Long-running factional battles between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah, on one hand, and Hamas on the other are the context for the strikes that have recently taken place in the Gaza Strip, with solidarity action in the West Bank.
According to Haaretz, at the end of August, just before the new school year began, teachers and principals sympathetic to Fatah were purged and replaced with 2000 newly trained, Hamas-loyal teachers. Some of the new teachers appear to be students whose main qualification is that they are religious and pro-Hamas. Hamas also raided the Gaza headquarters of the Fatah-aligned teachers’ union and arrested some of the union’s activists.
The union called a strike in protest, which was backed by the Ramallah PA government. The PA, the teachers’ employer, insisted that the strike be observed and threatened that those who went to work would not be paid and would have their pensions cancelled; strikers would be paid. Hamas said those that broke the strike would be paid by the authorities in Gaza.
Other groups, including civil servants and medical workers, also struck in Gaza. The medics’ demands were straight-forwardly political, in direct opposition to the Hamas regime. Again strikers were backed by the PA in the West Bank and promised pay if they struck and dismissal if they worked. According to the UN 85% of education workers and 70% of primary health care personnel were on strike at the start of September.
The backing of the PA for Gaza strikers, and solidarity action in the West Bank, is in stark contrast to their opposition to recent public sector strikes in the West Bank which demanded that salaries be index-linked to inflation and that wage backlogs be paid (Le Monde Diplomatique).
Hamas have responded by threatening doctors on strike and organising demonstrations outside their houses, and closing down private clinics of strikers.
At the end of October the civil service, teaching and health unions pledged to continue the strikes until next year. In the hospitals surgical operations have fallen by 40% and admissions by 20%.
Despite the element of Fatah hypocrisy and coercion directed through union structures it controls or has influence in, we back the workers resisting the Islamisation of the Gaza Strip.
The workers are right to oppose the Gaza authorities, and right to object to the teaching profession being overrun by religious zealots. Fatah is a corrupt, decayed bourgeois force, but more space exists for the left, women and working-class activism on the West Bank than in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Victory to the Gaza strikes!
In the West Bank, on Saturday 25 October, 500 police deployed in the Palestinian-controlled areas of Hebron. The move is partly directed against the Islamist organisation, Hamas, and partly against criminal gangs and lawlessness. Similar operations have taken place in Jenin and Nablus.
The bourgeois, “technocratic” PA government of Salam Fayyad, who was appointed by Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas in the wake of Hamas’ seizure of power in Gaza in June 2007, is backed by Fatah.
After the Hamas takeover in Gaza, PA security forces, with the help of Fatah militias, undertook a wide-ranging crack-down in the West Bank. The Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades turned in Hamas members and physically removed Hamas officials from government positions. Hamas militias were outlawed. Security services purged their ranks of suspected Islamists and jailed many. Over the past year 1,000 West Bank security personnel deemed “suspect” have been dismissed.
Between the PA’s declaration of a state of emergency on 14 June and 30 September 2007, Palestinian security forces arrested approximately 1,500 Hamas members and suspected sympathisers. The pace of the anti-Hamas campaign subsequently slackened. While estimates vary, a Palestinian human rights organisation calculated that in early June 2008 the PA held 112 Hamas prisoners.
Over the last year dozens of Hamas-linked organisations have been closed on the West Bank. Nevertheless Hamas retains considerable support and while many of its activists have gone underground it could quickly revive.
In addition to clamping down on Hamas the PA government has sought to end the activities of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — partly by negotiating amnesties with Israel and finding work for Brigade members.
But fepression on both sides — Fatah against Hamas, Hamas against Fatah — has intensified since late July 2008 following a series of bomb attacks in Gaza. On 25 July a 4-year-old girl and five members of Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, were killed in a Gaza City beach café. Hamas claimed Fatah was responsible.
Hamas had brutally routed Fatah in Gaza in June 2007, in particular destroying the Gaza organisation of Fatah’s police-thug, Muhammad Dahlan. But Hamas failed to completely uproot all Fatah structures and establish a monopoly of armed force. Since 2007 they have been gradually destroying all organised opposition and centres of potential opposition.
In 2007 Hamas disbanded the pro-Fatah Union of Palestinian Journalists. In November it cancelled all press cards in Gaza, and now no news photography is allowed without Hamas’ permission. On 12 November a 200,000-strong Fatah march in Gaza organised in memory of Yasser Arafat was forcibly dispersed by Hamas gunmen who fired into the crowd killing at least six people and injuring over 80.
In February 2008 Hamas closed the operations in Gaza of al-Ayyam, a Fatah-linked paper, for publishing a cartoon lampooning Hamas leaders.
In the aftermath of the July bombing Hamas stormed a quarter run by the pro-Fatah Hillis family, killing a dozen people, arresting many more and intimidating other clans into concluding ceasefire agreements.
For example: “Mumtaz Dughmush — the leader of the Army of Islam, best known outside Gaza for its March 2007 abduction of British journalist Alan Johnston — had flouted central authority in the weeks preceding the beach explosion; however, in the wake of the assault, he pledged that henceforth he would ‘follow the law’ and concluded a six-month ‘truce’ with Hamas.” (Crisis Group briefing)
Then, according to Human Rights Watch, Hamas arrested 200 Fatah supporters and closed 200 Fatah-linked associations, charities and sports clubs. Arrests were often carried out by Hamas organisations, rather than by the police.
Gaza Fatah leader Zakariya al-Agha was arrested, as were PA-affiliated governors of Gaza City, Khan Yunis and Rafahnot.
“The offices of independent legislator Ziad Abu Amr — viewed as sympathetic to the authorities in Ramallah even though he had been elected with Hamas support — and of members of Fatah’s Gaza parliamentary bloc were ransacked… Activists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [leftist, PLO affiliated] were arrested and their radio station closed" (Crisis Group). The PA television station was shut.
In the wake of these attacks Fatah retains considerable backing in Gaza, but it is leaderless.
Hamas have acted not only against Fatah, but against other Islamists and clan-based militias.
After July 2008 two Islamic Jihad mosques were taken over by Hamas, meaning that new preachers were appointed and posters celebrating Hamas and their Qassam Brigades were put up. Members of the Al-Quds Brigade, Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, were also arrested. Muhammad Shalah, the brother of Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah, was detained the day before a planned demonstration he was organising in support of Gaza’s striking teachers.” (Crisis Group). Hamas blame Islamic Jihad for shielding some Fatah leaders after June 2007.
The leader of the Army of the Nation (Jaysh al-Umma), a jihadi group, was also arrested.
Hamas had purged the leaderships in various state agencies operating in Gaza, starting with Health and Education; more recently it has looked to purge lower level staff and teachers. It now controls all significant state structures with the exception of banking. It seems to have left the banks alone from fear of an international reaction leading to total collapse of the financial sector.
After June 2007 Hamas set up a police force in Gaza with 11,000 officers, including 50 veiled women. They now have the court system under their control, with only one of the pre-June 2007 judges still in position.
The position of women in Hamas-run Gaza is complicated. Hamas seem to have made a tactical decision to hold off — for the time being — on the rigid enforcement of Islamist dress codes for all women, and complete bans on other forms of “non-Islamic” activity. But the signs are that conditions are getting worse. More women are veiled; there has been an increase in “honour killings” and attacks on prostitutes, or alleged prostitutes; parties where men and women mix have been raided; Christian bookshops have been attacked.
In August, and in retaliation for the Gaza raids, Fatah arrested 100 Hamas activists on the West Bank.
On both sides arrests are often made outside the law and are accompanied by mistreatment of prisoners. Torture is common on both sides.
Since June 2007 Israel, the US and EU have attempted to isolate Hamas and boost Fatah. $8 billion has been pledged to the West Bank, including $60 million from the US to train and fund units loyal to President Abbas. The EU is supporting the Palestinian Civil Police — apparently the least abusive of the West Bank policing organisations.