Jan 10, 2009

World - As Hamas fights,Fatah mulls its next move

Kevin Peraino

As Hamas fighters dig in against advancing Israeli troops in Gaza, the Islamists' security services are quietly working to prevent any uprising by forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Tens of thousands of security personnel belonging to Abbas's Fatah party still operate in the Gaza Strip, even after Hamas seized control of the strip in June 2007. The Fatah men collect their salaries, gather intelligence and occasionally organize protests in order tomaintain pressure onthe Islamists. While Abbas has condemned the Israeli assault as a "massacre," he has also accused Hamas of breaking its ceasefire with Israel by firing rockets across the Gaza border.

Several sources close to the Fatah-loyal Palestinian intelligence services, who asked not to be named discussing sensitive matters, told NEWSWEEK that shortly after the Israeli bombing began last week, Hamas operatives fanned out across Gaza and delivered notices to key figures loyal to Abbas. The Fatah men were ordered to report within days to the Hamas security headquarters, register with the Islamists, and in some cases turn in their guns. In one instance, according to a source in Gaza, a Fatah operative was warned that he would be executed if he set foot anywhere near Hamas forces during the Israeli siege. According to Tawfiq Tirawi, a former Palestinian intel chief and current adviser to Abbas, some 1,000 Fatah operatives were put under house arrest last week by Hamas forces.

The Hamas men have good reason for concern. For the time being, most secular Palestinians have expressed their solidarity with the Islamists. Yet at least some key Fatah figures see the Israeli attack as an opportunity. As the ground war has intensified, many Palestinians have begun to wonder whether Israel's ultimate aim is to topple Hamas, not simply weaken the group. Even if the Israeli military doesn't manage to crush Hamas, any power vacuum could tempt Fatah men to renew the internecine fighting that has killed dozens of Gazans over the past three years. Still, few Palestinian figureswould risk looking like Israeli collaborators while the bombs are still falling. "I can't just take my men and go," says one Fatah security chief, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. "No Palestinian security agency would go into Gaza on an Israeli tank."

Even if they wanted to, it's far from clear that Abbas's forces could wrest control of the strip. The Fatah boss says his counterparts in Gaza are demoralized and ineffective: "Our men are running for their lives." After the fighting started, Fatah men in Ramallah set up an ad hoc"operations room" where Palestinian Authority officers closely monitored the situation in Gaza, trying to make sense of the conflicting reports. With cell-phone networks constantly crashing, it was nearly impossible. The Fatah menreached out to their Americanallies looking for better information, butthe Americans seemed equally clueless. At the end of the day, "Nobody knew anything," says the Fatahsecurity chief.

American officials have invested considerable time and effort helping to train Abbas's security services. Still, only a small minority of those troops are native Gazans; most are from the West Bank. And any new internecine fighting in Gaza could undermine American ambitions for delivering a two-state solution. Many sensible observers believe no such deal is possible unless the feuding Palestinian factions find some way to reconcile first.

For now, most Fatah figures are hoping that some sort of international peacekeeping force will move into Gaza after Israel pulls out. Such a move could pave the way for Fatah security forces to return to power some months down the road, the thinking goes, when they would look less like Israeli stooges. Col. Akram Rajoub, the head of Abbas's Preventive Security force in Ramallah, says pacifying Gaza would require "thousands" of international troops—"Europeans, Turks, Arabs—even NATO forces." Yet those ambitious plans are almost certainly wishful thinking on the part of Abbas's men. Some of the ceasefire proposals being floated do call for outsidepeacekeepers, but the plans seem to be limited in scope, confining the role of international forces to border crossings and other sensitive locations.

Finally, all the speculation among Fatah figures makes one critical—and perhaps mistaken—assumption: that the fighting with Israel is actually weakening Hamas. Hizbullah, after all, came out much stronger after its 2006 war with Israel; it won simply by not losing. Some Palestinians feel that Hamas is already winning a similar battle for Palestinian public opinion. "Hamas is not going to be eradicated," says Mohammad al-Masri, a former director of intelligence in Gaza who is loyal to Abbas. "I don't think one decent Palestinian wants to see Hamas finished off. This operation might weaken the military power of Hamas. But I'm convinced that these battles will ultimately empower them. Hamas will come out stronger on the ground than before."

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