Shots rang out after prayers on the last Friday of Ramadan – the Muslim month of fasting. The Palestinian Prime Minister had just left the mosque. The gunshots could have marked the turning point in, what until now, has been a slow devolution into anarchy in the Gaza Strip.
No one from Fatah (Yasser Arafat’s longtime ruling party ousted from power in elections last January) or the new Hamas government, has been willing or able to reign the chaos in. The shots were fired by a clan loyal to Fatah at the convoy of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. His bodyguards returned fire into the crowd. The Prime Minister was not hit, but the car of one of his bodyguards was torched by the mob.
Anger has been seething in the Gaza Strip since Israel pulled out a year ago after occupying the area for 38 years. At that time, fearing Gaza would become a haven of smuggled weapons and Al Qaeda operatives, the Israelis justified keeping air and sea control over the Strip and maintaining control over the one border crossing into Egypt via Rafa and the main goods crossing into Israel at Karni. Citing “security threats”, some of them real, the Israelis effectively began strangling the Gaza economy.
Once Hamas surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning Palestinian elections last January, Israel began withholding millions of dollars of Palestinian tax revenues until Hamas agreed to recognize the Jewish State and renounce violence. The U.S. and Europe followed suit, cutting off hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, effectively leading to a wage crisis that has now reached crisis levels. For more than 6 months most Palestinians have not been paid, including those in the security forces, which is particularly dangerous because they are all well-armed. Most Palestinian families rely on money from government salaries, and those salaries have dried up since Hamas has come to power.
The siege on Gaza worsened after Hamas, along with two other armed groups, carried out a brazen kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on June 25, boring a tunnel into Israel where they captured him and killed several of his colleagues. Shalit is still being held and the Palestinians are trying to exchange him for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
In recent weeks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Fatah) has been trying to forge a unity government with Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas in an effort to relieve the financial crisis so that international aid can be resumed. But every time they get close to a deal, Hamas announces it will never recognize Israel.
Abbas is now threatening to call new elections, dismiss Haniyeh or call a referendum among Palestinian voters to change the political situation in an effort to remove the obstacle to receiving the foreign money needed to keep the Palestinian Authority and millions of Palestinian workers afloat. Some think he may do this as soon as the Eid holiday that marks the end of Ramadan on Wednesday. The problem is the Palestinian Basic Law (the Palestinians don’t yet have a Constitution because they don’t have a state) is not clear about the President’s powers in this regard. And if he calls new elections, it is not clear that Hamas won’t win again since Abbas’ Fatah party has not done anything to improve its corrupt image, which contributed to its loss at the polls in January.
The biggest problem is that most of the security forces are members of Fatah. Hamas knows this and has set up a parallel “Executive Force” made up of members of its armed wing and underground to protect Hamas officials and keep order in the streets. These competing forces have clashed over and over in recent weeks, including outside the Parliament in Gaza on Oct. 1, when the unpaid security forces (mostly Fatah) staged a protest over wages and the Interior Minister (from Hamas) ordered his forces to break up the demonstration. Shots were fired that again, could have spread into something larger. Right now the tension continues to build and many fear that all it will take is one spark (or shot) to set off all-out war.
What is likely to prolong the outbreak of this increasingly possible Palestinian civil war is a likely Israeli invasion. That will serve to temporarily unite these armed groups against Israel – the common enemy. Several Israeli cabinet ministers, including the Defense Minister, have hinted that such an all-out offensive is necessary to halt, not just the Qassam rockets that the armed Palestinian groups have been firing willy nilly at Israeli border towns almost daily, but also to stem the flow of high-powered weapons into the Gaza Strip. Last week alone, Israel found and blocked 13 smuggling tunnels that led from Rafa (Gaza’s southernmost town) into Egypt. There are Israeli intelligence reports that the armed Palestinian factions are preparing in the way that Hezbollah did in South Lebanon – preparing sniper positions and ambushes while bringing in powerful anti-tank rockets that proved difficult for Israeli tanks to defend against. The Israeli argument is that this arming of Gaza must be stopped before it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. The problem with all invasions: exit strategy. It took Israel 38 years to leave Gaza and 28 years to leave Lebanon – the army and the political echelon don’t want to get stuck there again.
Jennifer Griffin is a Jerusalem-based correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). Griffin joined FNC in 1999 and covers foreign policy and breaking news from Israel and across the Middle East.