Hamas and Abbas: Groping for a Truce

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When a group of rival militants of Hamas and Fatah loyalists of President Mahmoud Abbas got together in Gaza last week, Palestinians had reason to fear the worst. For days, feuding gunmen from both parties had engaged in running firefights with each other in Gaza and the West Bank. But this time, there was cause for relief: They were gathering for a wedding. The bride was the daughter of Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, and the guest list included a Who's Who of the Hamas leadership and senior Fatah officials — foes who just a few hours before had been speaking darkly of a civil war among Palestinians.

By Gaza standards, it was a good wedding: nobody got shot. And it was a hopeful sign that after weeks of mounting tension, the rival Hamas and Fatah factions might be looking for ways to co-exist. Even as Hamas and Fatah gunmen ready for a showdown on the empty streets of the Gaza Strip, leaders of both factions told TIME they are trying to broker a compromise, one that could lead to a power-sharing agreement between Abbas and the Hamas-backed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah. Atef Ibrahim Adawn, a long-time Hamas member who is now Minister for Refugee Affairs, told TIME that within the next few days, both sides may announce an accord on a joint peace proposal that could eventually lead to a new "national unity government" made up of technocrats in which Hamas, as the ruling majority in parliament, would keep several key cabinet posts.

Still, there's reason to doubt that Hamas and Fatah will be able to keep up the good cheer. After years of struggle against Israel, the Palestinians are watching their leaders engage in a bitter fight with each other over power and control of the Palestinian Authority. It pits Abbas, a secular but weak moderate, who controls the presidency and has the backing of Israel and the international community, against Hamas, which won a majority in legislative elections last January, but has struggled to establish legitimacy, due in part to the cutoff in Western aid to its government. The violence reached new heights last week, when Hamas gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at the office of the Preventive Security Force, a well-armed stronghold of Fatah militiamen, setting off a gun battle that left 20 wounded. Abbas's supporters retaliated by torching the parliament and cabinet buildings controlled by the Hamas government. In Gaza, bearded Hamas fighters in tight black t-shirts stacked sandbags on street corners for machine-gun posts and took up sniper positions atop buildings. Across the street, Fatah gunmen were doing the same. Aziz Dwek, a Hamas Speaker of the Palestinian parliament, the Legislative Council, recently traveled to Gaza to plead with the gunmen. He recounts: " I said, ' Guys, we haven't liberated our own land from the Israelis, so why are we fighting among each other?'" None of the gunmen were in the mood to listen.

What's behind the tension? Hamas accuses Abbas's cronies of trying to undermine the democratically elected Hamas. One senior Hamas official told TIME that Fatah chiefs are boasting to the Bush Administration and Arab leaders that if the international boycott on funds and aid continues, the Hamas government will fall within three months. And the president's men, so the plot goes, will again grab power. One chain-smoking Hamas commander, hiding in a safehouse from Israeli hunters, says that his outfit had no gripe against Abbas, only against those "corrupted leaders of Fatah who have turned into agents of American, Israeli, Egyptian, and Jordanian intelligence services."

The infighting between Hamas and Fatah was made worse by a peace plan crafted, with the best of intentions, by Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails. In essence, the prisoners recommend that the Palestinians offer peace to Israel if it withdraws from all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, occupied since the 1967 war. This proposal, according to one Israeli penitentiary official, began as a whispered idea in the prison showers and as notes slipped between inmates during jail yard exercises. The creators of the plan are all convicted terrorists, but their years spent in Israeli custody, and the yawning stretch of jail time ahead of them, have turned them into realists. They realize Palestinians will never drive Israelis into the sea and that their best hope is for separate Israeli and Palestinian states to live side by side as wary neighbors. It is a sober appraisal that, according to a recent poll by the An-Najah University in Nablus, is shared by 79.8% of Palestinians.

Once it was smuggled out, the plan found a champion in Abbas, who wants the Palestinians to vote on it in a late July referendum. Hamas, along with four other Palestinian groups, opposes the referendum. Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyah warned that his government "will not make political concessions" to Israel and opposes the vote as a waste of money. If Hamas and Abbas can indeed now come to an agreement on the prisoners' proposal, that would end the need for a referendum — and the dispute over it. Until then, however, the political showdown is fanning the anger on the streets between Hamas and Fatah gunmen.

So is civil war inevitable? Israeli intelligence officers interviewed by TIME seemed to think so, and it worries them. Chaos in the West Bank territories and Gaza would inevitably spill into Israel, they claim. Says Col. Yossi Daskal, former head of the anti-terror wing in Military Intelligence, "The friction can only get worse. Neither side is willing to compromise." Martin Indyk, former Assistant Secretary of State and now director of the Brookings's Saban Center for Middle East policy, points out that while Hamas and Fatah were feuding for years, "They've always stepped back from civil war. But at the moment they're breaking that taboo on a daily basis."

Palestinians are quick to point out that they are not plagued by the ethnic and religious hatreds that are imploding Iraq. They stop shooting long enough to attend each other's marriages, and it's not uncommon for families to have men belonging to rival militias. In one Gaza family, three brothers belong to Fatah, one to Hamas and another to the extremist Islamic Jihad. Says one brother Shahaaf, from Abbas's presidential guard. "This civil war stuff is an exaggeration. Even as a Fatah member, I know that there are corrupt leaders in our party who must be removed. That is all."

That may explain why some appear to be looking for a way out. Negotiators involved in the proposed power-sharing plan between Hamas and Fatah say it would allow Hamas to countenance past agreements with Israel pushed by Abbas. And it might persuade the U.S. and other international donors to un-freeze aid to the Palestinians. Over 160,000 government workers haven't received salaries for nearly four months, and Hamas officials are reduced to smuggling in suitcases of cash across the border from Egypt to pay for emergencies. A hastily arranged marriage could be the Palestinians' last chance to avert a civil war.

—with reporting by Jamil Hamad/Ramallah, Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem, Phil Zabriskie/Gaza, Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller/Washingtonv