Hamas Gaining Control of Gaza

After five days of clashes, the militant organization Hamas is in control of almost all of the Gaza Strip. Hamas fighters have been firing mortars and rockets at the few remaining compounds in Gaza under control of Fatah.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Palestinian group Hamas controls almost all the Gaza Strip now. It won that control after five days of fighting that left scores of people killed. Hamas has been seizing control from another major Palestinian group, the one led by the president, Mahmoud Abbas. His last few compounds are coming under mortar and rocket fire, and he's expected to appeal for an end to the fighting today.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is covering this story from Gaza City. And, Eric, when you move around Gaza, how do you tell who's in control of a particular neighborhood?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Steve, it's pretty difficult to tell who's in control of any given street corner. These gunmen aren't wearing uniforms. They're all wearing black masks and holding AK-47s. They're not waving flags. And you just have to know as you get closer to these areas and try to move incredibly slowly and carefully and present yourself as a journalist and be as careful as you can.

INSKEEP: And you've got gunmen on corner after corner, and some of them may just be manning checkpoints and others, for all you know, might be about to burst into shooting?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. The gunmen at these checkpoints are incredibly tense. We've been told a couple of times to drop our bags, even though we're clearly journalists. We have TV signs and microphones, but gunfights can break out anywhere.

INSKEEP: So how is it that Fatah has lost neighborhood after neighborhood to Hamas?

WESTERVELT: Well, Steve, Hamas has been generally better organized. They're very well equipped. They're able to carry out these complex attacks and ambushes and maneuvers, and their fighters are clearly more motivated and, in many ways, more disciplined than Fatah. I mean, Hamas continues to make gains on the ground. They're attacking the, really, the only four remaining strongholds of Fatah. These are heavily guarded compounds, including this sprawling beachside presidential compound.

And right now, a major Fatah security center, which is headquarters to both Fatah's intelligence and national security force, is under heavy attack. Hamas claims they've taken full control of it. Fatah denies it. We can hear some of the fighting still going on at this moment.

INSKEEP: Any chance of a cease-fire?

WESTERVELT: Not looking so good. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not made any strong statements about a cease-fire. Hamas has now listed several demands for any truce, including that their paramilitary executive force be formally integrated into the regular security forces. That was part of this Mecca agreement hammered out four months ago, by the way. Hamas is also demanding that Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan - a controversial Fatah leader here in Gaza - they're demanding that he and his associates be barred from participation in any Fatah-Hamas dialogue.

Now, there are unconfirmed local reports now that Mohammed Dahlan has returned to Gaza. And according to this report, he's now rallying Fatah fighters for some kind of counter-offensive. But again, it's just not clear right now, Steve, whether this is just wishful thinking by Fatah supporters or a reality.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Eric Westervelt. He's in the Gaza Strip, which is increasingly under the control of the Palestinian group Hamas. Of course, there's another major Palestinian area separate in geography, the West Bank. And, Eric, what's happening there?

WESTERVELT: Well, Fatah gunmen have tried to flex their muscles in the West Bank, Steve, where they're much stronger. They've kidnapped some Hamas members and attacked several Hamas buildings. But widespread violence has not yet broken out in the West Bank. President Abbas is in Ramallah. Almost all of the other Fatah leaders as well, by the way, have long since fled to the West Bank. The Fatah people left here are mainly mid-level officers and Fatah foot soldiers, and some of them are complaining a lot about a lack of leadership and an absence of clear orders on the ground in Gaza.

INSKEEP: So is it possible that you could end up with two geographically separate Palestinian areas that are under the control of two entirely separate groups, Fatah and Hamas?

WESTERVELT: Well, that's exactly what it's looking like, Steve, I mean, that Fatah will remain the power in the West Bank and Gaza will be under Hamas rule. I mean, Palestinians here are now joking, Steve, that this is the two-state solution to the conflict - one Hamas, one Fatah.

One analyst I spoke with this morning, Ayman Shaheen, called this scenario the death of Palestinian democracy. He said Abbas in Gaza would become an increasingly irrelevant, powerless symbolic figure, and he feared this kind of split in governance would prove untenable and would lead to more fighting.

INSKEEP: Must make peace negotiations even less likely with Israel.

WESTERVELT: Well, exactly. Although, I spoke with a senior Israeli official, Mark Regev, and he said despite all that's going on, Israel can still negotiate with Abbas. And in what you could charitably call a huge understatement, Regev said, quote, "If we were to negotiate with Abbas, maybe for the foreseeable future his ability to deliver in Gaza will be more limited."

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Gaza City. Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Steve.

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Q&A: Hamas and Fatah

Hamas symbol

The official Hamas emblem shows two crossed swords in front of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque is framed by two Palestinian flags with the phrases, in Arabic, "God is Great" and "Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." hide caption

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Fatah symbol

The official Fatah emblem depicts two fists holding rifles, with a hand grenade in between. In the background is a map of Israel and the occupied territories. hide caption

itoggle caption

Hamas and Fatah are rival Palestinian factions that have attacked Israel in the past. Here's a look at the two organizations:

What is Hamas?

Hamas, an Islamist group, has pursued a policy of "armed resistance" against Israel — carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians — while also extending social-welfare programs to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Hamas' official name is Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement).

What is Fatah?

Fatah was the first exile group to launch attacks against Israel. Fatah's official name is Harakat al Tahrir al Falastini (Palestinian Liberation Movement). Fatah is the dominant member of the greater Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

What are the origins of these groups?

Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, both of whom have since been killed by Israel.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization with branches throughout the Arab world. In 1988, Hamas wrote its charter, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and swears to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." The charter is still in effect today.

However, Hamas member Ismail Haniya — named prime minister under the unity government — has spoken of a possible long-term truce with Israel, if Israel withdraws from territory occupied after the 1967 war.

Fatah was founded by the late Yasser Arafat and a small group of Palestinian nationalists in the late 1950s. The group is a member of the PLO, a loose umbrella group of a number of Palestinian organizations founded in Cairo in the mid-1960s.

Fatah quickly became the most powerful member of the PLO, which Arafat also led.

What does the PLO think of Israel?

In 1993 the PLO officially renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. In exchange, PLO leaders were allowed to return from exile in Tunisia and recognized as the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. They were also allowed to set up Palestinian security forces. Although the PLO has officially renounced terrorism, some of its member organizations have been accused of or have claimed responsibility for continued attacks.

The PLO was initially based largely in Jordan. But after fighting between PLO guerrillas and the Jordanian army in 1970, a conflict known as Black September, the PLO was forced out of Jordan. Most of the guerrillas — and Yasser Arafat — settled in Lebanon. The PLO then launched frequent attacks on Israel from their Lebanese bases, prompting two Israeli invasions of Lebanon — in 1978 and 1982.

What approach does Hamas take toward Israel?

Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel. Its armed resistance has been carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilian buses, nightclubs and other venues. As a result the United States, Israel and the European Union have labeled it a "terrorist organization." Human Rights Watch has also criticized Hamas for its attacks on civilians.

Hamas' main claim for support among Palestinians comes from its provision of social welfare services that neither the Israelis nor Fatah provide. From its inception, Hamas has funded and developed an elaborate network of schools, orphanages, health clinics and other social services that have given it reach into every sector of its populations.

How is Fatah viewed as compared to Hamas?

Despite its violent past, Fatah is now seen as the more moderate Palestinian party. While the group's constitution also calls for the destruction of Israel, the group falls under the PLO, which has renounced terrorism. Fatah's leadership of the Palestinian Authority was seen as corrupt and inept by many Palestinians, which is the major reason for its loss of seats in the government in the 2006 election.

How have Hamas and Fatah fared politically?

In January 2006, Palestinian voters in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem voted for a new Palestinian legislature. Hamas won a major victory, taking 74 of the 132 seats, in an election deemed fair and honest by international observers. Its rival, the once-dominant Fatah party, criticized for ineffectiveness and corruption, took only 45 seats.

Fatah still controls the presidency, the highest elected position in the government. Mahmoud Abbas has held the position since January 2005. Fatah also controls roughly 70,000 police and security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These forces regularly clash with Hamas loyalists.

The surprise political victory in 2006 gave Hamas control of the Palestinian government. It also created a conflict with Israel and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas refuses to accept Israel's right to exist and says it will not honor pre-existing treaties signed by the Palestinian Authority. In light of this, Israel, with the support of the United States and the European Union, launched a financial boycott of the Hamas-led government. Israel refused to pay the Palestinian Authority its monthly trade taxes, which Israel collects, and Washington has sought to freeze all bank transfers to the Palestinian Authority. The results deprived the authority's 150,000 civil servants of salaries for a time, but aid has continued to flow from the European Union and the United States via a specially devised "mechanism" that bypasses the Palestinian government.

How have recent events impacted the relationship between Hamas and Fatah?

In June, Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip, destroying the headquarters of President Abbas as well as other government buildings. As a result of the violence, Abbas dissolved the unity government, a power-sharing deal between the two groups that was signed on Feb. 9, 2007, and swore in an emergency government. He forced out the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who is a member of Hamas. Abbas named Salam Fayyad, a Western-backed independent lawmaker, to the post.

Hamas leaders have condemned the move, making a decision not to recognize the changes, and insisted that the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March remains in charge of the Palestinian Authority. Haniyeh has claimed that he continues to hold the position of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Leaders from the United States, Europe and Israel have spoken out in support of Abbas and his new government — and plan to restore aid to the Palestinian people.

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