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May 27, 2007 7:00 pm

Jihadistan?

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Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian Authority’s Hamas prime minister, went into voluntary seclusion in Gaza last week, heeding an Israeli hint that he was on a death list after his movement’s militants resumed a rocket war on southern Israel.

Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, must wish he could have done the same. On his outing to the rocket-blasted border town of Sderot last Monday, a booing crowd demanding his resignation and gave him the roughest reception of his troubled year-old tenure.

The people of Gaza, just across the border, were equally angry. Having spent almost a week sheltering indoors from a Hamas-Fatah war on the streets outside, they now faced the additional trauma of daily Israeli air strikes against the rocket squads.

The outbreak of violence on two fronts eclipsed tentative peace efforts by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, who had been due in the region, and by Arab countries that are pushing their own Saudi-drafted peace plan.

Less than two years after Israel’s unilateral evacuation of its civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip, a move the international community supported as a step towards promoting stability and prosperity for its Palestinian inhabitants, the territory has descended to new depths of lawlessness and economic misery. The choice of voters to elect Hamas, and the subsequent boycott by western states that regarded it as a terrorist organisation, were among the factors that contributed to the decline. But so, too, as organisations such as the World Bank and United Nations repeatedly warned, did Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza’s borders, which has throttled the economy and increased Gaza’s isolation.

Now, fighting between rival factions threatens a collapse of central authority. This failure of the Mecca accord signed by Hamas and Fatah in February suggests that the lifespan of the power-sharing government they agreed to form is running out.

In the absence of any positive developments, there are worrying signs in Gaza that the chronic lawlessness is fostering the growth of new jihadist groups that the international community would find even less palatable than it does Hamas.

Hamas had by and large abided by a six-month truce with Israel until mid-May. But in a resumption of attacks it fired some 200 missiles in little over a week, killing two civilians and injuring a number of others. Although the citizens of Sderot are demanding an immediate full-scale ground invasion to liquidate the rocket threat, Mr Olmert has no appetite for a further perilous military entanglement so soon after his failed conduct of last year’s Lebanon war was lambasted by the Winograd Commission that he himself appointed.

But Israel’s continuing operations in the West Bank offered a pretext to militants to demand a renewal of hostilities from the Gaza Strip.

Hamas, feeling the pressure to escalate, now says it will renew the ceasefire with Israel only if that is extended to the West Bank. Ahmed Yusuf, an adviser to Mr Haniya, said last week: “If it [the ceasefire] is going to be for Gaza only, then no one will be able to convince the Palestinian resistance factions to commit to that.”

As the battle with Israel resumed, violence between Hamas and Fatah died down. The conflict between the ostensible partners is not about territory: rather, it is over the question of who should be in charge of a plethora of PA security forces that do little to bring security to the streets of Gaza. That remains unresolved. Gazan civilians have little confidence that the sixth round of increasingly vicious factional fighting will not give way sooner or later to a seventh.

The power-sharing deal agreed in Mecca was in order to avert a looming civil war and ease an international blockade on the previous all-Hamas government. Neither ambition has been fulfilled: forces under the command of Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s Fatah president, and those such as the black-clad Executive Force that answers to Hamas, continue to operate as the private armies of the two parties.

Hani Qawasmi, an independent appointed as interior minister ostensibly to supervise the integration of the militias and implement a new security plan, this month quit in disgust, saying he had been denied the authority to carry out the task.

He was stymied principally by powerful Fatah commanders with a long history of enmity towards the Hamas Islamists. They are identified with Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s Gaza strongman and Mr Abbas’s national security adviser, who led a crackdown on Hamas in the 1990s. He and his allies are the main beneficiaries of US efforts to boost the training and equipping of forces loyal to the PA president.

Hamas smelled a plot when Rashid Abu Shbak, Fatah head of internal security and a Dahlan ally, deployed his forces as part of a security crackdown without agreement from the coalition government in which Hamas is senior partner. Its paranoia intensified when it discovered that Abu Shbak and other Fatah commanders had sent their families abroad. Mr Dahlan himself was out of the country, undergoing a knee operation.

When the shooting started, Hamas units singled out targets most closely associated with Mr Dahlan. The Abu Shbak household was stormed and four bodyguards killed, although the Fatah commander was absent.

The Hamas propaganda machine went into top gear, denouncing the party’s enemies as agents of foreign powers. “These groups are a cancer that is going to destroy Fatah too,” Mohamed Shihab, a Hamas MP, told an interviewer. “They are Mohamed Dahlan, Rashid Abu Shbak and their supporters, who are forming death squads. Abbas did not want to select Dahlan, but the United States and Israel forced him to.”

Some Fatah loyalists are almost as critical. In April, a meeting of Fatah militants denounced “corrupt leaders who work in the dark” and condemned Mr Dahlan’s alleged attempts to run the government and manipulate Mr Abbas.

One Gaza analyst observes: “Hamas may be divided over acceptance of the terms of the Mecca accord, but the split within Fatah shows it has an even deeper dilemma.”

As the factions argue with each other and among themselves, the bright promises of 2005, when Israel removed its settlements, have gone. Gaza was to have emerged as a shining example of how Palestinians could run their own affairs. But the dream went sour from the start. Israeli border restrictions hobbled the economy, while Palestinian disillusion was a factor in Hamas’s election victory in January last year.

That in turn prompted the international boycott and an Israeli decision to freeze payments of around $50m (£25m, €37m) a month in taxes that it collects on the PA’s behalf.

Ms Rice did her best to ease the economic isolation of the strip, forging an agreement on movement and access in November 2005 in the face of resistance from members of the Israeli security establishment.

They were not the only ones who did not like the deal. Officials close to the negotiations said her efforts were also undermined by Elliott Abrams, the White House deputy national security adviser.

Mr Abrams’ name came up again this month in relation to Ms Rice’s latest peace efforts. Her frequent trips to the region were merely “process”, he assured American Jewish community leaders, according to a report in Forward, the US Jewish newspaper. They were aimed at little more than assuring the Europeans and the Arabs that the US was doing something in the region, he said.

The NSC sought to play down the remarks but fell short of denying them. An NSC spokesperson said: “It is inaccurate to suggest the White House and State Department are at odds on this issue.”

The Rice initiative had already run into trouble. In early May, she abruptly cancelled a visit to the region scheduled for later in the month, her aides citing the domestic troubles of Mr Olmert’s government. The cancellation came days after she presented the Palestinians and Israelis with a timeline for a set of proposals that included the still unimplemented movement and access agreement of 2005 and Palestinian action to stem the rocket fire. All but Mr Abbas gave a negative response. Hamas rejected it out of hand and Israeli officials raised security
concerns.

The Rice initiative appears frozen for the time being. Palestinian critics say it is in any case hampered by the US refusal to speak to Hamas. But even Ms Rice’s decision to meet non-Hamas members of the PA government has met with disapproval from Israel.

In a climate in which armed gangs thrive, elements have emerged that have adopted an al-Qaedaist rhetoric to justify attacks on foreign and non-Islamic targets. Internet cafes have been trashed, a Christian bookshop vandalised and even a children’s sports event disrupted for being un-Islamic.

There is no evidence that foreign al-Qaeda elements are behind the unrest and the origins of the perpetrators and their allegiance is unclear. After an unknown group attacked a UN school this month, Palestinian police arrested suspects alleged to be linked to a local religious Salafist group.

A mob then burned down the organisation’s headquarters. As the premises were named in honour of Ibn Bazz, the late Saudi chief cleric who once condemned Osama bin Laden as a rebel against the state, the trail to a putative al-Qaeda connection goes cold.

It may be that the new jihadist trend is a local phenomenon, fuelled by the despair of Gazan youth. But even Hamas is said to be concerned, fearful the extremists might lure away some of its own members. Al-Qaeda leaders abroad have denounced Hamas for entering the coalition government, a message intended for those Hamas fighters who share the same view.

This month, the kidnappers of Alan Johnston, the BBC’s Gaza correspondent now missing for more than 10 weeks, identified themselves as the Army of Islam. Among their demands, which the British authorities were already aware of but were made public for the first time, the group called for the release of Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-born cleric held in Britain for his alleged al-Qaeda connections.

It is yet to be seen whether these nascent groups are a threat to the PA’s crumbling authority or whether their Islamic rhetoric is just a cover for quasi-criminal pursuits. But unless Fatah and Hamas can mend their divisions and re-establish the rule of law, they will be yet one more plague visited on the long-suffering people of Gaza.

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