The simmering controversy between two Hamas factions – the Gazan hawks and the Damascus-based political faction headed by Khaled Meshaal – burst into the open this week amid a rush of events.
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair organized an interview for Meshaal with the British Sky TV. Its airing was timed for Saturday, Nov. 10, the day before the Middle East Quartet foregathered in Sharm el Sheikh to register no progress in Israel-Palestinian talks. Blair is the Quartet’s special Middle East envoy.
In the interview, Meshaal urged Barack Obama to start talks with Hamas (listed in Washington as a terrorist organization) as the only serious Palestinian force on the ground – whereupon Hamas-Gaza pounced back with an announcement that the US president-elect had made contact with its leaders, prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud a-Zahar, before his election and was still in touch with them.
This was to let Obama and his advisers know that cultivating the Damascus Hamas chief would be a waste of their time because he was out of the real Hamas loop in the fields of Gaza.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources accounts for the parting of the ways by the Gazan faction’s flat opposition to Meshaal’s line, which favors acceptance of the Egyptian bid to broker reconciliation with Fatah and endorses its Ramallah-based leader Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian Authority Chairman.
Meshaal believes that a hard Hamas line will precipitate its isolation in the Arab world and alienate the moderate governments in Cairo and Riyadh. He sees no reason why Abbas’ term should not be automatically extended upon its expiry on Jan. 9, 2009.
Meshaal favors negotiation rather than boycott
Saturday, the day of the Meshaal interview, Hamas-Gaza said it would boycott the Cairo reconciliation conference due to open two days later. It was postponed indefinitely.
Meshaal agrees that the document Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman prepared for the conference was biased in favor of Fatah and Abbas. But there is room for negotiation, he says; an out-and-out rejection only strengthens the Fatah leader’s hand. Instead, the Damascus politburo chief advises leaving the issue of Hamas-Fatah parity in power-sharing to a general election in Gaza and the West Bank. The date for the poll was set by the Suleiman document for June 2009. Meshaal says Hamas can count on a landside.
The Gaza leaders challenge this point of view.
The Gaza faction: Nothing to negotiate
Extending Abbas’ tenure as PA chairman would go against the Palestinian constitution, they say. The constitution must not be tinkered with because Fatah would use this as an opening for rewriting the clauses which do not suit its book..
Allowing the PA chairman a further lease of life, they argue, would give him a chance to extricate himself from his low popularity rating on the Palestinian street. And thirdly, why a June election when the Palestinian election law sets the date for January 2010?
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, Meshaal confided to the Egyptian go-betweens that he has given up on the Gaza bunch. They are bent on perpetuating a chronic state of hopeless crisis with the rival Fatah and the separation of the Gaza Strip under their exclusive domination from the Fatah-ruled West Bank.
For the first time, Meshaal sees his authority over the Hamas leadership in Gaza slipping away, a weakness which reflects on his standing at the Damascus headquarters.
A major Gaza clash builds up
The Gaza-Israeli front is meanwhile veering close to an open clash.
On Nov. 4, Israeli forces stormed into the central Gaza Strip for the first time in the five-and-a half month truce and engaged Hamas forces in a major battle outside the Al Bureij refugee camp. The Israel force was on a mission to demolish a secret tunnel snaking under the Israel border, which Hamas had dug for the purpose of kidnapping Israeli soldiers and civilians. The tunnel was blown up and six Hamas gunmen were killed.
Burning for revenge, Hamas let lose scores of missiles against Israel the next day, including the towns of Ashkelon and Sderot. The missile-mortar barrage has been sustained at a lower level on a daily basis for the last nine days. Israeli incursions have been repeated, the latest Wednesday, Nov. 12, to pre-empt a bomb trap Hamas was on the way to planting on the border near Kissufim. Four Palestinians were killed in the shootout.
More and more Israelis are asking what the point is of a truce, which expires in December, when it is abused by Hamas to build up its strength and plot large-scale terrorist attacks, including abductions.
Two of the most dovish members of the Olmert government, deputy prime minister Haim Ramon and justice minister Daniel Friedman, are the most vocal proponents of an effective Israeli military operation to eliminate the Palestinians’ ability to hurl missiles at will. The only cabinet member urging the truce’s renewal next month is defense minister Ehud Barak.
Clearly, military calculations with regard to the Gaza Strip have begun to be colored by the political race ahead of a general election on February 10, 2009. Kadima ministers, like Ramon, are keen on putting rival Labor leader Barak on the spot, while presenting their party to the voter as the most faithful champions of national security.