December 4, 2008 - 1:00am

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of the long-dominant, secular Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), is in conflict with Hamas, the Islamist movement which won a parliamentary election in 2006.

Since June 2007, when Hamas routed Abbas's forces in the Gaza Strip, prompting Abbas to fire a Hamas-led government and appoint his own in the West Bank, each side has accused the other of persecutions. Human rights monitors say there has been an upsurge in torture and detentions in the West Bank recently.

Here are some questions and answers about the split between Abbas and Hamas:

Q - What does Abbas ultimately want?

A - Full control over the West Bank and Gaza and to end Hamas's challenge to his legitimacy as the representative of the Palestinian people. As undisputed leader, Abbas hopes to make peace with Israel and establish a Palestinian state.

Q - What does Hamas want?

A - It wants Abbas and the West to recognize its victory in the 2006 parliamentary election. Instead, the Hamas-led government of 2006-2007 was shunned diplomatically and economically. After Hamas, which has support from Iran and Syria, drove Fatah out of Gaza last year, Israel and its allies tightened a blockade of the enclave.

Officially Hamas wants an Islamic state in all of pre-1948 Palestine and hence an end to the state of Israel, if need be by military means. It has offered a "long-term ceasefire" with the Jewish state and has given indications that it is willing to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Q - What are the two sides' next moves?

A - Abbas was elected to a 4-year term in 2005. Hamas says he is no longer the legitimate president after January 9, 2009. Abbas cites conflicting legislation, asserting he can stay on until 2010. He said last month he would call parliamentary and presidential elections around April. The election law has been rewritten by Abbas in a decree, creating a proportional system that experts say makes it much harder for Hamas to win.

Q - So will there be a 2009 election?

A - Hamas can clearly prevent an election from including the Gaza Strip, where it dominates. So if there were an election, it could be in the West Bank only, as Abbas hinted last month. Whether Hamas candidates in the West Bank would be allowed to take part in a partial ballot of the Palestinians is unclear, given the expected opposition of Israel and Washington. Both factions have an interest in portraying themselves, notably to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other key Arab states, as keen to heal the rift in Palestinian ranks, even though they know their ideological gap may be unbridgeable. However, a planned reconciliation meeting in Cairo failed to start last month.

Q - Could Hamas be forcibly dislodged from Gaza?

A - Some Israeli leaders, facing their own parliamentary election on February 10 and under public pressure over rocket fire from Gaza, advocate an invasion to drive the Islamists out and hand the coastal territory back to the control of Abbas.

Q - So what should we expect in 2009? War or elections?

A - Nobody knows. Abbas has few alternatives to pressing ahead with preparations for elections that may not take place. Barring a breakthrough in reconciliation talks, fighting between Hamas and Fatah could flare up. Israel sees a confrontation with Hamas as inevitable, but launching a large-scale operation could prove bloody for all sides and end inconclusively. Few expect Abbas's peace talks with Israel to bear fruit anytime soon.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017