May 15 is always a “black date” on the Palestinian calendar, representing as it does the founding of Israel and the Nakba (or “catastrophe” in Arabic) of the Palestinians. But this year, May 15 may have acquired a new symbolism -- as the date that internecine fighting among Palestinians reached a point of no return.
At least 20 Palestinians were murdered this May 15 in Gaza, according to the most conservative Palestinian accounts, by Hamas liquidation squads that grabbed gunmen and officials of the rival Fatah movement, publicly dragged them from their cars, and executed them in the streets. Hamas squads also raided the house of PA Gaza security chief Rashid Abu Shback on Wednesday, killing six of his bodyguards. Shback and Mohammed Dahlan are the primary “muscle” of PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah group.
On Tuesday, Fatah forces fled a Hamas assault near the Karni terminal east of the Gaza border with Israel after at least nine PA officers were killed when their training base was attacked by forces from the “Executive Force” of the Hamas-controlled PA Interior Ministry. PA television carried anguished public and personal appeals from Abbas to his Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyyeh, to “think about what you are doing.”
Such appeals for restraint appear in vain. The joint Hamas-Fatah “national unity government” is anything but unified, and it seems only a matter of time before the Palestinian Authority collapses under its own internal violence or by dint of an Israeli military strike designed to stop mounting rocket terror attacks on its southern communities.
At least 40 people Palestinians have been killed since May 13 in the latest round of the Fatah-Hamas war, most of them Fatah fighters, and there are reported to be more than 100 wounded. It is a measure of what the Palestinians call the situation of fawda—anarchy—that the Egyptian government, which has been trying to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, has had to withdraw its officials, after several were attacked and wounded. Ziad Abu-Ziad, a Fatah Party minister in the PA cabinet, summed up the views of many Palestinians. “Everybody is going crazy, and nobody knows what’s going on,” he said.
In response to the latest carnage, the Jerusalem-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds ran a completely black front page banner this week to symbolize the parlous state of Palestinian affairs. Similarly, the bloodshed was described by official Palestinian radio—Sawt Felasteen—as a majzara, a “massacre,” in Arabic. This terminology is usually reserved for actions by Israel, and it was clear that both Hamas and Fatah were desperately trying to channel the internecine fighting and hatred into attacks on Israel, rather than on Arabs. Hamas, for instance, has since issued statements denying that its men had murdered Fatah personnel, saying that the deaths were part of a “Zionist plot.” Hamas gunmen have also stepped up their attacks on Israel, launching more than 20 rockets on Tuesday, and wounding more than 30 Israelis.
The rocket attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot and other communities in the Negev — more than a dozen in total — continued on Wednesday, seriously wounding an Israeli woman, as hundred of Israelis asked to be evacuated from the area that has absorbed three to eight rocket attacks on the average for the last year. Meanwhile, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed, once again, unable to decide on a clear course of action, beyond shooting artillery at empty fields in Gaza.
Many are calling for more forceful action. Israeli army officers have been pressing for a major Israeli land operation into Gaza for two reasons: to push back the militants out of shooting range of Israel, and to close down the smuggling routes from Sinai and Egypt into Gaza. In the last weeks, Israeli officers have said privately that the 31 tons of high-grade explosives that were smuggled into Gaza in the last year have been supplemented by “hundreds of tons” of other arms, largely financed by Iran.
“Anybody who shoots a rocket at us has to pay a price,” declared Shaul Mofaz, the current Israeli transportation minister and the former defense minister, though he declined, during a radio interview, to say what kind of action he would support. Even some Palestinians have expressed support for Israeli intervention. “Everybody is hoping that the Israelis will come in and liquidate these maniacs,” declared a Gaza man who was interviewed on Israeli Television Channel 10. In the meantime, Israelis are not waiting for the government to defend them. Russian-born Israeli businessman Arkady Gaidemak spent his own money to evacuate 800 women and children from a rocket-pocked area.
The outcome to this latest violence remains very much in doubt, but one thing seems clear: On both sides of the conflict, this May 15 will not soon be forgotten.