JERUSALEM – The fighting in Gaza is laying bare a dangerous trend: Neither Hamas nor Fatah appears to be in control of its gunmen.
Furious over a two-month-old power sharing deal and eager for a showdown, the groups’ armed wings and their patrons – not the top political leaders – are calling the shots on the streets.
In a sign of their increasing weakness, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant group Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas of the largely secular Fatah movement failed to make a cease-fire stick despite repeated attempts last week.
At the root of the latest fighting, which has killed more than 50 and wounded dozens, is the failure of the Hamas-Fatah coalition deal forged in March to address the key issue of who controls Palestinian security forces.
The government has also failed in its main task – bringing an end to an international aid boycott and leading the Palestinians out of isolation.
Discontent festered among Hamas hard-liners and in its military wing, which opposed the coalition deal from the start. In Fatah’s armed wing, many also clamored for a showdown, having refused to accept the Hamas election victory last year that ended decades of Fatah domination.
The spark came last week when the top Abbas-allied security chiefs moved 3,000 security officers loyal to Fatah into the streets of Gaza City, ostensibly as part of a law-and-order crackdown.
Hamas, which demanded greater control over the security forces, perceived the deployment as a provocation and set off a deadly round of fighting Sunday by killing a top Fatah militant.
Hamas and Fatah fighters appear about evenly matched, and fought to a draw in previous exchanges the past year. Hamas, which commands roughly 20,000 armed men, has the better organization, while Fatah has more fighters, though an exact count is difficult.
In casting blame at the other, each side said the order to seek a confrontation didn’t come from its rival’s leaders but from politically ambitious troublemakers and gunmen under their command.
“There is a mutiny” in Hamas, said Fatah spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa. “The political leadership has no control over the military wing.”
One high-profile Hamas opponent of the power-sharing deal is Mahmoud Zahar, a former foreign minister who was not given a Cabinet post in the new unity government.
Hamas lawmaker Salah Bardawil accused Abbas security adviser Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza strongman, of orchestrating a Fatah campaign against Hamas.
“The battle is clearly with (Dahlan and his allies) and not with Fatah as a whole,” Bardawil said. “Even Abbas’ control over them is limited.”
During the clashes, Dahlan was in Cairo, Egypt, recovering from a knee operation. He has denied in the past that he is running his own agenda.
Both Hamas and Fatah clearly anticipated another round of violence. During the two-month lull after the power-sharing deal, they stockpiled weapons smuggled through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
In another sign of careful preparation, Hamas gunmen used computerized lists of pro-Fatah members of the security forces in roadblock checks, said Col. Ali Qaisi, a spokesman for the Abbas-allied Presidential Guard.
“This is a pure and naked power struggle,” said Mouin Rabbani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank.
The showdown has been further complicated by the involvement of Israel and the U.S.
Israel has chased Hamas militants out of their command centers with a barrage of airstrikes, a response to Hamas rocket fire at the southern Israeli town of Sderot. The Israelis also let 500 Fatah fighters trained in Egypt cross into Gaza last week.
Israel insists it has no plan to get into the middle of the Gaza power struggle, but its systematic targeting of Hamas has helped Fatah fighters.
The United States, meanwhile, has arranged for training and financial support for Abbas’ Presidential Guard, which is supposed to deploy men at Gaza’s border crossings and in anti-rocket units as part of a U.S. security plan.
This has given ammunition to Hamas’ claims that Fatah is conspiring with outsiders. Hamas TV on Friday accused three Fatah security chiefs of treason, alleging they were in contact with foreign security services.
Each side has reasons for seeking the confrontation now, rather than giving the unity government more time.
Those in Fatah who oppose the coalition administration may be gambling that the Gaza clashes will help bring down the government and speed up new elections, giving them a chance to reverse the movement’s defeat at the ballot box.
Hamas, meanwhile, has been spooked by warnings within Fatah that Abbas could resign if the government doesn’t succeed in lifting the international boycott by summer’s end.
That would bring a presidential election, and Hamas has strongly opposed any new ballot, saying it would amount to theft of its overwhelming election victory last year.
The government’s poor performance also has strengthened Hamas hard-liners who feel the militant group’s attempt to transform itself into a political party was a mistake.
The role of the supreme Hamas leader, Syrian-based Khaled Mashaal, is somewhat murky. He has backed the unity deal, but he has also threatened a new uprising against Israel if sanctions are not lifted and has denounced the U.S. security plan as a Western plot to force Hamas to surrender.
It’s not clear whether Hamas is using the fighting to try to get a better coalition deal – Haniyeh aide Ahmed Yousef demanded new negotiations – or wants a fight to the finish.
However, victory by force is unlikely for either side.
“Winning is losing,” said Rabbani, the analyst. “When the victory (means) eliminating a Palestinian rival, society won’t accept that.”
Karin Laub is The Associated Press’ chief correspondent in Ramallah, West Bank.