Mel Frykberg
The Middle East Times
February 6, 2009 - 1:00am

Hamas security men are back on the streets, directing traffic and trying to restore some semblance of law and order following isolated incidents of looting in the wake of Israel's 23-day military assault on Gaza.

Operation Cast Lead left over 1,300 Palestinians dead and nearly 500 wounded, most of them civilian, and also left the infrastructure of the coastal territory decimated.

The smuggling of weapons, and everyday essential items, into Gaza and sporadic rocket fire on Israel has resumed.

Israeli warships off Gaza fired at Palestinian targets the first day of the cease-fire provoking retaliatory missiles.

While Israel might have left the Islamic resistance organization bruised and bleeding, it is far from broken. Much to the chagrin of its erstwhile foe and arch enemy, President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the West Bank.

Tensions between the two main Palestinian political factions have increased following the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas won free, fair and democratic elections, which were monitored by international observers including ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in January 2006 unsettling the PA's political monopoly.

In June 2007 Hamas preempted an attempted coup by Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan and his supporters to oust Fatah's fundamentalist rivals, and established itself as the sole government in Gaza.

Dahlan and his men were armed, trained and financed by the Israelis and the CIA under the auspices of American security advisor General Keith Dayton in an attempt to rid Gaza's unity government of the Islamist faction.

Numerous media reports, including interviews with Dahlan, reported convoys of weapons and ammunition entering the Gaza Strip, with the approval of the Egyptian authorities, prior to the bloody infighting between Hamas and Fatah.

Since then the PA, which is affiliated to Fatah, has carried out an arrest campaign, which has included torturing and mistreatment of Hamas activists in the West Bank.

Many Hamas sympathizers, even those not involved politically or militarily, have been jailed according to human rights organizations.

Simultaneously Hamas has abused, beaten and arrested Fatah activists in Gaza. But the level of abuse rose sharply during Israel's military operation into Gaza.

The PA accused Hamas of carrying out extra-judicial killings, beatings and torture of a number of Fatah men.

Allegations of Fatah fighters being held in make-shift detention centers including schools and mosques also came to light. Several human rights organizations confirmed the allegations.

Hamas in turn accused Fatah members of providing the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with logistical information which enabled it to target Hamas leaders and military targets during Cast Lead.

A PA spokesman in the West Bank denied these accusations and denounced them as a cynical attempt to justify the abuse of Fatah men in Gaza.

Deepening the divide between Hamas and the PA is the rising popularity, according to recent polls, of Hamas in both the West Bank and Gaza following the war.

Many Palestinians have become disillusioned with the peace process as they believe Israel has given nothing to the PA in return for huge concessions made by Abbas.

New Israeli settlements are being built while other are being enlarged in the West Bank, contrary to the road map and the Annapolis agreements. Israel is creating facts on the ground which will render the territory a divided Bantustan consisting of several cantons.

Additionally, due to what Palestinians perceive as Abbas' weak-standing toward Israel, as Israel's brutal assault on Gaza continued unabated, his popularity has dramatically declined.

A recent survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center used face-to-face interviews of nearly 1,200 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

When asked if parliamentary elections were held today, the percentage of those who would vote for Hamas rose to 29 percent in this poll compared with 19 percent last April. The popularity of Fatah declined from 34 percent last April to 28 percent in the poll.

This change was also reflected in the level of public trust in the two movements. Trust in Hamas rose from 17 percent last November to 28 percent in the poll. Trust in Fatah fell from 31 percent to 26 percent in the same period.

The poll also suggested that the Palestinian public prefers "resistance" as a strategy over the high-level political negotiations preferred by Fatah.

While to most Western observers the political infighting between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority is merely a power struggle, it is in fact far more complex than this.

Power struggles within the two organizations, switching loyalties based on political expediency, and powerful clan struggles, revolving around extortion and business racketeering, as clan chieftains fight to retain their turf are all part of the murky political underworld in the Palestinian territories.

"To the international supporters and the financial backers of Abbas, or Abu Mazen as he is better known, he is the good guy due to his moderation while Hamas are considered the bad guys because of being 'Islamic fundamentalists,' " Moshe Ma'oz, a professor (Emeritus) of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and senior fellow at The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, told The Middle East Times.

"To a large degree Hamas managed to establish law and order on the streets of Gaza and kidnappings ceased. They are regarded as clean politically, not corrupt like Fatah," added Ma'oz.

Further muddying the political waters are the myriad of powerful clans in Gaza who under the previous PA leadership became both powerful and rich as they cornered specific business and black markets. In return they swore allegiance to the PA.

The notorious Dugmush clan, who were responsible for the kidnapping of BBC reporter, Alan Johnston, grew wealthy by trading in black market cigarettes and cement.

Under the guise of Islamic piety, as a cover for their criminal activities, and purportedly operating for al-Qaida, the Dugmushes and a number of other new fanatical Islamic organizations have challenged Hamas's leadership.

They have repeatedly sought to embarrass Hamas by bombing beauty salons, Internet cafes and other establishments associated with Western "decadence."

It would appear that the possibility of a Palestinian state remains even more elusive under the current Palestinian leadership, or some would argue lack of leadership. And Israel appears happy to play the sides off against one another as the divide and conquer strategy comes into full fruition.


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