As calm settles over Gaza, focus shifts to political aftermath

By Steven Erlanger and Mike Nizza
Friday, June 15, 2007 / International Herald Tribune

JERUSALEM: As a calm settled over Gaza following five days of fighting in which Hamas completed its conquest of the Gaza Strip from its Fatah rivals, Palestinian leaders began to focus on the political aftermath.

President Mahmoud Abbas started the process of forming an emergency government in the West Bank city of Ramallah, choosing Salam Fayyad, a political independent, to take the lead as prime minister, according to several reports. He was finance minister in the Hamas-led unity government that Abbas dismissed on Thursday.

It was not clear that Abbas had the power to govern both the West Bank and Gaza territories.

“Prime Minister Haniya remains the head of the government even if it was dissolved by the president,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said. “In practical terms, these decisions are worthless.”

Even Abbas’ supporters were dubious. “An emergency government would be meaningless here,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at the Fatah-affiliated Al Azhar University in Gaza. “It wouldn’t be able to do anything. Hamas is everywhere. That’s the bottom line.”
Hamas released 10 senior Fatah leaders detained in the Gaza fighting and announced a prisoner amnesty plan, according to wire reports. Other Fatah leaders — close to 100, according to The Associated Press — arrived in Egypt Friday after fleeing the Gaza fighting on a fishing boat.
On the diplomatic front, the so-called quartet of Middle East peace negotiators — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — planned talks Friday on boosting Abbas.
Though Hamas leaders claimed their men were under control, there were instances of post-revolutionary looting of prominent Fatah symbols, including the luxurious house of Muhammad Dahlan, the former Fatah security chief in Gaza, now in Ramallah. Masked men of the Hamas military wing stripped the house of everything down to the bathroom tiles, and they were followed by the poor, salvaging wood and metal.
The victors also said they would take control of Gaza’s crossing with Egypt.
The crossing, which has been closed since the outbreak of fighting this week, is monitored by European observers under an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. It was uncertain whether the monitors or Israel would accept such an arrangement.
On Thursday, the Palestinian territories seemed headed to a turbulent political divide after Hamas gunmen took control of the Gaza Strip and the Fatah president dissolved the three-month-old unity government, declaring a state of emergency and plans for elections.
The scene in Gaza was one of prayerful celebration for Hamas mixed with revenge. Hamas fighters took over the Fatah-run Preventive Security compound, driving away in cars loaded with weapons, computers, office furniture and other equipment.
Bystanders were shocked. Ghassan Hashem, 37, a civil servant, said: “I see Iraq here. There is no mercy. We are afraid. See how ferocious this fight was? There is no future for us.”
Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for the Hamas militia, told Hamas radio triumphantly: “The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived.”
The prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, said: “I call on my friend Abu Mazen,” referring to Abbas, who was in Ramallah, “to take the opportunity, now that almost the entire world understands the viciousness, the brutality of Hamas, to exercise his authority as the leader of the Palestinian people.”
Israel will do what it can, he said in an interview with The New York Times in Tel Aviv, to “be helpful and supportive of the Palestinian people in every possible way, including economic cooperation and security cooperation.”
Olmert will travel to Washington over the weekend for talks with Bush, which will focus on the collapse of Fatah in Gaza and Abbas’ chances of success. Olmert is expected to tell Bush that Israel favors sealing off the Israeli-occupied West Bank from the infection of Gaza, continuing to prevent contact between them.
In security terms, Israel would like to seal off Gaza from the West Bank as much as possible, to prevent the spread of Hamas military power there, where Israeli troops still occupy the territory. Israel would also like to confront Hamas with the responsibility for governing Gaza: providing jobs, food and security for its people.
Israeli officials suggested that Israel would work with Abbas and a Fatah government in the West Bank, and could gradually hand over to it the remaining Palestinian tax revenues, about $562 million, withheld since Hamas took power a year ago in March. “To give the money to a Hamas government would be reckless,” one senior Israeli official said. “To give it to a Fatah government is an opportunity.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed support for Abbas’s decrees, saying he had “exercised his lawful authority.” Since Fatah conforms to the international conditions for delivering aid — accepting Israel’s right to exist, all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and forswearing violence — a government run by it without Hamas would presumably not be subject to international isolation and restrictions.
The United States, Israel and the European Union consider Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, a terrorist group. But it may be very difficult for the United States and the European Union to stop aiding the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, no matter who their rulers, and divert all aid through Abbas, who would have little influence in Gaza. Some on the Israeli right suggest Gaza is lost and should be treated like southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah rules another kind of miniature semi-state.
But some Palestinians believe that Fatah and Hamas may also come together again. Abbas says the emergency government will rule until new elections are possible, although but Hamas will not accept early elections. And it may be that another Arab government, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, will soon step in to try to patch together the nascent Palestinian state, which is in danger of collapsing.

Palestinians are unlikely to want to give up the idea of a Palestinian nation in both areas, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

And Hamas has a significant number of followers in the West Bank, too, even if its fighters are far less well equipped and largely stay underground because of the Israeli occupation.
Hamas argues that it has purged the security forces of “corrupted elements” who were in league with Israel and the United States to harm Hamas.
Hamas wants a restored unity government where the security forces would all report to the interior minister, effectively meaning Fatah would give up much of its remaining power.

More evident was the lack of Fatah leaders or commanders on the ground. Dahlan, the former chief of Gaza’s Preventive Security who is now Abbas’ national security adviser, has been abroad for weeks for medical treatment. He returned to Ramallah on Thursday. His close ally, General Rashid Abu Shbak, another former Preventive Security chief, is also outside the Gaza Strip, and the current Preventive Security head, Yussef Issa, was nowhere to be seen as the compound fell.

Preventive Security cracked down on Hamas in 1996, led by Dahlan. Many of those who were imprisoned remember the treatment they received ascruel and humiliating.
“The Preventive Security has a special meaning for Hamas,” said Zuhri. “Our fighters were tortured and killed inside.”
He told reporters that the fall of the compound was “the second liberation of the Gaza Strip.” The first time, he said, “It was liberated from the herds of the settlers,” referring to Israel’s withdrawal of all troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. “This time it was liberated from the herds of the collaborators,” he said of Fatah.
The battle for the Preventive Security compound lasted 24 hours, and neighbors said they saw members of the force who surrendered being shot in the legs. Others reported having witnessed executions.
According to Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, head of the emergency medical service in Gaza, 27 Palestinians were killed in the violence on Thursday.
Gaza has become increasingly cut off from the world and from key supplies.
All crossings from Israel and Egypt were closed because of the fighting, said Shlomo Dror, speaking for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, the Israeli agency that deals with the Palestinians.
Palestinians are not working on their side of the crossings, he said, and the Palestinian in charge of the Karni crossing, the main goods terminal to and from Israel, has been kidnapped. Karni has been closed since June 9.
Electricity and water continue to flow into Gaza from Israel and Egypt, but he said that fuel oil was running low and could disrupt electricity generation in two days.
The International Committee of the Red Cross managed to bring in a small convoy of vehicles with blood supplies, Dror said, and nearly 150 Gaza businessmen left the territory on Thursday morning, “But we don’t know if they’ll be allowed to come back,” he said.
Concern was mounting both inside and outside the Gaza Strip over the welfare of its residents, many of whom are already impoverished. The European Union announced it was suspending its aid projects there, and the UN Relief and Works Agency, which helps the 70 percent of Gazans who are refugees or their descendants, said Wednesday that it was curtailing its operations until the fighting stopped.
“I don’t know if Hamas has a strategy for the day after,” said Abusada, the political scientist, adding, “There are more questions than answers.”
There was talk both in Abbas’ headquarters and among worried Palestinians in Gaza about requesting an international force to come to Gaza.
“This is the beginning of the separation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” said Abusada, referring to the two territories that were eventually supposed to comprise an independent Palestinian state. “This is the lowest point in our struggle. We Palestinians are writing the final chapters of our national enterprise.”
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