The bloody end to a massive rally in Gaza Monday marking the third anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s death is seen as underscoring the disunity of the Palestinian people whose aspirations for their own state are proving more and more elusive.
Monday’s rally was organized by the Fatah Party of PLO leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which was ousted from the Gaza Strip in June by its Iranian-backed rival Hamas. The Al Jazeera news agency estimated that 200,000 Fatah supporters attended the event, which many turned into a political rally to protest Hamas rule.
“They came with flags of the PLO and yellow flags of Fatah,” said Mordechai Kedar, an Arab specialist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “They were like red cloths being waved in front of a wounded bull, Hamas.”
At the rally, Zakaria al-Agha, the Fatah leader in Gaza, reportedly delivered a speech written by Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, in which he declared: “We say to Hamas and these armed militants, stop your crimes. These crimes will not shake our determination.”
And some at the rally taunted Hamas security personnel with chants of “Shia, Shia,” which was seen as an insult because it accused them of being the proxy of Shia Iran; most Palestinians are Sunni.
Gunfire erupted as the rally neared an end. There were reports of as many as seven people killed and more than 100 wounded in the chaos that followed.
Although Hamas insists that Fatah supporters opened fire, Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he believes Hamas fired first because “it was a great show of Fatah support that created much unhappiness among Hamas supporters.”
“I don’t see any incentive by Fatah to open fire,” he said. “And people in Gaza do not carry firearms without the permission of Hamas. … Hamas seems to be in a defensive state in the face of the Annapolis [summit] and the declining condition of day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip. Hamas recognized that the huge gathering of Fatah supporters was reinforcing Abu Mazen in Annapolis and it wanted to undermine him. Ironically, it produced the opposite result because the Arab world and Palestinian people saw a mass of Fatah supporters and Hamas opening fire on them.”
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, viewed Monday’s incident as “another defeat for Fatah.”
“Hamas was concerned about a return of Fatah and it wanted to make sure that did not happen,” he said. “So Hamas moved immediately to crush it and Fatah was not able to fight back. Israelis looked at this and asked how long it would be before Fatah was [forced] out of every place except Ramallah and Bethlehem.”
There were reports this week that Fatah is quietly telling Israel not to consider relinquishing to it areas of the West Bank yet for fear that Hamas gunmen will simply overrun the area.
The support for Fatah on the streets of Gaza is reflected in opinion polls. The Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, a Palestinian group, found that support for Fatah had risen from 30.6 percent in the West Bank and Gaza in September 2006 to 40 percent now. And support for Hamas has slipped to 19.7 percent, down from 29.7 percent during that same period.
“Support for Fatah has increased not as much because of what Fatah is doing but what Hamas is doing,” said Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, a non-partisan not-for-profit group that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He said a telephone poll of Gaza residents by Near East Consulting that was taken last month “showed a majority of Gazans unhappy with the military takeover [by Hamas] and supported Abbas in his negotiations with Israel. So even in Gaza there is a swing of public opinion back towards Fatah because of the actions of Hamas.”
Kedar said he believes the polls reflect the true sentiments of Gaza residents whose support for Hamas in the January 2006 election was not based on ideology but on anger at the corruption of the Fatah government.
“Hamas has proven to be no less corrupt than Fatah,” he said. “So now people understand that they made the wrong calculation. They are seeing that Hamas takes care of their own families and loved ones. … So neither Hamas nor Abu Mazen can bring hope to the Palestinians. Their only hope is to emigrate. The frustrations of the Palestinians today are great.”
Israeli analysts, Ezrahi noted, believe that if Hamas used the money it gets from overseas to buy and make goods rather than missiles, the lives of its citizens would be much better off.
Seven Kassam rockets fired by Palestinians in Gaza struck the Israeli town of Sderot Tuesday, with one landing near the home of Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal. He was quoted as saying that the warning siren sounded while he was having a meeting in his home.
“We ran to the fortified room and learned afterwards that that rocket landed not far from my house,” he said. “We were lucky no one got hurt.”
Steinberg said the continued rocket attacks are the way Hamas sends a message that “it is still in the ballgame.”
“It is to tell Israel that it can talk to Abbas but that it will be here for a long time,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Olmert has said he is preparing for a massive ground invasion to put an end to such rocket attacks but that he wanted to wait to avoid jeopardizing the Annapolis summit. There are some who believe such an attack will be launched soon after the summit.
But Michael Widlanski, a visiting professor at Washington University who is a specialist in Arab politics, said such an attack would require the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and that he is not convinced that Olmert would give the green light.
“He wants to show he is involved in the peace process and he believes that when you show you are involved in the peace process that the prosecution lays off,” he said.
Widlanski was referring to three separate criminal investigations now being pursued against Olmert, who continues to deny wrongdoing. On Sunday, more than 100 police officers raided 20 locations in connection with the probes, including the headquarters of the national post office and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, where Olmert previously served as minister.
“It was a very dramatic event,” said Ezrahi. “It dramatized the fact that the prime minister is in trouble, but in no way does it appear it will be imminent. Dozens of boxes of documents were taken, which shows they are either a long way from concluding their work or they are looking for very specific things. It was meant to buy more time for the police and the attorney general — to show that they were doing something. That is reason to think it will take a long time.”
Dajani and other observers say there is a clear split now in Hamas between the hardliners who would never recognize Israel or accept a two-state solution and those like Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh who are seen as more pragmatic and receptive to change.
Widlanski said Palestinian self-destruction is nothing new. It happened, he said, in the 1930s, in the late 1980s and it has been going on since 2000.
“They pretend they are forcing Israeli withdrawal, when in fact they kill each other at a greater level after Israel withdraws,” he said. “So we have to ask ourselves if there is a Palestinian society or only a tribal conglomerate pretending to be a national unit.”
Danny Rubinstein, who covers Palestinian affairs for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote last week that “it would not be a great exaggeration to conclude that the Palestinian national movement has ceased to exist in recent years. … One of the clearest signs of the decline of the Palestinian national project is the departure of many of its key figures.”
He wrote that three of them have moved to homes in Cairo and that at an estimated 50,000 West Bank Palestinians have moved in recent years to homes in Amman. And, he said, the Jordanian government with Israel’s blessing has quietly established a “renewed presence in the West Bank” while publicly proclaiming that it has no designs there.