On June 15, masked Hamas fighters burst into the Gaza Strip office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (who is known to Palestinians as Abu Mazen).
Inviting the press in behind them, one of the fighters picked up the phone and pretended he was talking to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "Hello, Rice? Here we are in Abu Mazen's office. Say hello to Abu Mazen for me."
The event was shocking and deeply revealing of Palestinian politics.
Shocking because for years I've assumed that fundamentalists are all dour, literal-minded people with no sense of humor. As much as I loathe Hamas, I have to admit "Say hello to Abu Mazen for me" was a pretty funny line. I wonder how you say "Aw, snap!!" in Arabic?
Revealing because it makes crystal clear what Hamas and its supporters think of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. They think he's the Bush administration's and Israel's bitch.
The mock phone call was the denouement of a fight that had been brewing for more than a year between Hamas and its Palestinian rival, Fatah.
Hamas is a militant Islamic group formed in 1987 by Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. Both men were assassinated by Israel in 2004, Yassin by a missile fired from a helicopter while he was being wheeled to a mosque for prayer.
Hamas' founding coincided with the first Intifada, the first mass Palestinian uprising in Gaza and the West Bank against what was then 20 years of Israeli military occupation. It is a resistance group, a social-welfare society for Palestinians, and a terrorist group. Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's biggest and most influential Islamist group.
Fatah is the group founded by the late Yasser Arafat and now headed by President Mahmoud Abbas (elected in 2005). It has run the Palestinian Authority since its formation as part of the Oslo Accords in 1993 between Israel and Yasser Arafat.
Although Arafat personified and nurtured the cause of Palestinian nationalism for decades, by the time he arrived in Palestine from exile in 1994, Hamas supporters considered him past his sell-by date. His negotiations with Israel made him, in Hamas' eyes, a collaborator with the occupier. Worse still, he was a collaborator whose collaborations failed to accomplish what Palestinians want, a country.
Add to that the fact that Fatah's functionaries were (and are) corrupt, greedy and brutal against Palestinian political rivals (i.e. Hamas), and you have a formula for mutual displeasure.
A history of the back-and-forth between Hamas and Fatah would take a book. For the sake of brevity, fast-forward to 2006 with these two facts in mind: A) They don't like each other, and B) the Israeli military occupation of Palestinians hasn't abated.
In January 2006, at the United States' insistence, the P.A. held legislative elections. Frustrated by Fatah's corrupt, ineffectual awfulness, Palestinian voters opted for Hamas' efficient, fundamentalist awfulness. Seemingly shocked by the election's outcome, the Bush administration instantly abandoned its fetish for "Arab democracy" and joined Israel and Fatah in an effort to crush Hamas.
Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas took over parts of the Palestinian Authority by decree. Israel, which collects Palestinian tax money, refused to hand it over to Palestinians. The outside world cut off aid. And the United States funneled weapons and cash to Mahmoud Abbas' security team, essentially feeding a civil war in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas.
Though Hamas and Fatah reached a tentative agreement for a unity government in February of this year, neither side was truly committed. The agreement came apart before it was implemented, in large part because Abbas insisted on appointing Mohammed Dahlan as head of Palestinian security. Dahlan is notorious for imprisoning, torturing and killing Hamas members.
It's only speculation, but Hamas probably took over the P.A.'s offices in Gaza because it felt like it had to. Fatah, Israel and the United States were (and are) in league against Hamas. Hamas is probably hoping that by grabbing Gaza it can use it as leverage to maintain its presence in the Palestinian government – a presence it earned a right to in 2006's elections.
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