Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and Fatah: a house divided

Al-Qaeda is at daggers drawn with Hezbollah. As Zvi Bar’el, Ha’aretz columnist, puts it, a new ally has joined Israel in the struggle against Hezbollah.

Al-Qaeda is a Sunni organisation. Taking over as commander of the Syrian branch earlier this year, Majd al-Majd controls some 6,000 militants who entered Syria from Iraq and Turkey to support the Sunni-led rebellion against the Assad regime.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, is essentially Shi’ite, and has been sending militants to Syria to support government forces. Majd al-Majd is flaming mad. In a recent broadcast he said: “sending your sons from Lebanon so that they fight on the side of the criminal régime in Syria, kill our sons and frighten our wives, is considered support for the oppressor against the oppressed, and fully participating in a crime… Hezbollah’s existence is a threat to Lebanon’s security.”

Once launched on his condemnation of Hezbollah, Majd al-Majd let fly with all barrels. The assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005 had led to immediate suspicion of the involvement of the Syrian government assisted by their allies, Hezbollah. A special tribunal on Lebanon was established by the United Nations in 2006 to investigate the murder, and over the following years a series of leaks indicated that the evidence was pointing to certain individual Hezbollah leaders as being directly involved. In August 2010, in response to notification that the UN tribunal would soon indict some Hezbollah members, Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah secretary-general, counter-accused Israel of having fomented the assassination.

Now Majd al-Majd, exemplifying the old saying: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, flung an uncharacteristic bucket of whitewash over Israel – and ensured that some covered the United States as well: “The claim of the Shiite leaders that Israel and the United States are responsible for the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri and for sparking the rebellion in Syria are baseless. The ones behind the murder were the leaders of Hezbollah…”

But this internecine struggle, if we may regard it as such, is not confined to an Al-Qaeda−Hezbollah spat. Majd al-Majd’s organisation in Syria is competing with another jihadist group headed by a Jordanian salafi, Muhammad Al-Shalabi, also known as “Abu Sayyaf”. Abu Sayyaf says he is controlling hundreds of fighters who have flocked to his standard from all over the Arab world, including “fighters from Al-Qaeda”, and has taken to claiming responsibility for a number of military actions in Syria for which Majd al-Majd also lays claim. In consequence a power struggle is now taking place between the two organisations, to muddy still further the already murky waters of the Syrian civil war.

This latest example of fraternal relations between Islamist terrorist militants only serves to remind us of another long-running feud in that fierce and bloody world − the unresolved, and possibly unresolvable, struggle between Hamas and Fatah.

This conflict, also sometimes referred to as the Palestinian Civil War or the Conflict of Brothers, is called “Wakseh” among Palestinians, meaning humiliation, ruin, and collapse as a result of self-inflicted damage.

In September 2005, as Israel completed its evacuation of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority was planning elections. The hope was that Palestinians, not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem, would be able to vote and then govern themselves, and a significant step would have been taken towards achieving the two-state solution.

The elections, held indeed on 25 January 2006, were for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority. The Islamist organisation, Hamas, won 74 seats; the ruling Fatah 45. Without an overall majority, President Mahmoud Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip in a bloody coup d'état, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Forlorn efforts at reconciliation between the two power blocs within the Palestinian body politic began as early as 2008 – forlorn, because all such efforts are attempts at reconciling the irreconcilable. Insofar as Mahmoud Abbas has embraced the concept of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has consistently engaged with Israel – even if to no obvious effect, as yet – and went so far in September 2010 as to sit down at the same table with Israel’s prime minister and talk peace, the PA has placed itself beyond the pale in Hamas’s eyes. For Hamas remains what it has always been – an extreme Islamist and terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel.

Hamas, which includes in its official charter the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has never endorsed the two-state solution, since to do so would be to recognise Israel. For the same reason Hamas opposed Abbas’s attempt, in September 2011, at gaining United Nations’ recognition of Palestine within the old 1967 borders. Recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders would, by extension, mean recognising Israel outside them. Nor has it accepted the three minimal requirements for official recognition demanded of it by the Middle East Quartet, representing the US, the UN, Russia and the EU. These are recognizing Israel’s right to exist, abandoning terrorism, and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements – all of which are accepted by the PA.

Nevertheless, in February 2012 these irreconcilable differences appeared to have been overcome. After several rounds of discussion, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the leader-in-exile of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, formally signed the Doha Declaration. which called for the formation of a national consensus Palestinian government whose main mission would be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections and rebuild the Gaza Strip. Abbas was appointed interim prime minister of the new joint Hamas-Fatah unity government.

The reaction of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was instant. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said, addressing Mahmoud Abbas. “It’s either a pact with Hamas, or it’s peace with Israel.” Of course he was quite correct, and in little more than three months the Doha declaration was revealed as a slap-dash papering over of cracks, and incapable of providing a lasting accommodation.

Abbas and his spokesmen insisted that at Doha Hamas agreed to honour all previous agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israel, and to accept that being part of a united Palestinian government means recognising Israel. But Hamas officials themselves repeatedly denied this − Gazan Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and Mahmoud al-Zahar, criticised the agreement from the start. By swearing in a new Palestinian government in the West Bank on 16 May, Mahmoud Abbas and the PA have acknowledged the validity of Netanyahu’s options – engage with Hamas or engage with Israel – and openly declared their choice. It is to continue their struggle against Hamas.

But now the internal struggle has turned against the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself. With the rising cost of living in the West Bank as the catalyst, riots were reported this week in Hebron, with dozens of police officers and protesters injured in clashes with several thousand protesters. There have also been protests in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem and Jericho, with roads blocked by burning tyres and rubbish bins. Strikes by taxi and bus drivers have paralysed the West Bank's public transport system. More than 24,000 union members are estimated to have undertaken strike action.

When the main target of the demonstrators was initially the prime minister Salam Fayyad, and there were widespread calls for him to resign, the protests were welcomed by PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, as the “Palestinian spring.” More recently, however, protesters have also begun calling for Abbas to go, and attacking corruption within the PA. Palestinian security forces, who kept a low profile during the first days of demonstrations, are now using teargas and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse demonstrators.

Not a happy state of affairs as far as the Palestinian camp in general, or the Islamist entity in particular, are concerned. For some, comfort from the situation can be found – perhaps inappropriately − in the New Testament. For was it not Matthew who reported the aphorism: “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand”?

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