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Monday, June 19, 2006

Fatah, Hamas race to re-arm

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (19/06/06)

With around two dozen people killed in sporadic clashes between Fatah and Hamas loyalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent weeks, and both sides rearming and recruiting heavily, fears are growing that the current security crisis in the Palestinian Authority (PA) could degenerate into a full-scale civil war.

However, ongoing talks between Fatah and Hamas officials may yet bring reconciliation and new possibilities both for a united Palestinian platform and long-term progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The escalation in the number and scale of violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas loyalists has been fuelled by growing tensions at the political level and a surge in arms smuggling and black market light weapons sales.

Speaking to ISN Security Watch, Atiyeh Abu Mansour, a journalist with the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam, acknowledged the surge in weapons purchases in the Palestinian territories: "Yes there is something going on there. Both sides are trying to strengthen their forces. Maybe it is for resisting the occupation, or maybe clashes will erupt."

According to recent media reports, Hamas and Fatah forces are rapidly rearming with new hand-held and shoulder-launched weapons. Hamas in the West Bank has been buying M-16s at US$13,000 each, up from US$5,400 last year.

Fatah has responded by distributing weapons to local party officials, and bolstering its forces in two West Bank cities with 3,500 new recruits.

ISN Security Watch asked International Crisis Group (ICG) senior analyst Mouin Rabbani about the increased weapons procurements.

"[…] There is clear evidence that there is stockpiling of weapons going on and that this stockpiling is not interrelated to preparations for renewal of conflict with Israel, but rather for an escalation of internal conflict," Rabbani said.

He said there were indications that "everyone is stockpiling; and by that I mean the security forces, the party militias, armed gangs, families. Basically everyone who has been carrying weapons around for the past few years is now making substantial efforts to acquire more of them."

Prior to the withdrawal of its forces from the Gaza Strip, Israel had long fought a losing battle against illicit gun-smuggling conducted by sea and via tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.

Israel withdrew from the border zone in September 2005 after receiving Egyptian assurances that anti-smuggling activities would continue.

However, Egyptian troops were driven away from the border by Palestinian gunmen who blew a large hole in the wall, smuggling large quantities of ammunition, machine guns, and RPGs into Gaza in the several days that the border remained open.

Rabbani said current weapons procurement activities involved "smuggling across international borders" and "purchases on the black market." Black market transactions include "purchases from Israeli sources," he said.
Gaza face off

Hamas is at a military disadvantage to Fatah, which maintains control of all PA security forces and also has significant militia forces in areas of the Gaza Strip.

In an effort to bolster its Gaza forces, Hamas tasked Interior Minister Siad Siam with forming a new PA security force from members of Hamas' armed wing and Palestinian Resistance Committees (PRC) operatives. President Mahmoud Abbas ordered that the force be disbanded, but was ignored.

The controversial 3,000-strong paramilitary unit was deployed on the streets of Gaza City in mid-May and was met with a show of force by around 2,000 Fatah-allied police and security force members. The Hamas force was withdrawn temporarily by the Interior Ministry after a fierce gunfight with the Fatah-aligned Preventive Security Services (PSS), before being redeployed, and withdrawn again.

Fatah responded immediately to the creation of the unit, signing 4,000 new recruits to the PSS and affiliated militias, as local Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan sought to secure his power base in the Gaza Strip.

The creation of the new Hamas force is a sign that Abbas has succeeded in consolidating his authority over three nominally Interior Ministry-controlled security agencies.

"The president has used his prerogative to appoint a loyalist commander to take almost direct command of those [Interior Ministry] forces and that person, Rashid Abu Shbak, also happens to be a previous commander of one of those three forces," Rabbani said, adding that the units were "acting as if they are part of the network under Fatah's [control]."

Given this situation, the newly created Hamas unit is "the only real loyalist force in terms of the formal security services that is answerable to the Interior Ministry," Rabbani said.

The ability to exercise authority over the PA security services is vital for both parliament and president as it gives the controlling agency the ability to project force and to control access to employment opportunities in an impoverished society.

The movement that controls the armed forces builds client-patron relation with the security force members and with their families and clan groups.

Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, from Hamas, reportedly agreed on 14 June to integrate members of the new Hamas paramilitary force into the regular PA security services. However, Abbas cautioned that differences remained, with Fatah demanding that the militants be dispersed throughout the various units. Hamas favors their integration in the PA security structure as a single unit.

Rabbani said Hamas and Fatah also were negotiating "the integration of party militias into the security forces."

The success of these integration efforts "will be determined by the ability or failure of the political leaderships of the two organizations to reach a consensus agreement on future policy in the Authority," he said.
Bolstering Abbas

In June meetings, the leaders of the US, Egypt, Britain, and Jordan gave Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a clear message that they wanted Israel to support Abbas in his ongoing struggle with the Hamas-led government.

Following a June meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Olmert said he had agreed to allow Egypt and Jordan to supply the Palestinian presidential guard with arms and ammunition.

Around 950 M-16s were subsequently transferred to the guard in the West Bank from Jordan in mid-June, according to media reports. The unit also received four US-made armored cars in a move coordinated with Israel, while Spain has promised to supply four-wheel drive vehicles.

Abbas angered Hamas by deploying the presidential guard at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt following the Israeli withdrawal.

With the Gaza withdrawal viewed by the Palestinian public as a victory for Hamas, it is feared that further unilateral pullbacks by Israel in the West Bank could lead to Fatah losing the 2008 presidential election.

Assuming that the Hamas government survives that long, this would hand authority over Palestinian foreign policy initiatives and complete control of the PA armed forces to the irredentist Islamic movement.

Fatah and Hamas leaders have held a series of meetings to try to stem the growing tide of violence between their supporters, with limited success.

The clashes between rival militants, often involving PA security forces, have largely been short-lived, localized gunfights in flashpoints towns such as Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip.

Though difficult to contain, it is unlikely that these small-scale clashes mark a step towards civil war, though they do raise tensions between the two movements. The same can be said for the recurrent occupations of public buildings by Fatah-aligned gunmen.

However, the recent gunfight between the Hamas paramilitary force and PSS in Gaza City - and similar clashes between Hamas militia units and PA security services in 2005 - heightened fears of a move towards large-scale violence that could spiral out of the control of the political leaderships of the two movements.
Reconciliation efforts

Hamas is coming under increasing pressure to agree to the National Reconciliation Document - also known as the Prisoners' Document.

The 18-point platform calls for a unified armed struggle in the West Bank and for the return of refugees. It also calls for the previously moribund Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to be revived as the vehicle for future peace negotiations with Israel, and for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip based on the 1948 ceasefire lines.

The document was signed by prominent inmates in an Israeli jail representing five militant groups, including Fatah's Marwan Barghouti, Hamas' Abdel Khalek al-Natsheh, and Sheikh Bassam al-Sa'di from Islamic Jihad.

Al-Natsheh and al-Sa'di withdrew their support for the document after Abbas' decision to call a national referendum on the initiative when Hamas failed to agree to the full platform in intensive talks.

"I think the problem with the Prisoners' Document from Hamas' perspective has less to do with its substance and more to do with its partisan exploitation by the presidency and the Fatah movement," Rabbani said.

Hopes are growing that Hamas may be willing to sign up to the document with minor changes.

On 18 June, Hamas and Fatah officials said an agreement had been reached on 15 of the 18 sections of the platform, with negotiations continuing on Hamas' recognition of the PLO, limiting the right to armed struggle to the West Bank and the holding of referendums on future peace deals with Israel.

Abu Mansour feared that any potential deal would be scuppered by Hamas' hawkish Syrian-based political leadership: "Hamas are very influenced by [Political Bureau chief Khaled] Meshaal in Damascus. His interests are not necessarily those [of local Palestinians] but Hamas is likely to go the "Meshaal way."

Asked if an agreement was possible on Hamas' joining the PLO the journalist said: "I'm not sure they can get it, they're asking for something like 40 percent of the seats."

In accepting the document, Hamas would recognize the Fatah-controlled PLO for the first time, in return for a prominent role in the organization.

In agreeing to support the document, the government would be abrogating fundamental Hamas positions, granting Israel de facto recognition through accepting the 1967 border as the basis for a future state.

Abbas is thus on the verge of a major coup that would ease intra-movement tensions dramatically, while significantly bolstering the chances of a full peace settlement.

A unified Palestinian stance and offer of talks would also raise pressure on Israel to abandon the unilateral convergence plan and enter negotiations with the PLO.

The stakes are high as the failure of Palestinian reconciliation efforts is likely to lead to an increase in violence between Fatah and Hamas loyalists, which, with the rapid rearmament and expansion of forces, raises fears of full-scale civil war.

"I think there are conditions under which a civil war could materialize. I also think there are very powerful forces mitigating against a full-scale prolonged conflict between these groups," Rabbani said.

Asked what these mitigating factors were, he said the public would punish "any group deemed to be provoking […] or participating in a civil war," and that such a war could lead to the displacement of "political movements and the individual power centers within those movements."

Faced with a deteriorating security situation and an economic boycott of PA institutions, the coming days will tell whether Hamas and Fatah will unite to lead their people out of the quagmire or will drag them down into an unpredictable internecine struggle.

Dr. Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East.
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