Gaza Strip Crisis Unites Palestinian Factions
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
For more on the politics within the Palestinian territories, we turn now to NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Gaza. He reports that the current conflict has helped unite Palestine's various factions and strengthened Hamas' domestic political position.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A video on the Internet shows a concealed metal trapdoor in the ground opening automatically. On the underside of the door are missile tubes and the flag of the Islamic Jihad movement.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKETS LAUNCHING)
KUHN: The point of the video is to show that Islamic Jihad is contributing to the resistance against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Islamic Jihad shares roots with Hamas. But Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza-based think-tank Pal-Think, says the two groups are involved in a sort of subtle political competition for leadership of the Islamist camp.
OMAR SHABAN: Hamas needs to be in a delicate process with these parties. Hamas cannot crack down against them, and need to please them from time to time. But at the same time, Hamas wants from others, like Islamic Jihad, to respect its power.
KUHN: In fact, many of the rockets fired at Israel in recent years were launched by Islamic Jihad, not Hamas. Israel has held Hamas responsible for keeping other factions from launching missile attacks, which Shaban argues Hamas has tried to do.
SHABAN: Hamas tried very hard to keep the truce and to work with other faction - sometimes by force, sometimes by negotiation - in order to bring them into the truce, as well. Sometimes Hamas even arrested some of the leaders of other groups who were trying to violate the truce.
KUHN: Analysts say Hamas has two mutually contradictory roles. One is to keep the peace as Gaza's ruling authority. The other is to fight and lead the resistance against Israel. Thou el-Foqaar Sweerjo is a central committee member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He says now that Hamas is doing more fighting, it's restored Hamas' credibility in his party's eyes.
THOU EL-FOQAAR SWEERJO: (Through translator) We always thought before this escalation that Hamas believed in the theory of resistance, but that its role as a governing institution prevented it from practicing it. But this escalation has forced Hamas to practice resistance, and now we stand with them.
KUHN: In the 1970s, the Popular Front specialized in airline hijackings. And like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel. Sweerjo says his group's vision of a secular Palestine is in direct competition with that of Hamas and the Islamists.
SWEERJO: (Through translator) We disagree with Hamas over the issue of democracy. We are a democratic, secular leftist part, and they are a religious party. When we establish our Palestinian state, we will fight Hamas to keep it from imposing a theocracy.
KUHN: They will fight in a democratic way, he clarifies, not in a violent way. Observers point out that Hamas's military wing has gone from a ragtag militia to a force with missiles that can threaten Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Diplomatically, it's gone from isolation, to recent days in which Egyptian and Turkish diplomats are piling in to express their support.
One dignitary who's been notably absent is Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. His Fatah organization clashed with Hamas in 2007 for the leadership of Gaza and lost. Omar Shaban says Hamas's failure to visit Gaza now reinforces popular perceptions of Fatah as a weak and ineffective organization, compared to Hamas.
SHABAN: He's our president. Why you do not come to Gaza?
KUHN: He's our president, he says. Why does he not come to Gaza? After Israel's last incursion into Gaza nearly four years ago, Hamas appeared to take its role as governing authority and peacekeeper more seriously. But Thou el-Foqaar Sweerjo says that the lesson this time is that until Palestine gains full sovereignty and statehood, Hamas may have to maintain its role as resistance fighters. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.