- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

TEL AVIV - An argument between two persons at an automated teller machine in the Gaza Strip early this week escal-ated into a battle between Palestinian policemen and Hamas members.

What exactly happened is disputed, but it led to the dissolution on Monday of the Cabinet of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that Hamas was setting itself up as a shadow government of the Palestinian Authority and must be dismantled. He demanded that the Palestinian Authority disqualify the militant group from running in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for January.

Hamas is a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 to protect Islam from European powers, particularly Britain and France, which took over portions of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

Tawfiq Abu Khousa, a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, told UPI that policemen went Sunday to separate two persons fighting at the ATM. One of them, a Hamas member, summoned his friends, who fired in the air and hurled a hand grenade.

Al Jazeera television quoted Usama Hamdan, a Hamas spokesman in Lebanon, as saying that Palestinian police were sent to arrest Muhammad Rantisi, son of the late Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Neighbors protected him and police opened fire. The fighting quickly spread to the nearby Shati refugee camp, from which Hamas members shot four rocket-propelled grenades at a Palestinian police station.

Three persons, including a police major, were killed and more than 40 wounded before representatives from the two sides put an end to the fighting.

Abbas vs. the militants

The flare-up demonstrated the difficulties Mr. Abbas faces as he tries to enforce law and order in the face of growing opposition from Hamas and other militant groups.

The factions have agreed not to carry arms in public, but were armed Sunday. Ghazi Hamad, editor of the Hamas weekly Ar-Resala, indicated that the group’s leaders did not have full control over their followers.

“It is not easy to stop everything in one or two days,” he said. “You need time to implement the orders and impose a system of discipline.”

On his way to the Palestinian Legislative Council meeting in Ramallah on Monday, Qadoura Fares, a former Fatah minister, seemed to lose patience. Fatah is the main Palestinian political faction.

“This [fighting] is a natural result of Hamas’ lack of readiness [to lay down its weapons]. They don’t understand us. For a long time, we’ve been calling, begging them to stop the armed phenomena in the streets. There are people who don’t get this. … If the Hamas leadership will let squads and armed youngsters lead it by the nose, the Palestinian Authority will have to act,” he said.

Sixty percent of Palestinians back the collection of weapons from groups in Gaza, according to a recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has been seeking to control all weapons through dialogue and agreements.

Walking a tightrope

Mr. Abbas is liked, but his popularity “could go crashing down … [if] he rocked the boat too hard by going after Hamas,” said Roger Heacock, a history professor at Birzeit University. Mr. Abbas has to be careful because his hard-line opponents could remind people that he was against “our militants” and against Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving several life sentences in Israel for his role in the deaths of Israelis during the intifada, or uprising, Mr. Heacock added.

Egyptian military officers led by Gen. Mustafa al-Buheiri are in Gaza to help the Palestinian Authority. The newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that Gen. al-Buheiri met Mahmoud al-Zahar, the Hamas leader there, and Jameel al-Majdalawi, a Politburo member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Al-Quds al-Arabi added that Gen. Omar Suleiman, the chief of Egyptian intelligence, invited the factions to a new round of intra-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo.

The current truce expires at the end of the year.

The factions seem ready for talks, likely because Palestinians are tired of violence and want to prove they can manage their affairs.

‘New era’ awaited

“Most of the factions are willing to begin a new round [of talks] before the end of the year,” Fatah official Sameer al-Mshahrwe told Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

The talks would cover issues such as the intent of factions to join the Palestine Liberation Organization. The parties should discuss ways to create “a new era, a new situation in Gaza, a new relationship between the [Palestinian Authority] and the factions — how we can build a new society, a new strategy,” Mr. Hamad told UPI.

There is no “confidence and trust between Hamas and the [Palestinian Authority], and all the time you find that everyone is afraid of the other. We want to stop this and want to put all the fears on the table to talk about all the issues. … We have two options, civil war or peaceful coexistence in the Palestinian society,” he added.

Mr. Abbas has been trying to lure Hamas into the political system, and if it joins the ruling coalition, it would have to abide by its rules.

The United States and the European Union have refused to deal with Hamas, and Israel has been fighting it because of its terrorist activity. Late last month, Hamas kidnapped an Israeli civilian, apparently to negotiate a prisoner swap, and later killed him.

Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevy Farkash, told the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv this week that terrorism by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah has been “restrained” for the past two years.

“Hamas is in one of its difficult points, in terms of its ability [to strike], not its motivation. Its motivation is huge, but its capabilities are problematic,” Gen. Farkash said.

The same would seem true of Islamic Jihad, Mr. Heacock said.

“They’ve been so decimated. … They keep getting killed [by the Israelis], and this has been the fate of the Jihad from the beginning. … They’re such a small group … they need this [quiet] to preserve their existence,” he said.

Joining the dialogue

Hamas, for its part, realizes that “people are fed up with the explosions and … even in Gaza, [militancy] doesn’t work anymore because, after all, they’ve achieved what they have achieved,” Mr. Heacock said, alluding to Israel’s withdrawal.

Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi said his group wants to take part in the dialogue.

Hamas seemed encouraged by the results of another round of local elections, in 104 localities with 144,000 eligible voters. There were agreed lists in 22 localities, and Hamas did not run in 20 because, Mr. Hamad said, they were in areas under Israeli control. But in the places it ran, the group won 34 percent of the votes, he noted.

“This is very good … It gives a signal or an indication of the power of Hamas,” he said.

Yohanan Tzoreff, a senior research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism near Tel Aviv, said he thinks voters are “settling accounts” with Fatah and consider Hamas a clean, noncorrupt party.

It is easier to vote Hamas in local elections, in which the issues are daily, local services. However, Mr. Tzoreff added, “the public understands that Hamas is offering blood, sweat and tears,” so it will not be easy for the group to win the national elections.

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