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The Toronto Star

Fatah, Hamas on Brink of Civil War

Worsening Conflict Between Rival Groups Threatens To Split Palestinian Society

Oakland Ross

JERUSALEM—When they start to throw their compatriots from the roofs of highrise buildings, it is a sure sign that something has gone very badly wrong.0613 05

In the tormented Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip, a great deal seems to be going very wrong indeed.

Yesterday, fighting continued to rage between two armed factions vying for power in Gaza — one known as Fatah, the other as Hamas — amid charges that an attempted coup was underway against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.

Many feared the conflict would soon escalate into an outright civil war that could split Palestinian society all but irrevocably.

"It's a very drastic and painful situation," said Sami Adwan, Palestinian co-director of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. "It's a very lousy thing, the bloodshed. It is wrong."

Last night, the death toll stood at 37 following three days of combat and chaos that broke out in Gaza earlier this week — a renewal of a long-simmering conflict that also flared last month.

On Sunday, Hamas militants kidnapped Muhamed Sawirki, a 24-year-old member of a Fatah-allied military force, and later threw him to his death from the roof of the Ghafari Tower, Gaza's tallest building, one of two such incidents in recent days.

Yesterday, Hamas gunmen were reported to have kidnapped the Palestinian vice-minister of transportation in the West Bank capital of Ramallah, a worrisome signal that the unrest could spill over into the West Bank, so far insulated from the storm of internecine warfare that has descended upon Gaza.

Meanwhile, Fatah unleashed a rocket attack yesterday on the home of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, without killing its target.

Why are Gazans at each other's throats?

"There are external reasons and internal reasons," said George Giacaman, director of Muwatin, a Palestinian institute dedicated to the study of democracy.

Among the external reasons for the fighting, Giacaman highlighted North American and European opposition to Hamas, a radical Islamist group that surged to power in Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, but that is shunned by many in the West as a terrorist organization. Many governments, including Canada's, have cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority because of Hamas's darker side and its failure to formally recognize Israel as a state.

Fatah, which controlled the Palestinian Authority before losing out to Hamas at the ballot box 18 months ago, has interpreted international opposition to the organization as a green light to go its own way, says Giacaman.

"Some quarters of Fatah have not accepted that Hamas should have taken over after its victory in January 2006," he said. Meanwhile, economic conditions in Gaza — miserable at the best of times — have steadily deteriorated as sources of foreign funding have dried up in the wake of the 2006 vote.

As a Fatah leader presiding at the head of a government dominated by Hamas, Abbas is evidently powerless to control the spiralling violence.

As social and political order have broken down, the territory has witnessed an alarming rise in the firepower of unruly clans that operate mainly in their own interests but that also ally themselves when convenient with one or another of the main disputing factions. Efforts by Egypt to broker a peace accord between Hamas and Fatah have produced a so-called unity government, but the shaky arrangement has failed to yield anything in the way of real unity.

Two years ago, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza following nearly 40 years of military occupation, but that dramatic measure has been followed by a halt in the search for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The stalling of peace efforts, says Adwan, has fed the sense of hopelessness already felt by many in Gaza, contributing to the territory's descent into its current blood-drenched troubles.

"I don't think a ceasefire will be achieved by internal agreement," he said.

For the moment, there is little cause for optimism on any front, certainly not while armed thugs are throwing their enemies from the roofs of highrise buildings.

"This," said Giacaman, "is a very sorry state indeed."

© 2007 The Toronto Star

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