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A Mosque Divided: A Look at the Fractured Palestinians

August 13, 2012
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If you are feeling confused and exhausted right now, you’re not alone. Chances are thousands of Palestinians are feeling the same way about their leadership. A major problem to any resolution of the Israel–Palestinian conflict is the fundamental division amongst Palestinians. Even how the conflict is handled towards the Israelis is a matter of intense Palestinian disagreement. And the groups themselves are internally divided.

The Gaza-leading Hamas terror group and the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) already overcomplicate Palestinian politics, regardless of their claims of unity. But with the rise of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad [PIJ] and the proliferation and aggressiveness of smaller terror groups, the fractures in Palestinian society have become starker and more pronounced than ever before.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad

The Palestinian Authority territories (in green) are ruled by Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. For decades, the Palestinians have had so many terrorist organizations that it’s been difficult to keep track of them. Is it the Popular Resistance Committee that did this attack? Or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine? Or the Palestine Liberation Organization? The Palestinian Islamic Jihad creates its own confusion with its name: Islamic Jihad is a group, in this case, with a philosophy of jihad, which literally means “struggle” and refers to war with unbelievers (in Islam).

It is one of the more veteran Palestinian terror groups. It also remains one of the most radical. Formed more than three decades ago, the PIJ has conducted suicide bombings and rocket attacks for years. Yet it was in 2006 that they began to carve out a notable niche that put them on the path to being a political force.

Dr. Benedetta Berti, an expert on Palestinian politics and a research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that the PIJ really began to emerge after Hamas won the Palestinian elections that year. Hamas has always been, at its heart, a terrorist rejectionist organization that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and is committed to destroying Israel. However, Dr. Berti said that by taking a truly political position in the Palestinian government, Hamas was accused by the PIJ of compromising from real jihad. “The Islamic Jihad became the main violent alternative outside the political system, and they’ve been so ever since,” said Dr. Berti. Whenever an organization accuses a terror group of compromise, it’s obviously very extreme. The PIJ also benefits from Palestinian complaints against Hamas for poor government.

Mahmoud Abbas Leader of the Palestinian Authority/Antonio Cruz/ABr/commons.wikimedia

While Hamas and Iran have had some issues over the years and Iran and Fatah have had mortal divisions, Iran is a key sponsor of the PIJ. According to a US State Department official, speaking on background with The Mideast Update, Iran is a primary provider of financial assistance, weapons, and training to the PIJ. That is true despite the religious division between the Sunni PIJ and the Shiite Iranians, who instead are united in a mutual commitment to fighting Israel.

The PIJ’s power and influence appear to be growing despite their relatively small size and scope. The US State Department official said the group has fewer than 1,000 members and “operates primarily” in Gaza with a “minimal operational presence” in the West Bank and Israel. However, the group has taken the lead in waging terrorism against Israel, particularly rocket attacks. While Israel holds Hamas responsible for rocket attacks from Gaza, due to its leadership in the coastal territory, the US official said “the majority” of the rocket attacks in a violent surge last August were carried out by other groups, including the PIJ. The group also was behind many of the attacks this past March.

Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas en.wikipedia.org/Trango

Dr. Berti said the PIJ has chafed under Hamas’s relative restraint following the 2008–09 Gaza war, which Hamas emplaced out of fear of another war with Israel. “Hamas kind of went back to Gaza and told all the armed groups that, for a while, they have to keep the ceasefire [after the war], and the Islamic Jihad wasn’t very pleased with it,” said Dr. Berti. “So ever since, there’s been this kind of tension…When the groups fire rockets, if it wasn’t with the consent of Hamas, then Hamas gets mad at them. So this has basically been the model.”

Not that the two groups have ever been friends. Dr. Berti said that, while the PIJ has acted in tandem with Hamas in some terror attacks, the groups have always been rivals. Today, they’re becoming political contemporaries as well. While the PIJ isn’t a true electoral force in Palestinian politics, their leadership was nonetheless consulted by Fatah when the Palestinian parties tried again to progress their reconciliation process. As though the Palestinian political machine wasn’t too divided already, another group—even more rejectionist than Hamas—is now having to be consulted. At least the PIJ is talking. Some Palestinian groups appear to just be shooting.

Militants Inspired by Al-Qaeda

While the PIJ is a radical, extremist group bent on destroying Israel with no display of compromise, they still aren’t the most radical Palestinian faction. The various Salafist militants, who promote violence against civilians, were inspired by Al-Qaeda. They have so distinguished themselves that one such group was actually attacked by Hamas when it weakly attempted to take a leadership position in Gaza. Dr. Berti said these terror groups aren’t really members of Al-Qaeda and “don’t take orders” from them; rather, they “get inspiration from Al-Qaeda’s transnational terrorist ideology.” They have also made some minor headlines.

Riot Police of the Palestinian Authority try to keep the calm amongst Palestinians on the streets of Bethlehem. Their main attack approach is rocket fire at Israel. They also have attempted some kidnappings, and some members played a role in the kidnapping of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. Dr. Berti said, however, that “mostly they are not very sophisticated” operationally. Instead, their primary threat is providing a radical alternative to Palestinians while risking a real escalation with Israel if a rocket attack results in a number of Israeli casualties. “They have the potential of further radicalizing Palestinian society. They can push Hamas to be more radical, because they are a constituency within Palestinian politics,” said Dr. Berti.

Like the PIJ, the members of the Al-Qaeda-inspired terror groups are relatively small in number. Dr. Berti said the largest estimates give these groups 3,000–4,000 members. So while they are a threat, they are nowhere close to being trendsetters for Palestinian society. That role is held primarily by the traditional Palestinian powers: Hamas and Fatah.

Hamas and Fatah

Hamas and Fatah have dominated the Palestinian political landscape for years. As referred to before, in 2006, the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group officially took a leadership role politically by winning parliamentary elections. One year later, they took a mob boss’s role by brutally taking over the Gaza Strip and kicking Fatah out. Fatah, the political faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has been similarly nasty in its own way to Hamas loyalists in the West Bank. Today, the relationship is, at best, unclear. Hamas and Fatah have promised to set aside their differences many times but have struggled mightily to fully implement that step.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers treat an injured Fatah member who fled to Israeli territory during a battle with Hamas. en.wikipedia.org/IDF

Ultimately, the division has helped Israel’s counterterrorism, since the Israelis and Fatah were fighting some of the same enemies. But despite the hope which that would seem to imply, the Palestinian infighting has nonetheless been a further reminder of just how far away they are from being capable of signing a peace treaty with Israel. Firstly, there is the ongoing dispute between Hamas and Fatah. Regardless of where they may claim to be today, the two groups have a nasty history. One year after elections, came a bloody mini-civil war in Gaza, and more recent disputing led to the Gaza electricity crisis (when Egypt prevented Hamas from smuggling fuel into Gaza). It remains to be seen if the two sides can truly coexist.

Jihadists display their extremist beliefs on the streets of Gaza. www.israelimages.com/Yahsa Mazur

Of course, for Israel, that wouldn’t be a very good thing. Hamas has remained true to their charter, committed to Israel’s destruction. They have often refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel’s right to permanently exist. Some in the Gaza Hamas leadership are open to a long-term ceasefire with Israel. But any silver-tongued editorials from Hamas leaders can’t overturn a history of horrific terrorism against Israel and a continued rejectionist heart. While this quasi-compromising stance has confused the international view of Hamas’s real attitude towards Israel, it doesn’t appear to display a real interest in peace. That means that Hamas uniting with Fatah will hurt Israel, not help. Still, true peace between the Palestinians and Israel will be impossible as long as the West Bank and Gaza fight each other.

And that’s just the bi-organizational fights. Hamas has internal divisions of its own as well. Dr. Berti portrayed the foreign-based leadership as having been in conflict with the leaders in Gaza. Further, she said the political wing of Hamas that governs Gaza has been more interested in non-violent resistance than the violent military wing. So while Hamas and the Islamic Jihad already are at odds on rocket fire against Israel—with Hamas afraid to provoke a major Israeli attack—Hamas isn’t entirely united on what they want to do either. The same group that sometimes prevents rocket fire from the PIJ also launched an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus.

Fatah militants march through a town in the West Bank. www.israelimages.com/Yahsa Mazur

Hamas is disliked by both extreme Palestinians and a decent portion of the general public. Multiple polls have implied bad political news for Hamas as public opinion has often been in favor of Fatah. Not that Abbas’s group has any real answers. The West Bank-based Fatah movement has tried going to the United Nations for statehood recognition once already and ultimately failed in a bureaucratic quagmire amidst American opposition. They promote hatred of Israel through their media, and they claim hopes of peace in speeches. Even Fatah has some political disputes, and it appears there’s little if any love for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a member of yet another political party. In short, even the most powerful Palestinian political factions are a mess.

Now What?

The various Palestinian factions and divisions can make any observer’s head spin, and they are apparently a real concern for Israel–Palestinian peace. One can’t make peace when genuine infighting still exists. Yet, considering the other problems—such as Hamas’s commitment to destroying Israel—it’s unclear that real unity will help either. It’s a culture of division and conflict that needs to be healed, not just a dispute with Israel. Until the Palestinians lay a new foundation for true peace—and unite their house divided against itself—their door to a bright future will remain closed.

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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