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Unity is a Gaza casualty

Times Staff Writer

Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah wage battles in the streets of the Gaza Strip. Three truces have come and gone. In four days, at least 40 people have been killed, including 14 on Wednesday, as an increasingly violent struggle threatens to bring down what had been touted as a Palestinian “unity” government.

When their new political power-sharing coalition was unveiled in March, amid smiles and congratulations, leaders of Fatah and Hamas pledged to put an end to their fighting. But the ferocious violence shredding the Gaza Strip this week has made a mockery of the agreement. Rank-and-file members of the two factions are once again battling for supremacy on the streets as ordinary residents, worn down by years of economic and social chaos, remain trapped in their homes.

The body count Wednesday included five Hamas members who were allegedly killed by their own men by mistake. Fatah sources said the victims were in a car, under arrest by Fatah security forces, when other Hamas agents opened fire.

Earlier, five bodyguards of a top Fatah security official died when Hamas fighters stormed the official’s home. In other parts of Gaza, smoke billowed from buildings set aflame.

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The events this week have made it increasingly clear that, from the outset, the “unity” effort was almost set up to fail, with neither of the two leading parties willing to give much ground where it counted most. Power in Gaza still flows largely from the barrel of the gun, and the rival organizations never really agreed who got to control the weapons.

The latest cease-fire was declared Wednesday night, one supported, for the first time, by Hamas’ armed wing in addition to its political leadership. Gaza City residents reported today that things were relatively quiet overnight. But with the collapse of three previous agreements almost before they began, the city remained on edge.

At least two Israeli airstrikes, in retaliation for rockets fired into Israeli territory by Hamas militants, added to the tensions. Seven Hamas fighters were killed. Hamas’ rocket fire has been widely seen as an effort to unify Palestinians by drawing Israel into the fray.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised a “severe and harsh” response to any further rocket attacks. At least five rockets landed in the town of Sderot on Wednesday; one woman was severely injured when her home was hit.

The end of factional fighting in Gaza was supposed to be near in March when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas appointed Hani Kawasmeh as their interior minister after a rancorous dispute over the politically sensitive post that lasted for weeks.

Kawasmeh, widely viewed as an independent compromise candidate, was charged with drafting a plan to integrate the competing Palestinian security agencies into a unified force able to quell the violence. But Kawasmeh, a career academic and civil servant, was a neophyte with regard to law enforcement.

Analysts say the choice of someone without the necessary credentials and clout reflected a lack of genuine political will to solve the factional dilemma.

“Selecting Kawasmeh by itself was a signal that they were not serious,” said Bassam Nasser, who runs the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza City. “They selected a person who is weak, not experienced, not affiliated with any party. He is the last [person] to impose order in Gaza.”

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Kawasmeh quit his job Monday in protest over the violence. He spoke scathingly about his bosses, saying they never invested him with the authority to push through reforms.

Indeed, one of Abbas’ first acts after the unity government was installed in March in the wake of an accord reached the month before under the auspices of Saudi Arabia was to name Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s strongman in Gaza, as his new national security advisor.

The appointment undermined Kawasmeh and fueled suspicion among Hamas members, despite pledges by some officials of the radical Islamic organization to take Dahlan at face value. Dahlan, sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to Abbas, is reviled by many in Hamas because of his aggressive crackdown on Islamic militants during the 1990s as part of the peace process with Israel.

Kawasmeh reportedly first tried to resign a few weeks ago, complaining that he was being thwarted by Dahlan and his Fatah allies in Gaza.

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The messy structure, and lack of coordination, was on display last week when thousands of Fatah security agents poured onto Gaza’s streets without the prior consent of Hamas -- or, apparently, Kawasmeh. That show of force has been seen by many as the proximate cause of this new round of fighting, which ended weeks of relative, uneasy calm.

But others say a fresh wave of violence was waiting for an excuse to happen.

The power-sharing agreement did little to address the divisions between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas was never going to simply give up its ascendancy in Gaza, the movement’s traditional stronghold. After years of simmering anger and despair, many activists and radicals have become more narrowly focused on power and control, and fighting has also erupted between factions within the two groups.

“It’s not about reaching an agreement between Abbas and Haniyeh,” said Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East expert with the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels. “We’re talking here about the emergence of factions within factions, definitely within Fatah and also within Hamas.... You can’t brutalize a society for four decades and expect to produce the Vienna Boys Choir.

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“This is a power struggle, pure and simple. It has absolutely nothing to do with ideological rivalry or different conceptions on how Palestine should be organized or liberated.”

At issue is how much control Abbas and Haniyeh actually exercise over their organizations’ security forces and fighters.

Despite personal appeals from both leaders to their armed supporters to pull back, the bloodshed has barely abated.

But it is unclear whether that is because the president and the prime minister wield less clout among the rank and file than they ought to or whether there is tacit approval for the fighting to continue. Analysts say Hamas remains a fairly disciplined, centralized organization, whereas Fatah members are more diffuse in their loyalties.

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The United States lists Hamas as a terrorist group and has opted to work with the secular, more pragmatic Fatah instead, recently earmarking $43 million to help upgrade Abbas’ Presidential Guard, Fatah’s elite security force. A deadly ambush Tuesday, in which eight Fatah men were killed, occurred near a Gaza training base set up with American assistance.

Washington’s involvement has only served to feed the animosity and distrust between Fatah and Hamas.

What happens next is hard to predict. Under heavy pressure from Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia, the two sides may reach another, more durable cease-fire. But leaving the real issues of control over security unaddressed would probably make it yet another stopgap, with possibly worse to come.

“It is not going to be the end of it. A new eruption is going to happen sometime in the future,” said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University near Ramallah, in the West Bank. “And every eruption is more serious than the one before.”

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The government could collapse, or Abbas could, as a temporary measure, declare a state of emergency and rule by decree.

No matter what came of either eventuality, the people of Gaza would be unlikely to gain, said analyst Ghassan Khatib. Dire poverty and a suffocating isolation are likely to persist, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Along with establishing law and order, the Palestinian unity government made alleviating such conditions its top priority but has failed to take the necessary steps, increasing the sense of hopelessness.

“If this government is dissolved, that’s not going to help,” Khatib said. “And if it remains, that’s not going to help.”

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henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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Begin text of infobox

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Rival forces

Deadly factional fighting in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Fatah is characterized by observers as a battle for control of the Palestinian security apparatus. Estimates of how the foes compare militarily two months after they formed a “unity” government:

Hamas

*--* Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade 15,000 Executive Force 6,000

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Fatah

*--* National Security 30,000 Police and Preventive Security 30,000 General Intelligence 5,000 Presidential Guard 4,200 Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade Several thousand

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Source: Reuters


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