Months of increasing tension between the Fatah and Hamas movements in Palestine came to a head on June 14, when Hamas militias captured Fatah-controlled institutions in Ghazzah that had refused to accept the authority of the Hamas government of prime minister Ismail Haniya. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas responded by dismissing the Haniya government and appointing a new administration, under Salam Fayyad, in Ramallah, in the West Bank.
The Hamas takeover in Ghazzah was the culmination of months of tension, provoked largely by Fatah security forces led by Muhammad Dahlan, a hardline security chief with close links with the US and Israel. As the tension increased, there were rising expectations of a civil war in Ghazzah, and that the Fatah militias would win it because of their greater numbers and the fact that they are better equipped. In fact, the Hamas fighters, described as being more committed, more disciplined and better organised, quickly took control of the territory, aided by the support of the vast majority of the area’s people, who are virtually unanimous in blaming Fatah for the conflict.
The suspicion that Fatah’s escalation of tension was part of a deliberate strategy to isolate Hamas was confirmed the following day, when Abbas dismissed Haniya’s government and announced Salam Fayyad as prime minister in his place. How this will be justified remains to be seen. According to the Palestinian Authority’s constitution, an emergency government must be approved by the Legislative Council (parliament) within 30 days, in order to extend its term for up to another 30 days. The parliament is controlled by Hamas, and will clearly not approve Haniya’s dismissal. So Abbas needs some way of bypassing this requirement.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the majority of Hamas MPs are held in Israeli jails, and so no parliament session can properly be held for lack of a quorum. This reality could provide Abbas with an excuse to establish direct rule. Alternatively, he could call an early parliamentary election in the hope of reversing the outcome of the 2006 election; but this would be risky for the obvious reason that Hamas might well improve its position instead.
Abbas’s immediate strategy seems to be to isolate Hamas in Ghazzah by cracking down on the movement’s infrastructure and members in the West Bank. A de facto division of the Palestinian territories into two distinct entities, one in Ghazzah ruled by Hamas and one in the West Bank ruled by Fatah, would serve both him and his US and Israeli allies. The Israelis’ main interests are all in the West Bank: control over the whole of Jerusalem, the consolidation of settlements, and control over the area’s borders, resources and economy. This was why it was willing to withdraw from Ghazzah in 2004, under pressure from Hamas resistance that it could not defeat.
In order to justify such a division of the territories to the Palestinian people, Fatah hopes to be able to fulfill some of the governmental tasks that have been stalled in recent months because of the international economic boycott. Within days of the coup, Arab states, the US, the Economic Union and Israel were all rushing to provide Fatah with recognition and rewards. The international economic embargo was immediately lifted, and Israel announced the release of $350 million in Palestinian revenues, about half the amount that it had withheld from the Haniya government.
Whether this will be enough to buy Palestinian acquiescence remains to be seen. Fayyad, who is not a Fatah member, is a former World Bank official described as a favourite of the US and the EU, but has little credibility or support among ordinary Palestinians. The test of his rule may be his ability to restore a degree of order in the West Bank, where Fatah militias are still conducting themselves in the anarchic and corrupt fashion that alienated the people of Ghazzah and prompted the Hamas takeover. While the Israelis and Abbas hope that Palestinians in the West Bank consider themselves lucky compared to those in Ghazzah, which will continue to suffer from the West’s starvation strategy as long as Hamas remains in power, there is a risk that the West Bankers will instead note the order that Hamas rule has restored there.
Abbas was also rewarded by a summit with Israeli and Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheik, although nothing of substance was agreed there. The occasion was more an opportunity for Western leaders to congratulate Abbas on his success, and for Abbas to have his photograph taken with Israeli prime minister Olmert, which the West evidently thinks portrays him as a statesman, regardless of the fact that it makes him appear a traitor to most Palestinians.
Ismail Haniya, meanwhile, repeated calls for talks with Fatah, saying that the division of the Palestinians weakens them all in their attempts to thwart Israel’s plans for the country. This call was echoed by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at Sharm el-Sheik, but is unlikely to be heeded. Israel and the West have their plan in place for Palestine, which demands that Hamas be isolated and marginalised.
The continued involvement of the international community in supporting Israel’s strategy was emphasised on June 27, when former British prime minister Tony Blair was announced as an envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the Quartet, the international group consisting of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, in its efforts to reach a settlement. Haniya immediately dismissed Blair’s involvement, saying that he had proved himself dishonest and unhelpful while in office. But in the new drive to impose a settlement, Blair may well have a crucial role to play.