- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

The kindling is set in the Palestinian territories and ready to ignite the Middle East’s third of three civil wars, as predicted recently by the Jordanian monarch.

Jordan’s King Abdullah cautioned that without major headway being made at peacemaking in the Middle East, the region could be heading toward three devastating fratricidal conflicts. The consequences would affect not only the countries directly involved but have grave repercussions far beyond the Levant.

The first conflict is of course in Iraq where sectarian clashes, mass abductions and wide-scale killings have been under way for the better part of three years now, since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003.

The second hot spot is in Lebanon where tension continues high with the pro- and anti-Syrian camp locking horns. Fouad Siniora’s government, which enjoys U.S. and European Union support, is holding fast. But here too, a spark could set the country aflame.

And the third area of conflict is Palestine: The right spark at the appropriate moment could cause all hell to break loose in the Holy Land. That spark could very well be last weekend’s announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of elections to be held in early 2007.

Over the last week, tensions have reached new heights and clashes have intensified between the two main Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah. But as in Iraq, no one yet wants to call the intra-Palestinian dispute a civil war. Yet if the trend continues it may well throw the Palestinians into just that.

“The Palestinians have let themselves fall right into the trap set for them by the Israeli extreme right,” Laurie King-Irani, an anthropologist and Middle East specialist, told United Press International. Civil war or cleverly set right-wing trap, the situation in the Palestinian territories remains precarious.

Gunmen loyal to the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, have engaged in heavy clashes with units of Fatah’s special security forces in Gaza loyal to President Abbas. Automatic rifles and machine guns were used during violent clashes in western Gaza City on Sunday afternoon. The Islamist Palestinian faction is believed to have the upper hand in Gaza.

This latest round of fighting erupted after unknown gunmen opened fire on the convoy of Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar as departed the ministry in Gaza City, according to witnesses. Earlier, unidentified gunmen fired at a Palestinian presidential guard post in southern Gaza City. One fighter was killed and four others were injured.

Hamas, which won the parliamentary majority during last January’s elections, won control of the government. Mr. Abbas, himself a Fatah member, was obliged to appoint a prime minister from Hamas. But the Islamist’s continued refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist has resulted in the United States and the European Union stopping all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Additionally, Israel is withholding several million dollars in monthly import tax revenues due to the PA. Without those revenues, the PA has been unable to meet payroll for its army of civil servants.

Hoping to jolt Palestinian territories out of their political lethargy given the government’s inability to accomplish anything, Mr. Abbas has called for early presidential and parliamentary elections. This puts his job on the line and risks giving Hamas even more power, but Mr. Abbas expects the elections could help break months of deadlock and finally get international sanctions lifted, giving the PA some badly needed oxygen.

However, Hamas sees this move as a potential coup to oust the Islamist movement from power. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh promptly rejected calls for new elections, saying it was unconstitutional and that Hamas would boycott the elections.

But in this part of the world “boycotting elections” carries a deeper connotation. It more often than not translates into violence on polling day; attacks on voting centers, voter intimidation and gunfights between supporters of opposing candidates.

This move to counter Hamas’ influence comes after nearly a year of intermittent clashes between the two main Palestinian factions and leading to the crescendo of these last few days, bringing real fears in the Palestinian territories of an all-out civil war.

The danger in igniting fires is that one never knows in which direction the wind will eventually carry the flames.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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