Palestinian government experiment near collapse


MIDDLE EAST:Israel may step into the breach and impose direct rule unless Fatah and Hamas cease hostilities immediately, writes Michael Jansen

The escalating fighting between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza is a manifestation of a protracted power struggle which began when Hamas emerged in early 1988 during the opening weeks of the first Palestinian intifada.

A politico-military offshoot of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas not only challenged Israel's occupation but also the dominance of Fatah, the secular movement founded by Yasser Arafat in the late 1950s.

Israel cracked down hard on Fatah with the aim of halting the intifada, but saw Hamas as a counterweight to Fatah and permitted Hamas activists to operate freely for several months.

Israel soon realised that Hamas could become a formidable foe. It enjoyed the support of poor Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza, who benefited from Hamas clinics, kindergartens and welfare programmes.

Hamas had a charismatic mentor, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, and an effective leadership not mired in the widespread corruption which stained the external Fatah leadership.

Finally, Hamas's platform called for the creation of an Islamic state in all of Palestine, a more attractive proposition than the Gaza-West Bank state proposed by Fatah under Arafat.

Although Hamas played a role in the stone-throwing protests characterising the first intifada, this rising was seen as a victory for the local leaderships of Fatah and secular groups.

The Oslo Accord of September 1993 ended the intifada, raised Palestinian expectations of statehood and of an end to Israeli occupation and enabled Arafat and his entourage to return to Palestine in 1994. Hamas retired to the sidelines.

Arafat, elected president in 1996, ran the newly-created Palestine National Authority and staffed it with Fatah members, largely returnees who contrasted with Hamas's resident leaders.

The Oslo process faltered and an Israeli settler massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, launching a fresh cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Hamas adopted the suicide-bombing tactic. The Clinton administration's failure to broker a final territorial settlement between the Palestinians and Israel in 2000 resulted in the second intifada, during which Fatah and Hamas militants joined forces to stage attacks on Israel.

Hamas also mounted a political campaign to win control of municipal councils and eventually defeated Fatah in the 2006 parliamentary election.

Fatah refused to recognise that it had lost its dominance and clung to posts in the administration and in the security services.

President Abbas, weak and indecisive, refused to share power with Hamas. He received the backing of Israel, the US and Europe, which isolated and boycotted not only the Hamas government, but also the Hamas-led national unity government formed in March.

Although Fatah partnered Hamas in this coalition, armed elements connected to both factions spun out of control and began fighting in the streets.

Each side accuses the other of trying to carry out a coup, but there is serious concern that the Palestinian Authority, which administers Palestinian population centres, is on the brink of collapse. If this happens, Israel may feel obliged to impose direct rule, bringing an end to the Palestinian experiment in self-governance.