By Mel Frykberg | Inter Press Service News
RAMALLAH, May 31 (IPS) – The inevitable has happened. Simmering tensions between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah have left six Palestinians dead, in the bloodiest confrontation between the two groups since Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza in June 2007.
A bloody gun battle broke out Sunday morning in the northern West Bank town of Qalqilia between a group of Hamas gunmen and security forces from the Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Authority (PA).
The PA had tried to arrest and flush out a group of Hamas gunmen who were hiding in a building in the northern city, just over an hour’s drive north-west of Ramallah.
The exchange of gunfire left two Hamas members and three PA police officers dead. The owner of the building where the Hamas fighters had taken refuge also succumbed to his wounds.
The PA placed Qalqilia under curfew as they searched for additional gunmen in the areas surrounding the building where the clash had taken place.
Palestinian security forces were put on a state of high alert with throngs of soldiers and jeeps surrounding PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s government compound, the Muqata, in Ramallah.
Each side blamed the other for instigating the violence. According to the PA, the Hamas men had refused to surrender or identify themselves, and had opened fire on PA forces first.
However, Hamas spokesmen said the cornered men only returned fire after the PA men refused to back off.
Tensions between the two Palestinian rivals have been building ever since the Gaza coup.
Both factions have tortured, abused and killed opponents during interrogation in their respective jails in the Gaza strip, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank ruled by the PA.
Resentment and anger between the two organisations reached boiling point last week following Israel’s assassination of a top Hamas leader near the southern West Bank town Hebron, 30 km south of Jerusalem.
Abed Al-Majid Dudin, 45, head of Hamas’s military wing in Hebron was assassinated last Thursday by Israeli commandos, backed by jeeps and a helicopter.
According to the Israelis he was shot dead in a firefight after he had barricaded himself inside a house and refused to surrender. Hamas accused the PA of helping Israel carry out surveillance on Dudin prior to the killing.
Dudin was one of Israel’s most wanted men, and had apparently managed to elude Israel security forces for 14 years. The Jewish state accused him of being behind several suicide bombings within Israel proper.
Following the assassination, Israel declared a state of high alert in anticipation of retaliatory attacks.
Hamas, meanwhile, told its fighters in the West Bank that the gloves were off, and they were free to carry out retaliation of their choosing against any legitimate targets in the occupied territory.
According to Hamas officials, the PA was also a legitimate target, due to its alleged collaboration with Israel.
Hamas further accused the PA of carrying out a witch-hunt against its members in the West Bank, stating that prior to bloody Sunday, over 20 Hamas sympathisers had been arrested during the previous two nights.
The PA continues to deny that the arrests were politically motivated, instead saying that embezzlement, fraud and criminal activity led to the arrests.
Several human rights organisations have charged repeatedly that PA prisons are full of political prisoners and Hamas sympathisers, many of them not even members of its armed wing Izzedin Al-Qassem.
Due to the escalating events and yet another round of failed Palestinian unity talks in Cairo several weeks ago, it was just a matter of time when bloody violence would break out.
But Israel’s timing, and the reasoning behind carrying out the provocative assassination of Dudin, which provided the spark to the West Bank powder keg, is curious.
There have been no attacks against Israel proper emanating from the West Bank for years, despite rampaging Israeli settlers stepping up their attacks against Palestinian civilians in the territory.
Furthermore, Israeli intelligence would have been sure of the assassination provoking retaliatory attacks, and increasing friction between Hamas and Fatah.
But Israel’s government, under the right-wing leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appears to be rudderless, and uncertain of its future direction.
The attacks come at a time when the rest of the international community, propelled forward by U.S. President Barack Obama, appears to be developing the resolve to pressure Israel into fulfilling its part of various peace agreements.
The calls from a growing number of world leaders for Israel to freeze settlement building are growing louder. Obama has reportedly given himself two years to reach a diplomatic settlement on a two-state solution as a means of resolving the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel argues that natural growth in the settlements has to be taken into account. However, most of the settlement building has been to accommodate increasing settler numbers – and as their numbers increase, further settlement building would be required.
There are currently about 500,000 illegal settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
Additionally, Israeli attempts to outlaw Palestinians commemorating their Nakba (meaning catastrophe, to mark the day of the Israeli onslaught that drove them out of their land in 1948) with threats of three years imprisonment is not winning Netanyahu any support regionally or internationally either.
During the Nakba, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes, while over 500 villages were razed to make way for the establishment of Israel.
Neither are Israel’s accelerated attempts to Judaise East Jerusalem by expelling Palestinians and demolishing their homes there, helping its PR efforts.
Bloody Palestinian infighting might just be what a cornered Israeli government needs at the moment to focus attention elsewhere.