Fatah-Hamas Tensions Mount

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas failed to disarm terrorist groups when he had the power to do so, and he is not likely to do so now despite U.S. attempts to support him, an expert said here on Monday.

The power struggle between Abbas' Fatah faction and Hamas, which controls the PA government, moved up a notch at the weekend, when Abbas declared Hamas' 6,000-strong "executive" force to be illegal.

Hamas responded by vowing to double the size of the force, a uniformed and armed body it set up last spring.

The U.S. government is backing Abbas - which it views as a "moderate" - in his struggle against Hamas, which won parliamentary elections last January and has been subjected to a Western financial boycott for its refusal to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Michael Oren, senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a research center in Jerusalem, said he did not believe efforts by the U.S. or Israel to bolster Abbas would work - and not because of any lack of commitment or opposition from those quarters.

Oren said in an interview that when Abbas took over the PA chairmanship after Yasser Arafat's death, he was in a very strong position. Even so, he had failed to confiscate weapons from terrorists, as required by multiple agreements signed by the P.A. over the years since the Oslo Accords were concluded in 1994.

If Abbas failed to keep that commitment at a time his authority was not under serious challenge, Oren said, "why would he do it now [when his position has been weakened]?"

In the run-up to the Palestinian elections last year, Abbas pledged again to disarm terrorist organizations after the election and vowed that Palestinians would be governed by one authority with an armed capability.

But after Hamas' victory, Hamas has continued to smuggle large numbers of weapons into the Gaza Strip. Arms proliferation on the street has also increased, according to security officials.

Against the backdrop of growing tensions between the two factions, Fatah marked its 42nd anniversary on Sunday with a giant rally in Gaza, a Hamas stronghold.

During the highly charged event, Fatah's Mohammed Dahlan - formerly the P.A.'s preventive security chief in Gaza - shouted "Hamas are murderers." However, he told tens of thousands of supporters Fatah would not "respond with blood" but with "unity" and support for Abbas.

Dahlan was once seen by the U.S. and Israel as a potential future leader they could deal with despite his involvement with Fatah armed groups responsible for hundreds of deadly terror attacks.

According to reserve Brig. Gen Shalom Harari, a senior fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-terrorism near Tel Aviv, Dahlan was among a small group of advisors that recently persuaded Abbas to call for early elections.

In doing so, Harari said, Dahlan was trying to undermine Hamas' achievement at the polls by trying to paint Hamas as having failed in the job of governing the Palestinians.

Hamas supporters view Dahlan as a "traitor," and a fatwa or religious edict has been issued calling for his death. He was also one of two Palestinian leaders Osama bin Laden's deputy, Zayman al Zawahiri, had mentioned disparagingly by name in a recent public message.

Hariri, a former Defense Ministry advisor on Palestinian affairs, said the attacks between the factions are escalating by the week, and that an al Qaeda element is now also involved.

In his message late last month, Zawahiri told Palestinians the only way to capture territory from Israel was through "holy war." He also criticized both Abbas and Dahlan.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the fight for control may spread beyond Gaza and to the Palestinian self-rule areas of the larger West Bank.

In Ramallah, Fatah militants torched shops belonging to Hamas supporters, and on Monday, Fatah-linked militants released the deputy mayor of Nablus - a Hamas member - two days after kidnapping him.

A senior Hamas member was quoted by the Egyptian publication Al-Ahram Al Arabiya as saying thousands of Hamas members have been secretly training in recent months around several West Bank towns.

Harari said Hamas was trying to build up a force in the West Bank similar to the one it has in Gaza but was having difficulties because of intensive Israeli security operations there. Fatah was also working to prevent Hamas from organizing, he said.

See Earlier Stories:
US Giving $86 Million to Bolster Abbas, Report Says (Jan. 5, 2007)
Giving Fatah Arms, Training Makes 'Better Terrorists,' Critics Say (Jan. 2, 2007)

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