Palestinian politics is approaching the point of no return. The power struggle between the Islamist Hamas and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his secular/nationalist Fatah movement is intensifying, with tensions breaking into outright combat.
Since Hamas was founded in the early 1980’s, it has refused to come under the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas’s victory in the parliamentary election earlier this year – a democratic watershed – demonstrated that it had come of age politically. For the first time in Palestinian history, a religious party is dominant. But Fatah has not accepted defeat, while Hamas is convinced that elements within Fatah agree with Israeli and American plans to topple the Hamas government.
Abbas remains the Palestinian president, and the Basic Law makes him commander of all Palestinian security forces. However, while most official security forces remain loyal to him, over the past year Hamas has created an alternative security structure, built around a 4000-member “Operational Force.” Moreover, Hamas has announced plans to recruit 1,500 additional security personnel for the West Bank, Fatah’s stronghold. In recent weeks, the two sides have clashed frequently across the Gaza strip, heightening tensions further.
The confrontations have come at a time when Abbas has been trying to persuade Hamas to moderate its anti-Israel stance and ally with Fatah in a national unity government. Abbas believes that Hamas’s acceptance of negotiations with Israel is the only way to break the international sanctions that are devastating Palestinian society.