Reporter's Notebook: Hamas Versus Fatah — a Civil War Has Begun

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For the past year, ever since the Hamas versus Fatah clashes began, I’ve been asked repeatedly if this is a civil war.

I’ve resisted answering yes until now. Hamas has just added the final ingredient for this conflict to meet the definition of a civil war when they systematically began seizing strategic positions on the northern end of the Gaza strip. Now they are engaged in an effort to take, by force, a significant piece of land. They have even demanded that the outmatched Fatah forces, which include police and National Security, surrender their weapons. Now that there is an objective, this is a war.

Many of the elements for a civil war have existed for years. Yasser Arafat drew the battle lines when he was alive. In the spirit of corruption and cronyism, he made certain that anyone who got a government job was either a Fatah loyalist or a good friend of a Fatah loyalist. Therefore, all of the police and security forces are Fatah. Hamas grew as the group which opposed Fatah and Israel. Without knowing it, Arafat created a mechanism that guaranteed Hamas would have a better armed force. The security forces get their weapons through legitimate means. Israel, fearing the weapons will ultimately be aimed at them, makes certain the legitimate guns are low quality Kalashnikov rifles. They even shorten the barrels to inhibit the accuracy. Hamas smuggles in their weapons illegally. Israeli intelligence tells me that with the help of Iran, Hamas is getting the good stuff. Israeli intelligence also says Iran is even training commanders within the Hamas ranks.

The first step on the U.S. brokered “roadmap to peace” required that the militant groups be disarmed so the almost-state of Palestine would have one fighting force. Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, said it couldn’t be done and never tried. Last February, when Palestinian leaders met in Mecca and formed the power sharing Unity Government between Hamas and Fatah they did nothing to guarantee one army for one people. After winning elections, Hamas bought uniforms for some members of their militant wing “The Izzadene Al Qassam brigades,” gave them a new name “The Executive Force” and put them out on the streets. That act delineated “turf.” Some neighborhoods had Hamas gunmen on the street corners. Some neighborhoods were patrolled by Fatah. A few weeks ago I went back to Gaza. The Fatah Presidential Guard provided security for me. As we drove through the streets the gunmen protecting me extended their warm Arab friendliness, waving at friends and relatives on the street. That stopped when came into Hamas neighborhoods. The smiling and waving turned to icy stares. Each gunman firmly gripped his weapon with both hands. There was plenty of hatred brewing.

It’s hard to point to a single incident that set off the violence. Fatah members took to the streets immediately following Hamas’ election victory. Sporadic bloodshed followed. In the old school Arab world that is the Gaza Strip, a drop of blood requires a pint of blood as revenge, particularly if the blood is spilled in your family. The situation degraded like the Hatfields and the McCoys. Family avenged family and clan avenged clan. Fighters lost sight of the greater Palestinian interest and they paid no respect to the dozens of cease fires brokered and scrapped. Both Hamas and Fatah were determined to prove that they are the dominant force on the chaotic street.

The fighting became as savage as anything we’ve ever seen in the Gaza Strip. A Fatah Presidential Guard member was kidnapped, hauled to the top of a 15-story building, shot in the leg, then thrown to his death. Fatah responded by throwing a Hamas gunman off a building. A relative of a Hamas leader had his hands and legs bound and was shot at point blank range in the head. Bullets ricochet off the streets; at night, civilians hid in their homes and gunmen died in droves. Each of the dead left behind a family of survivors, hell bent on revenge. With all the madness, hatred and bloodshed, only one ingredient was missing to qualify this feud as a war: a goal. No one was trying to secede from a government, take one over or grab a piece of real estate.

That changed on Tuesday as Hamas gunman began systematically overtaking the positions of the Fatah security forces. As I write this, Hamas has taken over the Northern one third of the Gaza Strip. They are pounding the three security force headquarters in Gaza with mortars stating that their goal is to take them over. They are also attacking the headquarters of President Abbas. If they take them, they’ll dominate the Gaza Strip. That’s a clear objective which moves this conflict up a notch and qualifies it as a civil war.

Mike Tobin is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Jerusalem. You can read his bio here.

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.