Hamas Takeover Leads to Uncomfortable Deadlock With Fatah in Gaza

When the Nablus City Council met for the first time after Gaza's violent takeover by Hamas, the only thing its members from rivals Hamas and Fatah didn't haggle over was ordering kunafa, the sticky pastry their city is famous for.

The heated five-hour session reflected an uneasy new stalemate in the West Bank since the fall of Gaza to Hamas. Fatah is pushing hard to restrict Hamas' influence, but the Islamists, who have won control of several key towns in local elections since 2005, are too deeply rooted in Palestinian society to be sidelined easily.

"You can disagree with them (Hamas), you can criticize them and say they carried out a coup in Gaza, but you can't just make them leave," said Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian journalist.

That's the reality Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement have come up against in the past month. Immediately after the Gaza takeover, Abbas fired the Hamas-led government and ordered a crackdown on the group in the West Bank, including the arrests of dozens of Hamas militants.

But Fatah-allied gunmen went further. In Nablus and the nearby city of Ramallah, local Hamas politicians reported receiving phone threats, coupled with demands they resign. In Nablus, gunmen fired at the parked cars of council members.

The gunmen were never arrested, but the Abbas-installed caretaker government in the West Bank has since gone out of its way to reassure local Hamas politicians. On Sunday, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad asked three Hamas council members in Ramallah who had resigned over the threats to return to their jobs.

But Hamas politicians said they're still scared and much less likely to get into a political confrontation. "When we receive threats like that, for sure we will think twice about any steps," said Khaldon Khader, one of the three Hamas council members from Ramallah.

Ramallah is one of five major West Bank towns where Fatah lost control in 2005 local elections, either to Hamas or to a coalition of the Islamists and other opponents. Fatah only retained Jericho, the smallest of the regional centers, and canceled voting in two other cities for fear of losing.

Fatah's biggest loss was Nablus, the West Bank's second-largest city, where Hamas took 13 of 15 City Council seats in 2005, with only two going to Fatah.

By all accounts, the parties worked together well for the first year-and-a-half after the elections.

The council's work became more difficult in May, when Israel retaliated against Hamas rocket fire from Gaza by arresting Hamas leaders in the West Bank. Among those locked up were Nablus Mayor Adli Yaish and two other council members.

In June, the Gaza fighting spilled over into recriminations against Hamas members in the West Bank. Armed men forced Deputy Mayor Khoulud al-Masri of Hamas from her office and torched a women's center she heads. After that, she went into hiding.

"We were scared that there would be attacks, kidnappings or killings," she said.

With the Hamas members scared to come to work, the council decided to temporarily leave daily operations to the two Fatah members.

But since neither had the legal power to sign city documents, they continued to work with the acting mayor, Hafez Shaheen, driving stacks of files to his house at night for his inspection and signature.

The Hamas members returned to City Hall after the reassurances from the Fayyad government.

However, the dynamic has changed. Hamas still holds the majority, but some members feel their position is tenuous. "They could come and push us out," said al-Masri.

"We come from day to day," she said. "But each time I come, I think it's my last day."

Last week, the council met for the first time since the end of the Gaza fighting.

The members greeted each other jovially, but tensions rose as soon as acting Mayor Shaheen started moving through the backlogged agenda. Yehia Arafat, a Fatah representative, raised repeated administrative objections, bogging down the meeting's progress and exasperating the Hamas members.

Five hours, numerous cups of coffee and countless cigarettes later, the meeting concluded. The council dealt with much city business, but the only easy agreement came on ordering the kunafa.

Arafat insisted on strict observance of council rules, he said, because the past month had eroded his faith in informal agreements with Hamas members. A few weeks before, Hamas members had promised to make one of the Fatah members deputy mayor, he said, only to retract the offer a few days later.

"We will continue to interact because we are members of the council," he said, "but the interaction will have to be 100 percent by the rules."

Shaheen was more optimistic.

"What happened in Gaza was difficult and the blood is still hot," he said. "It will take time, but this is the only way. There is no other way."