Rift Between Hamas and Fatah Grows After Gaza

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(l. to r.): Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty ; Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas(L); Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal(R)

Reconciling Hamas with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is viewed as a precondition for rebuilding Gaza, but the prospect of unity isn't helped by the news that the Islamist militants are accusing the president's men of collaborating with the recent Israeli offensive — and punishing them by summary execution or shooting off their kneecaps.

The Islamists and Abbas' secular Fatah movement have struggled for control of the Palestinian territories since Hamas won the elections of January 2006, but after Israel's 22-day pummeling of Gaza, their quarrel has become intensely personal. Hamas officials have accused Abbas' former national security chief, Mohamed Dahlan, of colluding with Israelis in advance of the invasion in a bid to weaken Hamas' resistance. (View images of Fatah-Hamas conflict)

A senior Hamas official alleged to TIME that Dahlan appeared in El Arish, an Egyptian coastal town near Gaza, shortly before the Israel attack, and had sent in Fatah loyalists to "cooperate with the Israelis" in hunting down Hamas commanders. Hamas officials say their allegation is based on interrogation of suspected collaborators accused of helping to pinpoint Hamas' hideouts and weapons caches for Israeli targeting. The objective, say Hamas officials, was to help Israel decimate the Islamists in the hope of reestablishing Fatah control in Gaza. Aides to Dahlan deny the allegations.

Dahlan certainly has a score to settle with Hamas, which routed his U.S.-funded security forces in a 2007 showdown and drove them out of Gaza. And the Islamists have long loathed the Fatah strongman, whom they blame for alleged torture of Hamas detainees in Gaza during the late 1990s — an accusation Dahlan denies. But Hamas appears to be in no mood for unity talks with Dahlan's boss, either, despite Arab efforts to broker a reconciliation. And that could imperil the flow of international aid to Gaza, battered by Israel's 19-month economic blockade and the war that killed over 1,300 Palestinians, wounded 5,300 others and caused over $2 billion in damage. The international community stands ready to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, but it refuses to channel that aid directly through Hamas, which controls Gaza but is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union. An Abbas administration that excludes Hamas — still the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority's legislature, and whose security control of Gaza remains intact despite the Israeli offensive — is in no position to take charge of reconstruction on the ground. But a unity government with Abbas at its helm could provide the loophole that would allow Western donors to help Gaza rise from the rubble.

Hamas officials in Gaza say they will not interfere with any international agency that wants to help rebuild Gaza. But the inter-Palestinian tug-of-war over aid has already begun: On Wednesday, Hamas police stormed a United Nations warehouse and commandeered blankets and emergency supplies, claiming that the U.N. was relying on pro-Fatah agencies who were only distributing aid to their own supporters. The U.N. on Friday suspended deliveries until it has guarantees that it can distribute aid unfettered.

So far, Hamas has only offered a macabre concession to Fatah. The bodies of those it has executed on suspicion of collaboration, according to one Gazan close to Hamas, were then carted to the battlefield so that their families might believe they had been "martyred" in the battle against the Israelis. But in the claustrophobic world of Gaza's clans and families, nobody is under any illusions about how and why they died.

But those executed in Gaza are not the only casualties from the fallout of Israel's offensive: President Abbas himself and his U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations with the Israelis have also suffered. Abbas' behavior during the conflict, when he tried to score points against Hamas instead of rallying support against Israel's assault, has shrunk his already low credibility among Palestinians and the Arab world.

At the start of Israel's offensive, one of Abbas' top aides said Hamas was "110 per cent" to blame for the Gaza attack — an unpopular, if not suicidal, stance among Palestinians, whose ire was directed at Israel. Even as the civilian death toll climbed, Abbas delayed several days before criticizing the Israeli offensive. In the West Bank, which Abbas controls by dint of the presence of the Israeli army, his security forces cracked down brutally on fellow Palestinians protesting the Israeli offensive. Palestinians ask why Abbas did not go to Gaza during the fighting to show solidarity with its residents, or organize blood or food help for Gaza's victims. Says Diana Buttu, a lawyer and ex-adviser on the Palestinian team that negotiated with Israelis, "The problems of Palestine are much bigger than Fatah versus Hamas, but Abbas tried to turn it into that. He couldn't see beyond the petty differences, even as his people were dying in Gaza."

Many Palestinians view Abbas' regime as corrupt, and are outraged that his Ramallah bureaucrats continue to charge the 17% import tax on relief goods being sent to needy Gazans that was in place before the Israeli blockade was imposed.

An opinion survey released Thursday by an independent Palestinian polling organization found that Hamas would beat Fatah if a new Palestinian Authority election were held today, and that Hamas acting premier Ismail Haniyeh is the leader most trusted in the West Bank and Gaza. And, as Abbas' own standing falls, so do his prospects of convincing Hamas and other Palestinians that peace may still be possible with the Israelis.

— With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem