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A Bloody Taste of Civil War

7 minute read
Lisa Beyer/Gaza City

Yasser Arafat’s security forces in the Gaza Strip, nearly all of them veterans of the battle against Israel, faced a new foe last week: the enemy within. They answered the challenge from Gaza’s Islamic militants in precisely the same way that the Israeli occupiers had done — bluntly, and with lethal force. By the time the bloody fraternal clashes had simmered down, 15 Palestinians were dead, another 200 were crowding the hospitals and hundreds more were behind bars.

More than that, the people of the Gaza Strip were filled with a dread that worse was still to come, that the countdown for a cataclysmic collision among Palestinians had begun. “The signs are alarming,” said Eyad Sarraj, a human- rights activist in Gaza. “We have all the ingredients for a civil war.” Certainly the bloodshed marked a new low for Arafat’s already troubled administration. Self-rule has brought the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip little but disappointment, and their frustration is increasingly aimed at Arafat. Having turned his guns on compatriots, the Palestinian leader now faces a huge new credibility problem with his people.

The potential for fratricide has always loomed in the background as the Palestine Liberation Organization sought to impose its authority, especially in the heavily fundamentalist Gaza Strip. Until recently, Arafat’s self-rule administration had maintained a compact with the militant Muslim groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which adamantly oppose his peace accord with Israel and are trying to sabotage it with violence. The extremists focused their attacks on Israel and areas of the West Bank still under Israeli control. Arafat, for the most part, left them alone within his jurisdiction in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, despite Israeli pressure to crack down.

Now the hands-off policy has broken down. Earlier this month, Islamic Jihad for the first time publicly threatened to attack Arafat’s security personnel. Then the group struck hard within the Strip itself, when a suicide bomber bicycled into an Israeli army position, killing three soldiers. At the same time, Islamic Jihad activists were holding a provocative rally in Gaza City, brandishing rifles and promising more mayhem. Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu Middain declared that the militants had “crossed the red line.” The Palestinian Authority banned unlicensed demonstrations and rounded up some 200 Islamic Jihad members.

Last Friday, Arafat’s security men were tipped off that after noon prayers, worshippers at the Palestine Mosque in Gaza City, a fundamentalist stronghold, were planning to protest the recent arrests. About 50 Palestinian soldiers and policemen gathered outside and removed loudspeakers that had been attached to four vehicles to broadcast slogans during the march.

According to eyewitnesses, when the first worshippers emerged after prayers and saw the dismantled speakers, they began to shout “God is great!” The cries incited the crowd of 2,000 leaving the mosque. Scores of men and boys began to pelt the security forces with stones and concrete chunks, hitting a soldier in the head. Says a policeman who was there: “When we saw the officer bleeding, we lost our minds and started shooting.” The Palestinian Authority said that militants inside the mosque opened fire first, but eyewitnesses contradicted this claim. By all accounts, the crowd did torch two police vehicles, which according to officials resulted in the death of a police officer.

In fact, Arafat’s security men were primed for a battle. Before being dispatched to the mosque, they had been briefed by senior officers. Says a policeman: “We were told that Hamas people are provocateurs, and that they are big haters of the Palestinian Authority and want to destroy the autonomy.” He adds, “We were not nice today because we arrived at the mosque with our faces already red with anger.”

Skirmishes quickly spread to other parts of Gaza City. Officials ordered a curfew, to no avail. Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters filled the streets, chanting anti-Arafat slogans and menacing the authorities. One mob descended on Arafat’s military headquarters and tried to pull down the surrounding fence. The radicals denounced Arafat and his followers as stooges for Israel and vowed revenge. During a funeral procession for one of the fallen, a mourner took up an increasingly popular chant, “O Arafat, O Arafat, the Jihad killed Sadat,” a reference to the Egyptian leader assassinated by fundamentalists in 1981.

Some of the members of Arafat’s own security forces were demoralized by their comrades’ actions. Said a long-faced soldier at a checkpoint in Gaza City: “Today we proved to all the Palestinians that what Hamas says about us is true: that we are an instrument in the hands of the Israelis.” Eyewitnesses at the Palestine Mosque told of a police major who, upon seeing his colleagues open fire, tore off his cap and jacket and cried to the crowd, “I am not one of them.”

Since the experiment in self-rule began last May, many Palestinians have been telling outsiders that the notion of internecine war was just a fantasy of Israeli right-wingers. Now the possibility of civil war is hard to dismiss. Eyad Sarraj lists the key ingredients he believes are already present: “A weak authority, a strong opposition, undisciplined people on both sides, plenty of arms, plenty of outside influence and an environment of disillusion and despair.”

Soon after the unrest dissipated last week, various spokesmen for the Islamic movements appealed for calm. That is standard procedure in a culture that values maintaining at least a semblance of unity. Yet the fact remains that Arafat and the militant Islamists stand intractably opposed: he is committed to making peace with Israel; they are determined to wreck it. Commenting on last week’s violence, a senior P.L.O. official remarked, “I don’t think it will stop.”

The current environment in the Gaza Strip has strengthened the appeal of the militants. Palestinians have little, if anything, to show for the achievement of self-rule. The Gazan economy is in ruins. Foreign aid donors refuse to hand over significant funds until Arafat creates a credible system of accounting for the money. Israel, in response to the violence, has limited the number of workers allowed to cross the border daily for work. Just days before the Gaza riots, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned that the Gaza Strip would become “a new, tougher Afghanistan” unless economic conditions improved immediately.

Arafat’s Palestinian Authority has made a poor impression on Gazans. They complain of a disorganized and slow-moving bureaucracy rife with corruption. The glacial pace of negotiations on further autonomy has held up plans for withdrawal of Israeli troops from more Arab cities on the West Bank and for Palestinian general elections.

All of that gives weight to the rejectionists’ argument that the peace Arafat made with Israel is a bad deal that should be overturned. If this becomes the majority opinion, suggests Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent P.L.O. figure in Jerusalem, “the members of the Authority might just get so depressed that they’ll decide it’s not worth it, that it makes more sense to say to the people, ‘All right, go back to the Israeli occupation.’ ” An aide to Arafat relates that in a recent conversation, the P.L.O. leader himself talked of the possibility of dismantling his self-rule administration and quitting Gaza as a way of wriggling out of the troubled peace accord. The Israelis, however, have no intention of reclaiming control of the Gaza Strip — which means the Palestinians will have to find some way to govern themselves, short of killing off their rivals.

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