Fatah fears protests at Gaza assault will destroy security gains in West Bank


With Mahmoud Abbas's term as president officially ending today, Michael Jansen, in the West Bank, examines the relationship between the two Palestinian factions

DOCTORS IN white coats gathered at Manara Square at the heart of the West Bank's administrative capital to protest Israel's onslaught on Gaza while students brandishing placards chanted anti-Israel slogans at Bir Zeit university and lowered the Palestinian flag to half-mast.

The demonstrations were heartfelt but without the usual fire and vigour. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) has cracked down hard on protesters storming Israeli checkpoints and barricades.

Ghassan Khatib, former PA minister of labour and planning, said that the PA did not want violence to destroy the security gains made over the past two years when the police force was rebuilt and armed factions were brought under control.

However, the crackdown on expressions of popular feeling exposed the weakness of the PA headed by president Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah movement.

"This is the first war not led by Fatah," said Khatib. "This war is being led and fought by somebody else, marginalising Fatah."

Hamas is in command and challenging Israel on the field of battle. For them "it is a win-win situation", said Khatib. "The losers are the civilians in Gaza, the PA, Egypt and the 'moderate' camp in the region. The objectives of Israel and Hamas are not mutually exclusive. Israel wants to stop the rockets and the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and to get rid of Gaza by making it an Egyptian protectorate.

"Hamas wants to stop the offensive, survive, maintain its poten- tial power . . . and assert itself as the main party for war or peace.

"This could bring about a regional shift in the balance of power in favour of the Islamists."

The PA, out of action and undermined by its failure to secure a Palestinian state in negotiations with Israel, is in an impossible situation.

Abbas's presidential term ended yesterday. "Today is the day, the end of Abu Mazen [Abbas]," said Ali Jarbawi, academic and former head of the election commission. According to the Palestinian constitution, it was the last day of Abbas's four-year term.

Although elections for president and parliament should take place simultaneously, Abbas was elected in 2005 on the death of Yasser Arafat and parliamentary elections were held in 2006.

Consequently, Jarbawi said, Hamas could be expected to declare today that Abbas is no longer president while Fatah will argue that he should remain in power until elections are held.

"The problem is not legal or constitutional but political," caused by the bitter rivalry between the two factions. With goodwill, it could be resolved, Jarbawi said.

Even if Abbas calls for early elections, the polls cannot be held for 95 days.

Furthermore, the devastating Israeli strikes on PA ministries and offices in Gaza mean that it could take at least six months before the strip could vote along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The dispute on the issue could be resolved over time. Abbas could remain caretaker president until next summer or even next January, conforming nearly or actually to the timetable put forward by Hamas. This should promote unity and a measure of reconciliation. However, Jarbawi does not expect this to happen.

In his opinion, the division between Gaza and the West Bank is irreconcilable. As long as Arafat was in charge of Fatah and the PA, he governed both the West Bank and Gaza. But when he died, Jarbawi said, the split - which "was waiting to happen" - occurred and deepened.

This was caused by the "geographical separation" fostered by Israel, which never permitted the PA to open a corridor connecting the two wings of the Palestinian territories.

He compared the Gaza-West Bank situation with that of Pakistan and East Bengal which seceded to become Bangladesh. The PA also made the mistake of allowing local officials to run the two areas, strengthening the divisions.

Jarbawi does not believe Fatah can reassert itself in Gaza and govern it along with the West Bank, a hope held by the international community.

He likened Fatah to a "2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle held together by the charismatic Arafat". Having put the puzzle together, he framed it and hung it on the wall. But after he died, the "glue of Arafat" melted and the puzzle fell apart.

"Hamas took Gaza and Salam Fayyad [the independent prime minister] took over the government."