15 November, 2008
Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been trading harsh accusations as to who bears responsibility for the open-ended postponement of Egyptian-sponsored national reconciliation talks that were due to take place in Cairo earlier this week.
Citing Hamas’s decision to boycott the much-heralded talks, PA and Fatah leaders and spokespersons denounced the Islamic movement for being "unserious and insincere" about the restoration of Palestinian national unity.
PA officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas and his de facto prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have flatly denied the existence of political detainees in PA custody, the main factor Hamas deems as hindering the convening of talks. Hamas called these denials "lies", saying that hundreds of its members and supporters are languishing and being tortured in PA jails.
Riyadh Al-Maliki, acting foreign minister of the Ramallah-based government, acknowledged that the PA security agencies were detaining hundreds of Hamas supporters and activists. However, he argued that they were not being detained for their political views or affiliations, but rather for "breaking the law and indulging in illegal and unlawful activities."
Al-Maliki didn’t specify these alleged violations, but Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo claimed that many of the detainees were suspected of possessing illegal arms and incitement against the government as well as endangering Palestinian national unity.
"This is a hogwash," says Hamas’s spokesman and lawmaker, Mushir Al-Masri. "If our brothers were in possession of illegal fire arms, they would have been arrested by the Israeli occupation army a long time ago."
"We are talking about hundreds of intellectuals, teachers, students and political activists. They are arresting everyone that took part in Hamas’s election campaign in 2006. They want to punish Hamas retrospectively. And, of course, they are doing this in close coordination and collusion with Israel," Al-Masri added.
"The PA and its leaders and spokespersons, " he charged, are "lying through their teeth."
In fact, the PA has been acting on the premise that Hamas, Israel’s ultimate foe, is an outlawed organisation throughout the West Bank whereby its supporters and members, barring a few leading political figures, are to be arrested, harassed, insulted and humiliated.
Two weeks ago, PA forces began, in coordination with the Israeli army, a ruthless and systematic campaign throughout the West Bank to eradicate Hamas’s political and cultural infrastructure. It is not certain that the campaign is meant to foil the Cairo talks. However, this has apparently been one of its consequences.
In the Hebron region, PA forces raided nearly every town, village, hamlet and refugee camp to arrest "wanted persons" and "fugitives", based on lists provided by the Shin Bet, Israel’s main domestic intelligence agency. The manner in which the arrests were carried out resembled routine Israeli operations throughout the West Bank.
It is not known exactly how many Hamas activists and supporters have been arrested in the latest — and continuing — campaign, code-named "Ishraqato Watan" (Sunrise of the Homeland). It is safe to assume, however, that the number is in the vicinity of 400-500, the bulk of whom remain in custody.
The sweeping nature of the arrests is revealed by the fact that the PA security agencies have resorted to renting homes and apartments, and even commercial stores and stalls, to house the detainees.
For example, in Taffuh, a Hebron suburb, a former aluminium workshop was converted into a makeshift lockup where dozens of Hamas activists from the region are incarcerated.
Last week, as many as 300 US-supplied four-wheel-drive vehicles, bearing the emblem of the PLO, raided villages and hamlets along the former armistice line west of Hebron. The troops, mostly armed with AK-47 machineguns raided the homes of Hamas activists, many of them veterans of Israeli jails and detention centres.
According to some of the detainees who have since been released, they were subject to severe beatings. They were also ridiculed for their religiosity.
"One of the soldiers told us he would release us if we memorised five chapters of the Quran. Another told us we would be freed if we say 'Peace be upon Mohamed’ a hundred times," intimated one of the detainees.
In many instances, the troops would enter living rooms with sniffing dogs, an insult in traditional communities.
Ninety per cent of detainees are political activists affiliated with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Three weeks ago, PA troops operating in the town of Yatta, south west of Hebron, reportedly arrested a well-known local Shin Bet agent. Within hours an Israeli coordination officer ordered Palestinian commanding officer Major General Diab Al Ali (aka Abul-Fatah), "to free our man because you are supposed only to arrest Hamas’s people."
Al-Ahram Weekly spoke with a number of detainees who have been released lately. They said they were questioned on their political affiliation and activities within Hamas. Some said they were asked to publicly renounce Hamas or accept to work as informers on Hamas activists in their local areas.
In many cases, Israeli forces would raid the same localities a few hours before or after the entry of PA troops.
Many ordinary Palestinians have begun calling the PA security forces omala, or Israeli collaborators. This is undoubtedly the worst insult a Palestinian would use. Others are making comparisons between the PA security apparatus and the defunct South Lebanese Army (SLA), the Israeli-backed militia that operated in Southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation in the 1980s and 1990s.
Last week, the leading news story on an Israeli TV channel was the PA crackdown on Hamas in the northern West Bank, with the news anchorman alerting viewers that, "this is not an IDF operation against terrorists in Judea and Samaria but rather Palestinian Authority troops storming Hamas activists’ homes."
In September, Palestinian security chiefs in the West Bank reportedly held a meeting with their Israeli "colleagues" and "counterparts" at the Jewish settlement of Beit El near Ramallah. According to Israeli journalist Nahom Barnea, who was allowed to attend the meeting, Abul-Fatah told Israeli army commanders that, "we are allies, not enemies" and that "we have one common enemy: it is called Hamas."
The PA leadership refused to comment on the embarrassing encounter. However, a prominent Fatah leader, Qaddura Fares, called the Palestinian security chiefs "traitors" and asked President Abbas to fire them immediately. Abbas ignored Fares’s remarks.
Some observers believe that the sweeping campaign against Hamas supporters in the West Bank is precisely aimed at foiling Egyptian efforts to bridge the chasm between Hamas and Fatah. The PA realises that rapprochement with Hamas would, sooner or later, instigate a crisis with Israel, and probably with the US administration.
Hence, the crackdown on Hamas appears aimed to achieve three goals for Fatah. First, blaming Hamas for the collapse of reconciliation talks, even before they begin. Second, maintaining Western backing. Third, relieving from Israel the burden of being an occupying power in the hope that the Jewish state would reward the PA in terms of political concessions that revive the latter’s legitimacy.
Observing Israeli behaviour, however, especially since the Oslo Accords 15 years ago, it is obvious that Israel has consistently viewed the PA as no more than a puppet or quisling entity. Indeed, the unmitigated expansion of Israeli colonies, especially in East Jerusalem, as well as the refusal of the Israeli army to relax its harsh measures against ordinary Palestinians, should leave none in doubt as to the status of the PA vis-à-vis the Jewish state.