Tensions between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip have sparked a number of armed conflicts and smaller scale flare-ups in the last decade. Yet within Gaza there is a web of internal tensions and simmering rivalries between Palestinian factions. So far, these have not posed a threat to Hamas’s iron grip on its enclave, but as its popularity is questioned, that might change one day.
Twelve years ago, Hamas stormed the positions of its rival, Fatah, in the Gaza Strip, seizing power in a violent coup. Since then, Fatah in Gaza remains divided and largely subdued by the ruling Islamist regime.
In Gaza, Fatah is not in power, but in the West Bank, Fatah is the faction that runs the Palestinian Authority (PA), under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas.
The latest sign of Hamas’s systematic repression of its chief rival faction came at the start of January, when Hamas’s forces arrested and questioned some 500 Fatah members in Gaza. The arrests were part of a Hamas move to abort a large-scale Fatah rally in Gaza marking its 54th anniversary.
“Fatah in Gaza has power, but it is divided,” Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence, told JNS.
Inside Gaza, one section of Fatah is loyal to Palestinian political leader Muhammad Dahlan. This section is hostile to fellow Fatah members in the West Bank.
A second part of Fatah is loyal to the P.A. in Ramallah.
The Dahlan loyalists among Fatah are allowed by Hamas to possess arms, Kuperwasser said, and they receive permits to hold rallies. “The Dahlan section of Fatah uses these weapons against Israel,” he said. Meanwhile, the Abbas loyalists in Gaza face routine arrests and questioning.
“Sometimes, Fatah in Gaza organizes a show of force. But their ability to organize themselves and threaten Hamas is something that is only in Hamas’s head. They don’t really have this ability,” he assessed.
“We all hope for an implosion in which the more moderate forces of Fatah will cause a change in Gaza. But the chances of this happening in reality are very low,” Kuperwasser stated.
‘Hamas has an interest in things that irritate Abbas’
Brig. Gen. (Res.) Shalom Harari, who served in the West Bank for 20 years as a senior adviser on Palestinian affairs for Israel’s Defense Ministry, told JNS that a recent parade of armed Dahlan loyalist Fatah members underlined the split inside the faction.
During the parade, hundreds of Fatah members in uniform marched with rockets and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). Harari noted the irony of Hamas allowing pro-Dahlan forces to march.
“Dahlan abused Hamas when he was the head of the P.A.’s preventative intelligence in Gaza [prior to the 2007 coup],” said Harari. “He’d arrest Hamas members and cut their beards. And today, Hamas allows these parades because it aggravates Abbas. Hamas has an interest in encouraging many things that irritate Abbas.”
The bitter rivalry between Dahlan, who spends most of his time in a spacious home in the United Arab Emirates, and Abbas, who considers him a despised rival, is enormous. Hamas in Gaza has seized on this rivalry as part of its own major conflict with Fatah in the West Bank.
The fact that Egypt has promoted Dahlan during Cairo’s contacts with Hamas has only exasperated Abbas further.
As a result, Hamas lets the pro-Dahlan section of Fatah show off its force with armed parades and jeep convoys. The other part of Fatah must keep its head down to avoid arousing Hamas’s suspicions.
Maintaining a low profile
“Fatah has a lot of supporters in Gaza who today play down their organizational affiliation. Because if you’re loyal to Ramallah and you live in Gaza, it doesn’t look good,” said Harari. “The ideological and real-life conflict between Ramallah and Gaza is worsening every day. They incite against one another, direct hostile media at one another, and exchange slander.”
This assessment was echoed in a recent report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which stated on Jan. 22 that positions of the two organizations “have not been farther apart since the 2007 Hamas coup against the PA in Gaza.”
“Things have reached the point where each side is saying that the other no longer represents the Palestinian people, that it will never return to talks or reconciliation efforts, and that it will act to bring down the regime of the other,” the report said.
In the West Bank, the P.A.’s security forces arrest Hamas members and foil armed cells on a regular basis.
In Gaza, Hamas fears the real size of Fatah’s support base, which is why it has banned the faction’s annual founding commemorations, according to Harari.
“If they allowed these rallies, usually held in the central square near Gaza’s university, some 100,000 to 150,000 Fatah supporters would show up,” he said. “These are not armed operatives, but they are supporters of Fatah. And Hamas does not want this sight to be seen. It would weaken Hamas, which is already weakened politically in Gaza.”
While Hamas’s sovereignty in Gaza is unrivalled—largely through a reign of terror and internal repression—actual popular support for the terror group is decreasing, according to Harari. “This is because they have led Gaza to deteriorate to its present situation, where they live like beggars and feud with everyone possible.”
As a result, the pro-Ramallah section of Fatah, which totals many tens of thousands of people, aren’t free to express their affiliation.
Officially, Israel’s position regarding internal Palestinian politics is not to get involved. Unofficially, however, there is probably a wide range of opinion within Israel over the unanswered question of whether it should lend a hand to the pro-Ramallah section of Fatah in Gaza as a means to weaken Hamas’s rule.
In the meantime, Abbas, himself financially stretched, is reducing salaries to Fatah members in Gaza. That could mean that the number of Ramallah loyalists prepared to identify as such in Gaza may be dwindling.