By Ilene R. Prusher - staff writer and Joshua Mitnick - correspondent
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - Palestinian factional fighting lurched dangerously closer to all-out civil war Tuesday as militants in Gaza linked to the opposing ideological camps, Fatah and Hamas, attacked one another's headquarters and drove internecine violence to unprecedented levels.
Following days of never-before-seen warfare between the two main Palestinian political spheres, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called for a truce and said he was working with Egyptian mediators on a lasting cease-fire.
But truce after truce has been shot down in the months since the two sides reached the Mecca Accord, a power-sharing agreement brokered in Saudi Arabia in February that led to the first-ever Palestinian unity government.
The failure thus far to strike a peaceable deal between Fatah and Hamas is stirring fears that the situation is likely to deteriorate further and that international intervention may be Gaza's last hope for calm.
As the fighting escalates and innocent civilians seek to escape from the cross fire, Palestinians are holding fast to deeply divergent theories about what and who is fueling the conflict.
Tuesday was one of the worst days of the fighting, with at least 17 Palestinians killed in 24 hours. Militants associated with Fatah attacked the home of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh for the second time in two days, while fighters loyal to Hamas seized several positions from their rivals, Fatah. Witnesses in Gaza said that Hamas forces had taken over parts of northern and central Gaza and declared them a closed military zone.
Roots of discord
Painted in broad brush strokes, Fatah is a movement built on secular nationalist principles. Its leadership began a peace process with Israel in 1993 that was meant to lead to a two-state solution to the conflict. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that catapulted to power in January 2006 elections, remains firmly opposed to a peace deal with Israel on religious grounds.
And although many in the two camps hoped that these two dissimilar outlooks could be brought under one umbrella for the greater Palestinian good, that goal is being subsumed by ongoing struggle for military hegemony.
"From the beginning, this Mecca agreement did not satisfy everybody, and there were Hamas people who weren't happy with it, and to a certain extent this created two different views within Hamas," says Ghassan Khatib, a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank and a former cabinet minister in the Palestinian Authority.
"Those who are involved in the government are relatively satisfied, and those who are in the fighting and the brigades are quite unhappy," says Dr. Khatib. "They started to feel that some kind of co-opting is happening within Hamas." In short, the willingness of Hamas politicians to work with Fatah and the office of Mr. Abbas, who is in turn cooperating with Israel and the US, is unacceptable to the armed groups affiliated with Hamas.
On the ground, that has translated into turf wars all over Gaza, made more complex by large, armed clans who have staked out certain fiefdoms. The Daghmash clan, the family holding BBC reporter Alan Johnston, exemplifies this issue.
Every move that Abbas and his Gazan security czar, Mohammed Dahlan, make to try to "reform" the security forces in Gaza is read by Hamas groups as an attempt to snatch a patch of what Hamas sees as its rightful turf, says Khatib.
"The activity of Abbas and Dahlan, the new training they're giving their forces - that all seems to be aimed at the Hamas brigades," Khatib adds. "Hamas had a sense of controlling the streets. They think that what Abbas and Dahlan are doing is undermining the Hamas plan."
In the eyes of Hamas officials, however, the implosion is a result of an "assault" on Hamas.
"Those who are allied under the command of Mr. Dahlan are committing a lot of crimes against our people, our soldiers, and our institutions, and this has really turned things upside down," says Atef Adwan, a Hamas member of the Palestinian legislative council, in a phone interview from his home in Gaza.
"They did not respect any truce we've reached so far, and so we're left with the conclusion that they're intending to topple the government," says Mr. Adwan. "Things have nearly reached an end by those who actually wanted to sabotage things. Those people will not respect any treaty, any truce, any law."
Adwan charged that this was happening with the encouragement of the US and Israel, since the two countries have been working to beef up the military capabilities of Abbas's Presidential Guard and other forces allied with Fatah.
"They are executing American and Israeli policies," he says, "because the weapons and money for Dahlan and the Presidential guard come from those two parties."
The inability to reestablish a cease-fire has prompted a growing number of Palestinians - including Abbas - and Israelis to mull the deployment of international forces in Gaza. The key challenge, analysts explained, will be coming up with an intervention plan that's accepted by Fatah, Arab countries, Hamas, and Israel.
"Many sources are reaching this conclusion in the Arab world, and within the Palestinian Authority," says Khatib. "I don't see any way out without external intervention. If it's left to the rival factions, we only face a deepening circle of violence."
But the plan for a multinational force faces several hurdles, the first of which is resistance by Hamas, which sees foreign troops as a threat to its growing control over Gaza. Hamas, which says the confrontation should be solved exclusively by Palestinian parties, has accused Arab, Israeli, and other foreign governments of training and funding forces loyal to Palestinian President Abbas.
"What do they want to do? How can they reestablish security?" asks Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson in Gaza. "How do I know if they want to come here to protect one side?"
But in addition to the fact that Hamas remains opposed to the idea, Palestinian analysts say it is unclear whether the Arab governments will want to send forces to jump in the middle of the Hamas, Fatah - and Israeli - melee.
"The question is do Arabs want to get involved, to what extent, and who are the Arabs who are willing to be involved," says Mohammed Dejani, a political scientist at Al Quds University. "It is not an easy task, and it is not a thankful task. They will be sacrificing, and they will be targeted, maybe not militarily but politically."
Dejani says that Palestinians are likely to consider a multinational force as simply a new form of foreign occupation. The peacekeepers, on the other hand, won't relish the idea of running down Kassam rocket launching teams or patrolling Gaza neighborhoods where fighting often flows from house to house.
On Monday, a group of left-wing Israeli lawmakers traveled to the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the idea of a peacekeeping force led by Jordanian and Egyptian forces. Knesset Member Avshalom Vilan, from the Meretz Party, speculated that Israel wouldn't be able to resist an intervention plan that has the support of the US allies and the Palestinians. The Israeli politician said Abbas didn't reject the idea, but was noncommittal.
"He expressed interest," he says. "He said [that] it's a plan that he wants to study, and that he would get back to us."
International peacekeepers are in Israel's interest because the internal Palestinian fighting spilled over the border last month, creating pressure on Israel's army to reenter Gaza to carry out retaliation strikes.
"If there is a force that will go in, stop the Kassams and create a different reality, how can Israel say no?" asks Mr. Vilan.
During last month's escalation in Israeli-Palestinian cross-border attacks around Gaza, Israeli officials also expressed interest in an international force to deploy along the porous Gaza-Egyptian border to help stop weapon smuggling.
The international border team could be based partly on UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The Lebanon peacekeepers have had mixed success from the Israeli perspective. On the one hand, it has kept Hizbullah forces from redeploying near the Israeli border in southern Lebanon, but it has not stopped the supply of arms from Syria over the western border with Lebanon, Israel has charged.
And yet, Israel's decision to agree to UNIFIL keeping security in south Lebanon marked a shift in its traditionally skeptical view of the efficacy of international peacekeepers.
"We didn't leave Gaza to return, and yet there is a very real problem of smuggling," says one official. "The idea of having an international force on the border combined with an Egyptian force on their side of the border would prevent Israel from having to come back to Gaza."