Deepening Chasm

By Khaled Amayreh – Ramallah, West Bank

Despite laborious efforts by Egypt, Qatar and other Palestinian factions to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, divisions between the two largest Palestinian factions are getting deeper and wider.

This week, five Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip agreed in principle that resolving the enduring crisis between Fatah and Hamas would have to be based on the formation of a national reconciliation government that would prepare for national elections as well as the rebuilding of security agencies on professional rather than factional foundations.

However, the agreement, to which Hamas was not party, is likely to fall into irrelevance with true reconciliation appearing more remote than ever.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister of Interior Abdul-Razzaq Al-Yehia ordered security forces to take over all Islamic institutions, including charities, boarding schools, orphanages as well as youth and sports clubs. The stringent measure is widely believed to be aimed at eradicating "Hamas’s institutional existence" in the West Bank, as long demanded by Israel and the United States.

In the Hebron region, PA security personnel on Monday 18 August summoned the head of the Islamic Charitable Society, Abdul-Jalil Katalo, informing him that he and the rest of the charity’s governing board had been sacked and that a new governing board made up exclusively of Fatah members would run the charity and the affiliated orphanage and boarding school.

It is not clear what will be the fate of hundreds of orphans who receive schooling and lodging free of charge.

Earlier, the PA Interior Ministry effectively took over Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron by appointing unelected Fatah members to the governing board running the hospital. The hospital was built nearly 20 years ago by the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and has ever since become one of the best medical facilities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Similarly, Islamic or Islamic-oriented institutions all over the West Bank have either been closed down or taken over by the Interior Ministry. The manifestly unlawful measures are carried out quietly with PA security barring PA media from reporting these events.

Meanwhile, the Fatah-dominated security agencies continued to round up an average of 10-20 suspected Islamic activists on any given day. The detainees are interrogated, often harshly, on their relationships with Hamas. Some of them are reportedly beaten savagely, with at least one elderly person from Nablus, identified as Marwan Al-Khalili, 67, suffering a brain haemorrhage as a result of torture.

Moreover, several journalists and cameramen are still being detained in PA jails for being "over critical" of the PA and "tarnishing" its image. In recent days, the PA security agencies went to unprecedented extents in suppressing freedom of speech and expression.

In Hebron, for example, a man, identified as Walid Suleiman, was summoned for interrogation at the local Preventive Security Forces office this week. There a young officer interrogated him in connection with an article written by a relative and published by the pro-Fatah Maan news agency. Suleiman told the interrogator that he had nothing to do with the article and that the author had his name printed above the article. However, the young Fatah officer told Suleiman that he was aware that he was not the author of the article, saying that he only suspected that "the ideas" of the article was his, not the author’s.

"How am I supposed to reason with people like this?" Suleiman asked Al-Ahram Weekly.

The attempted eradication of Hamas’s civilian infrastructure in the West Bank is officially justified as a response to Hamas’s clampdown on Fatah in the Gaza Strip. However, it is amply clear that Fatah’s efforts to eradicate Hamas’s political influence in the West Bank are more systematic than anything done by Hamas against Fatah in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian journalist and columnist Hani Al-Masri believes that the draconian measures taken by each side against the other are bound to deepen the national rift and might even make it irreversible. "The psychological scars resulting from this situation would be very difficult to heal. There is a lot of vengeance and vindictiveness, and Israel is of course the ultimate beneficiary," Al-Masri said.

He added the Hamas-Fatah crisis was more than just a "bilateral issue". "It is becoming increasingly clear that the persistence of crisis is an integral part of the regional order, especially the overall Israeli-Palestinian scene. Israel will do all it can to maintain or at least prolong the conflict between the two Palestinian camps."

This week, the Israeli government agreed to release as many as 200 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill towards PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli leaders said they hoped the gesture would strengthen Abbas vis-à-vis Hamas and show the Palestinians that "moderation pays".

Abbas had bitterly complained to the Bush administration that Israel was rewarding "the extremists" like Hizbullah, by freeing Lebanese prisoners, and Hamas by agreeing to a ceasefire with the militant group in the Gaza Strip, while effectively discrediting him in the eyes of his own people by refusing to free Palestinian prisoners.

The prisoners, including two long-serving inmates with "Jewish blood on their hands" (each serving nearly 30 years in jail) are expected to be freed later this week or early next week to coincide with the arrival in the region of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to Israeli and Palestinian sources, Rice will urge Israel and the PA to reach a general draft agreement on final status issues before the end of 2008.

The conclusion of such an agreement before George W Bush exits the White House, however, appears out of the question. This week, Sari Nuseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and one of the PLO’s most dovish figures, pointed out in an interview with the Israeli Haaretz newspaper that the two-state solution was becoming increasingly impossible in light of unmitigated Israeli settlement expansion.

"I still favour the two-state solution and will continue to do so, but to the extent that you discover it’s not practical anymore, or that it’s not going to happen, you start to think about what the alternatives are. I think that the feeling is that there are two courses taking place that are opposed to one another. On the one hand, there is what people are saying and thinking, on both sides. There is the sense that we are running out of time; that if we want a two-state solution, we need to implement it quickly. But on the other hand, if we are looking at what is happening on the ground, in Israel and the occupied territories, you see things happening in the opposite direction, as if they are not connected to reality. Thought is running in one direction, reality in the other."

Nuseibeh said the Palestinians would eventually "fight for equal rights, rights of existence, return and equality," and that "slowly over the years there could be a peaceful movement like in South Africa." He further suggested that the PA might be rendered irrelevant if a final and comprehensive peace agreement with Israel was not reached within a few months.

Earlier, PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei warned that the PA would switch to the one-state solution if Israel continued to obstruct the two-state solution. Israel, which vehemently opposes any thought of the one-state solution, doesn’t believe that PA officials mean what they say since the PA’s very existence and survival depends on the continued relevance of the vision of a two-state solution.

(Al Ahram Weekly – www.weekly.ahram.org.eg – August 21-27, 2008)

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