What's going on in Gaza?


Civil war: That's what both sides were calling last week's sharp Palestinian-vs.-Palestinian clashes in the Gaza Strip. So who was fighting whom, and how did this rivalry get so murderously bitter?

In one corner, you'll find Hamas, the rising new power in Palestinian politics, which chucked its Fatah rivals out of Gaza. Hamas is formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement; "hamas" is both an acronym and the Arabic word for zeal. Like many other radical Islamic groups in the Arab world, Hamas traces its roots back to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which started a charitable and political network in neighboring Gaza. Led by its founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas began its rise to prominence in 1987 after helping spark the first Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Hamas began a campaign of suicide attacks against Israeli targets &

launched by its armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, which later used a network of tunnels from northern Sinai to smuggle weapons into Gaza. But Hamas also has a sprawling social-services network that functions as the de facto welfare state for Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians. In 2005, Hamas crowed that its efforts had driven Israel's troops and settlers out of Gaza. In 2006, taking advantage of years of stagnation in the peace process, Hamas won the Palestinians' legislative elections and took control of the Palestinian Authority's ministries &

to the dismay of Israel, the United States and the European Union, which have branded Hamas a terrorist organization.

What makes Hamas tick? Its 1988 charter (available at /lawweb/avalon/mideast/hamas.htm) says the group "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine" and sees "no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad" to fight "the warmongering Jews." (In fact, Article 22 blames a vast, well-financed media-controlling Zionist conspiracy for the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, both world wars and Rotary Clubs. It's this sort of fire-breathing that inspired the satirical newspaper the Onion to run a cheeky article entitled "Hamas Calls For 'Giant Summit' With All Israelis" after Hamas' 2006 election triumph; check out /content/node/45357.) But some Hamas leaders say that the charter isn't sacred and suggest that they might negotiate a reciprocal long-term cease-fire with Israel; they've offered amnesty to their vanquished Fatah foes in Gaza. That sort of talk has encouraged some experts and European diplomats, who warn that isolating the group &

whose reputation for asceticism stands in stark contrast to the corruption of many secular Palestinian politicians &

will only help it extend its influence over Palestinian society to the West Bank.

In the other corner stands Fatah, the older, fading secular nationalist movement that Hamas' charter says it will relate to like "the son toward his father, the brother toward his brother." Fatah's old guard has dominated Palestinian politics since its most important leader, the late Yasser Arafat, seized control of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the late 1960s. But now Fatah has seen its control of Gaza collapse, raising the specter of having Palestinian politics split between a Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and a Fatah-ruled West Bank. Angry Fatah leaders accuse Hamas of mounting a coup in Gaza and overpowering Fatah's forces, which were armed via friendly Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan &

with, experts say, some winks and nods from Israel and the United States.

There are good histories of Fatah's rise in two massive, meticulous books, Mark Tessler's "A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" and Yezid Sayigh's "Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993." Fatah abandoned its commitment to armed struggle and recognized Israel during the 1990s Oslo peace process, and it still backs negotiations to produce a Palestinian state alongside Israel. During the current fighting, the Bush administration and Israel openly backed security services loyal to Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who remains the titular president of the ruptured Palestinian Authority. (His pleas for an end to the violence were rewarded last week with the impact of several mortar shells near his Gaza compound.)

Experts divide sharply over how to handle Hamas. A recent report from the International Crisis Group (via ) urges that the Western political and economic boycott on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority "should immediately be eased to ... give Hamas an incentive to further moderate its stance" and avert chaos in Gaza. On the other hand, Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst now working for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues in "Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad," that Hamas is closely tied to Iran and uses its mosques, schools and soup kitchens to build support for an "overarching apparatus of terror," making engagement a mistake. And for now, the Bush administration has hinted that it's considering letting Hamas try to rule poverty-stricken Gaza while letting aid flow to a Fatah-run West Bank.

To get the big picture on today's struggle, check out "The Palestinian People: A History" by Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, which offers a readable and reliable explanation of the Palestinians' origins, society and politics &

no mean feat, because the scholarly literature about the Middle East is about as fractious as, well, the Middle East. Sari Nusseibeh, the president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, has harsh words for all sides in his lyrical new memoir, "Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life," which dismisses Fatah's experiment with governance as "a sleazy Arab kleptocracy" and scorns Hamas as a fanatical movement "systematically throwing shackles on the mind." And the most prominent pollster in the West Bank, Khalil Shikaki, gets bonus points for predicting trouble in a 1998 Foreign Affairs article &

presciently titled "Peace Now or Hamas Later" &

in which he wrote, "If the peace process flags, Arafat falls, and Hamas rises, the nationalist center could indeed lose its hold on power to the Islamists." Good call.

is deputy editor of Outlook and the author of "Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance."

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