Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gaza Street Battles Eclipse Talks ; Observers Say Street Violence - Not Fatah-Hamas Talks - May Decide the Balance of Power

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Gaza Street Battles Eclipse Talks ; Observers Say Street Violence - Not Fatah-Hamas Talks - May Decide the Balance of Power

Article excerpt

Gazans suffered through the deadliest spate of factional violence since the Islamic militant group Hamas swept to power last January, as 25 Palestinians died in clashes over the past four days.

The current round of violence comes after Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal failed to negotiate a deal last week in Damascus on a unity government.

But instead of serving as a catalyst to a new round of power- sharing talks, some observers are becoming convinced that the balance of power between the two political rivals is likely to be decided in the streets rather than the negotiating table.

"We are going from bad to worse. I'm not optimistic that the fighting will stop by this weekend. It will take a few weeks more," says Nashat Aqtash, a former media consultant to Hamas. "They are taking the long way, and are fighting to win. Winning means controlling the streets" or losing power altogether.

The recent upsurge started on Jan. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hamas's surprise trouncing of the secular Fatah Party in a parliamentary vote that gave the Islamic militants, which the US and Israel consider a terrorist organization, an unchallenged majority and exclusive control over Palestinian ministries.

The ongoing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank has already undermined efforts to mediate a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, which has been holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit since June. And in the absence of any restored stability, the street battles will likely sap US efforts to strengthen Mr. Abbas, a moderate backer of negotiations, by creating a political "horizon" for peace negotiations with Israel.

But despite reconciliation efforts led by Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the street battles are believed to be dictated by strongmen like Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of the Preventative Security force and Said Siam, the Hamas Interior Minister who controls the recently established "Executive Force."

Some 50 Palestinians were injured in clashes last week that centered around the headquarters of military forces linked with the rival parties. Meanwhile, dozens of figures in both Hamas and Fatah have been kidnapped. …

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