Amir Taheri on three reasons for trouble ahead
Welcome to Gazastan! This is how the Arab media greeted the seizure of control by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Although some have blamed the fighting on "the international community", Israel, and even George W. Bush, what is happening is prompted by intra-Palestinian political rivalries. The fighting has three causes: immediate, medium-term and long-term.
The immediate cause is the desire by Hamas to bring the security apparatus of Fatah, its rival group in Gaza, under its own control. Months of negotiations with the help of Saudi Arabia failed to persuade Fatah to put its security forces under government (which in practice meant Hamas) command.
To Hamas, Fatah's security machine, led by Muhammad Dahlan, is little better than "the Zionist enemy". Dahlan, for his part, knew that, without his machine, he would have little chance of making a bid for the presidency when the incumbent, Mahmoud Abbas, is forced out. Dahlan ran a lucrative protection racket in Gaza, set up by the late Yassir Arafat and his family, to bankroll Fatah.
Having expelled Fatah, Hamas takes over this protection racket. Despite a $250 million cash gift from Tehran, Hamas has been short of money for almost a year. Thus, seizing control of Arafat's business empire in Gaza will be a godsend.
The medium-term cause of the fighting is Hamas's desire to push the wooden nail into the heart of the Oslo accords, the "undead" that haunts Palestinian politics with the elusive prospect of a two-state solution.
Fatah bought into the two-state philosophy in the 1990s. It regards Gaza and the West Bank as pieces of a jigsaw that, put together, would make an independent Palestinian state that would exist alongside Israel. The constitution of Hamas, however, commits it to the creation of a single state. Gaza and the West Bank are regarded as bases from which the struggle for the liberation of the entire mandate of Palestine, that is to say the elimination of Israel, is pursued for as long as necessary.
The longer-term cause of the duel is the deep ideological divisions in Palestinian society: Hamas is religious, Fatah secular. Hamas is pan-Islamist, Fatah Palestinian nationalist.
Although Gaza has been Hamas's principal base for a decade, the presence of Fatah's armed security networks prevented the pan-Islamist movement from reshaping the enclave according to its radical ideology. Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, an international movement dedicated to creating a single global Islamic state. For it, Palestine is no more than a small corner of Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) that must one day defeat Dar al-Kufr (the House of the Infidel) to unite mankind under its banner.
In a talk to students at Tehran University a few months ago, Ismail Haniyah, the Hamas Prime Minister fired yesterday by President Abbas, cautioned against "the trap of nationalism", which he described as a "Zionist-Crusader conspiracy" to divide Muslims across national lines. To be sure, Haniyah wants a Palestine as much as Dahlan does, but not just any old Palestine. Haniyah wants a Palestine that covers the entire 22,000sq km of the old British mandate, not the 5,000 sq km of Gaza and West Bank that Fatah has accepted. He also wants an Islamic Palestine in which Sharia, not Western-style law, is in force.
Having won the general election 18 months ago, Hamas launched a drive to "Islamicise" Gaza, forcing women to wear the hijab and men to grow beards. It burnt down the last beer factory in Gaza and banned the sale of alcoholic drinks. Bands of youths calling themselves "Brigades of Enforcing the Good and Combating Evil" raid homes in search of alcohol, Western music and videos, unIslamic T-shirts and other "sinful items". Young men and women found together in public, or even in private cars, are stopped and interrogated to make sure unmarried couples do not violate Sharia rules.
Hamas is convinced that time is running out for Israel and that, with Islam experiencing a global renaissance, the chance of victory against the "Infidel", in this particular corner of the world, is rising by the day. Exclusive control of Gaza will enable Hamas to devise a low-intensity pincer war against Israel with the help of Hezbollah in Lebanon, supported by Iran and Syria. Hamas is also encouraged that, for the first time in two decades, several regional powers, including Iran, Syria, and Libya, support its "one-state" strategy.
Fatah's analysis, however, is based on the assumption that the longer the "two-state" solution is delayed, the smaller the chances of creating a viable Palestinian state.
By expelling Fatah, Hamas will have exclusive control over an area that accounts for almost half of all Palestinians in the occupied territories. Fatah has retaliated with "cleansing" operations against Hamas supporters in the West Bank. As things are shaping up, Gaza could end up as Hamas-land while the West Bank becomes Fatah-land. And, that, if anything, looks like a three-state scenario: a Jewish one in Israel, a secular Arab nationalist one in the West Bank, and an Islamist one in Gaza. And that means bigger troubles ahead.