaza City. Mr. Haniyeh showed up safe, though judging from his security posse, a man fearful for his life. Before a crowd of tens of thousands, the prime minister hinted at revenge, though he left it to one of his colleagues to be more brunt.

DR. KHALIL AL-HAYYA, Hamas MP, Gaza (through translator): Which war are you launching, Mahmoud Abbas? First you go against God, and then against Hamas.

MAHMOUD ZAHAR, Palestinian Foreign Minister: I think Mr. Abbas is undermining his credibility against the Palestinian people.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: One of the president’s aides today denied any assassination conspiracy, yet thousands here may now believe otherwise, and the men of war are once again on Gaza’s streets.

Underlying causes of the fighting

Rafi Dajani
American Task Force on Palestine
Every time there's a breakdown of any kind of negotiation for a unity government, and any time there is an impasse in terms of the wider political negotiating with Israel, the Palestinians have started fighting each other more and more.

RAY SUAREZ: Now some analysis of the Palestinian tensions. For that, we're joined by 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 Nathan Brown, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he also is author of "Resuming Arab Palestine," a book on Palestinian governance.

Rafi Dajani, why are these rival factions now engaged, instead of just a political struggle, in something closer to all-out war?

RAFI DAJANI, American Task Force on Palestine: Well, we've seen this happen more and more in the past year or so. Every time there's a breakdown of any kind of negotiation for a unity government, and any time there is an impasse in terms of the wider political negotiating with Israel, the Palestinians have started fighting each other more and more.

And each episode of violence, unfortunately, is more serious than the one before. And even though I don't think at this point civil war is imminent, violence has a tendency to assume a life of its own. And there is a danger that one of these incidents will spiral into all-out fighting.

RAY SUAREZ: Nathan Brown, what do you see as the underlying causes here?

NATHAN BROWN, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, I think there's a struggle for political power between, you know, two rival groups that are highly armed. But laid on top of this is a very perilous international situation, where the international community essentially, instead of trying to pull the two sides apart, are trying to push for some kind of national unity government, is essentially taking sides in the conflict, one side on Hamas, one side for Fatah.

And so they have -- each side has powerful international backers that it -- and neither set of backers are restraining their local allies.

U.S. on regional dynamic in Mideast

Nathan Brown
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
[A]ny transformation in the [Abbas] presidential security forces is going to take time. So there's not necessarily going to be an immediate effect on the situation on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when it comes to powerful international backers, today Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the Bush administration would be asking Congress for tens of millions of dollars to support the Abbas security forces. What do you make of that?

NATHAN BROWN: Well, any transformation in the presidential security forces is going to take time. So there's not necessarily going to be an immediate effect on the situation on the ground.

But for her to do so publicly sends a very, very clear message to Palestinians, that the United States is backing one party in this conflict and, in a sense, sees it potentially as a military conflict and not a political conflict. So I think Abbas will be very much embarrassed by this; it looks like he's being goaded onto civil war by the Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Rafi Dajani, what do you make of that American move?

RAFI DAJANI: Well, I don't think necessarily that U.S. backing of the Palestinian president is a bad thing, but it really depends on what type of backing it is.

If the backing is strictly military and it's strictly intended to strengthen one side to defeat another, then I think we have a very serious problem on our hands.

If the backing, however, is political, and is intended to empower the Palestinian president, and is part of a larger package of making him able to deliver to the Palestinian people, both an improvement in their lives and a political horizon for a future state, then that backing would be positive.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the news is still pretty fresh. It was just announced this afternoon. But it looked like the emphasis was on security forces and not on political development. Would this, in your view, encourage anti-U.S. governments to weigh in on the side of Hamas?

RAFI DAJANI: Well, we've already seen the Middle East evolve into sort of a fault line between parties, local parties that are backed by regional actors -- namely Iran and Syria -- and then governments and ruling authorities that are backed by the West.

And I fear that this is also happening to the Palestinian territories, where you have the Abbas presidency on one hand, backed by the U.S. and the West, and Hamas on the other hand, the prime ministership backed by Iran and Syria.

And I think that is a very dangerous development, because it takes a lot of decision making out of the hands of the local parties on the ground and puts it in the hand of regional and international actors.

RAY SUAREZ: Nathan Brown, do you see a U.S. weighing in very forcefully on one side changing the regional dynamics?

NATHAN BROWN: Without question. I mean, the United States' role here has been a little bit out of the public eye, but essentially the national unity government, which the two factions were trying to negotiate up until about a week ago, when the negotiations finally fell through, one of the main reasons they fell through was that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was trying to come up with a government that would be acceptable to the Americans and would be acceptable to Hamas, to see how much he could get Hamas -- how many ministries he could talk them out of and how many Hamas ministers that would remain in the government he could sell to the Americans.

And what happened essentially was that he couldn't come to a deal between the two of them, so the Americans are seen very much as parties to this.

Hamas' victory in the elections

Rafi Dajani
American Task Force on Palestine
Hamas won the legislative elections in January of 2005, so we have a system here where the president is the leader of the Fatah Party, and the prime minister is the leader of Hamas. So we have a sort of almost like a dual authority here.

RAY SUAREZ: We should probably remind people why these negotiations for a national unity government are going on. Hamas won the last elections, right?

RAFI DAJANI: Hamas won the legislative elections in January of 2005, so we have a system here where the president is the leader of the Fatah Party, and the prime minister is the leader of Hamas. So we have a sort of almost like a dual authority here.

And what they've been trying to do is reach an agreement on a unity government whose cabinet would be composed of members of neither party, a cabinet of technocrats that would ostensibly be independent and would be acceptable to the West and to the U.S., and thereby relieving the international sanction regime against the Palestinians Authority.

RAY SUAREZ: So open up the aid spigot again?

RAFI DAJANI: Basically, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Nathan Brown, can this political conflict be solved by military force? Can one side prevail over the other?

NATHAN BROWN: It's really unclear. I mean, the two sides are highly armed. Fatah has plenty of people with guns, and Hamas has plenty of people with guns.

I would agree with something that Rafi Dajani said earlier, in that we do see conflicts like this happening in the past. And as nasty as this is, at the last moment, both sides have pulled back. And my guess is that's what's going to happen this time.

But if it does spiral into all-out fighting, it will be extremely nasty. You've got a disperse population in Gaza, in the West Bank. You could see battles for control of every single Palestinian town, village and city.

RAY SUAREZ: With Hamas running a government that can't pay its civil servants, can't pay teachers, can't pay cops on the beat, is there any chance that they would give into one of the central demands of the Western donors, and recognize Israel's right to exist, and remove the plank from their platform that the state of Israel must be destroyed?

RAFI DAJANI: I think, in the short term, to expect an explicit Hamas recognition of those two things is absolutely impossible. What we're hoping for, what has been hoped for, is that a national unity government would come up with a sort of compromise formula, where the issue would be fudged enough to be acceptable to the West, or Hamas would move close enough to these conditions under the umbrella of the unity government for the sanctions to be lifted.

But on the other hand, I think Hamas' ideology is not one that can be, as I said, changed in the short term. If we are to expect Hamas to change its ideology, it would be something that could happen only in the long term, and only if it feels that that's what the Palestinian people absolutely want to do.

And at this point in time, Hamas is perceived by the Palestinian people as a persecuted underdog, as a party that's under attack by the international community, and under attack by the West. And on the other hand, Abbas isn't perceived as somebody who has delivered.

The more Abbas delivers to the people, the less popularity of Hamas. And so far, Hamas has been more popular.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree that these tough months since the Hamas election has not diminished them, in the eyes of the Palestinian people?

NATHAN BROWN: It probably has diminished them some, but it has -- it's diminished Fatah more. Fatah is seen as a group of old, corrupt politicians who can't face the fact that their party lost the election, and is scheming and finding international ways, and sometimes thuggish ways to climb back into political power.

I think most Palestinians recognize that Hamas is in a very difficult international position, and some of them do hold the movement very much responsible for their plight. But even those people who are having doubts about Hamas are not turning towards Fatah as a solution.

Israel's role

Nathan Brown
Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace
[Israel has] very little interest in going in and moving and controlling Palestinian cities in Gaza again. They are still in the West Bank, but they're not very comfortable with their position there.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, where are the Israelis in all of this? As violence escalates inside the territories, what's their role?

RAFI DAJANI: Well, I don't think an all-out breakout of violence in the Palestinian territories, civil war, would in any way be in Israel's interests. Israel's prime interests are security, and the prospect of a civil war on its border with the Palestinians is not going to increase their security by any measure.

I think it's contingent upon the Israelis to do what they can to strengthen the Palestinian president through measures, through releasing of prisoners to him, through removal of checkpoints to him.

I think it's very important that, once these measures are taken, that Israel not repeat the mistake of the Gaza withdrawal, where it was perceived, where the withdrawal was perceived by the Palestinian people as a result of Hamas' resistance.

Future measures that are taken to empower the Palestinian president have to be perceived by the Palestinian people as because of the president. The president delivered this for the people, and I think that is where Israel's prime responsibility is.

RAY SUAREZ: And very briefly, Nathan Brown, if things got bad enough, could we see what's already been speculated about in some Israeli circles, a reoccupation of Gaza, for instance?

NATHAN BROWN: I think the Israelis have very little appetite for that. They've got very little interest in going in and moving and controlling Palestinian cities in Gaza again. They are still in the West Bank, but they're not very comfortable with their position there.

I don't think Israel would move in to restore order. The only thing that would draw them back in would be steady attacks on Israel that they couldn't confront any other way, and then it would only be a last resort.

RAY SUAREZ: Nathan Brown, Rafi Dajani, thank you both.

NATHAN BROWN: Thank you.

RAFI DAJANI: Thank you.