Enraged Fatah Members Riot After Defeat

Times Staff Writer

Street clashes erupted in the Gaza Strip on Friday in the wake of the militant Islamist group Hamas’ overwhelming victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, raising the specter of a wider outbreak of violence during the coming transition of power.

Thousands of activists from the defeated Fatah movement torched cars outside the Palestinian parliament building in the center of Gaza City, fired shots into the air and chanted angry slogans denouncing their own leaders, whom they blame for the party’s stunning loss after four decades of unchallenged rule.

Fatah-linked gunmen also marched menacingly past Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ villa in Gaza City, but he was not there at the time. He has remained at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah since Wednesday’s elections, which sent shock waves through the region and has imperiled prospects for the creation of a Palestinian state.


Abbas spoke to reporters Friday, saying he would ask Hamas, as the holder of the majority of the parliamentary seats, to form a government, but gave no timetable for his request.

“We are consulting and in contact with all the Palestinian groups, and definitely, at the appropriate time, the biggest party will form the Cabinet,” Abbas said.

In a confrontation Friday near the town of Khan Yunis in the south of Gaza, loyalists from Fatah and Hamas faced off in a battle that escalated from stone-throwing to an exchange of gunfire. Three people were reported injured.

The clashes were neither as large nor lethal as other episodes of unrest that have gripped Gaza in recent months since Israeli forces withdrew. But Friday’s tumult boded ill for a peaceful handover of governance by Fatah -- with all the material privileges it affords -- to Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority, until now controlled by Fatah, has tens of thousands of men under arms in the various branches of its security forces. In addition, hundreds of rogue gunmen of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade also consider themselves Fatah loyalists but routinely use force and intimidation to demand jobs and other perquisites.

Public anger about corruption within the Palestinian Authority was a prime factor in Hamas’ victory, but many observers are warning that those who accumulated wealth and privilege under Fatah’s auspices are unlikely to give it up without a fight.

“It’s easy [for Palestinian voters] to say, ‘You are corrupt, and we are fed up with you,’ but it is harder to live by that slogan when the corrupt ruling class have an armed militia,” Amnon Danker, the editor of the Israeli newspaper Maariv, wrote in Friday’s editions.

Ideological differences between the secular-minded Fatah, which has sought an accord with Israel, and rigorously Islamist Hamas, which is sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction, could also boil over into confrontation in the coming days and weeks.

The clash outside Khan Yunis, in the village of Bani Sohila, was triggered when a mosque preacher affiliated with Fatah used his Friday sermon to denounce Hamas as dupes of Israel.

In addition, loyalty to either Fatah or Hamas tends to break down along clan lines in Gaza, so political disputes can easily turn into amped-up family feuds, often with weaponry involved.

Some disgruntled losing candidates from Fatah have their own armed following, and they have begun to marshal these forces.

Samir Mashrawi, a leader of Friday’s street protests, lost what had been considered a safe parliamentary seat in his Gaza City district. Addressing the marchers, Mashrawi, who has ties to an Al Aqsa offshoot, demanded the resignation of members of Fatah’s Central Committee.

Other protesters have made death threats against Fatah leaders if they enter into a governing coalition with Hamas.

Fatah officials have so far rebuffed overtures to form a parliamentary alliance with Hamas, but Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said Friday that he had requested a meeting with Abbas in the next few days to discuss a “political partnership.”

“We will keep those channels open and continue to stress that Hamas wishes to work with everyone,” Haniya, who headed the Hamas candidate slate, said after attending prayers in the Gaza refugee camp where he lives.

Abbas, in Ramallah, did not specifically mention Haniya’s overture or any planned meeting. The Palestinian leader, who was elected a year ago, will remain in his post, but he has threatened to step down if he can’t continue his program of seeking an agreement with Israel leading to Palestinian statehood.

Fatah officials fear an explosion of anger from their ranks if they were to ally with Hamas in the legislature or Cabinet. Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan, one of the few Fatah members in Gaza to hang onto his parliamentary seat, assured restive demonstrators that Fatah “will not enter the coming government.”

Hamas, meanwhile, is under growing international pressure to end its calls for the destruction of Israel and recognize the Jewish state.

Although Haniya and other pragmatists in the group have sought to telegraph the possibility of softening Hamas’ stance, hard-liners such as newly elected legislator Mahmoud Zahar continue to insist there are no such plans.

“Why would we do that?” he asked, speaking to reporters in Gaza. “Is Israel ready to recognize the right of return for Palestinians? Is Israel ready to recognize our independent state, including Jerusalem as its capital?”

Perhaps seeking to avoid inflaming tensions with Fatah, Hamas avoided large-scale victory celebrations in Gaza on Thursday, the day the election results were announced. On Friday, it held its first major rally since the vote but staged it in the smaller town of Khan Yunis rather than Gaza City.

Thousands of Hamas supporters turned out, waving flags and wearing baseball caps in the movement’s color, green. In line with the group’s strict Islamic conservatism, the women who took part stayed separate from the men.

In Israel, where the implications of the elections are still being digested, Friday brought more public debate about the intentions of Hamas, which at least temporarily halted its suicide bombing campaign in Israel more than a year ago.

A former head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, Avi Dichter, predicted that with its electoral success, the group would continue to observe an informal period of calm, even if it refuses to announce it will do so.

“The minute they become a partner in the Palestinian government, reality will become a lot more complicated for them than when they were a terror organization alone,” Dichter told Army Radio.

Of immediate concern to Palestinians is the prospect of a foreign financial aid cutoff when a Hamas-led government takes over. U.S. law prohibits the use of American funds by groups, including Hamas, that have been designated terrorist organizations.

Former President Carter, who traveled to the region to serve as an election observer, met Friday with Abbas and said afterward that a sudden termination of aid “would create an element of chaos.”