Friday, September 14, 2007

Gaza Events Thwart Hamas-Fatah Cooperation in Lebanon

Defying the rules of nature, the sound of bullets fired last June in Gaza was clearly heard hundreds of miles away in Lebanon. Defying the rules of nature, the sound of bullets fired last June in Gaza was clearly heard hundreds of miles away in Lebanon. In the past two months it has become clear that Hamas' victory in the Gaza Strip has thwarted an initiative to unify the activities of the Palestinian factions operating in Lebanon. On June 15 Hamas concluded a six-day armed operation during which it seized all the Palestinian Authority's institutions in the Gaza Strip. The already existing hostility between Hamas and Fatah had climaxed, damaging also the fragile cooperation between the two movements in Lebanon. At the beginning of 2007 a previously unknown armed group called Fatah Al-Islam began to develop in Nahr Al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. This was a few months before the deadly eruption of violence, which claimed the lives of hundreds in the refugee camp. But even during these early stages the potential for violence was apparent and all the Palestinian factions in Lebanon, including Fatah and Hamas, formed a joint follow-up committee to discuss the unfolding predicament. In February 2007 the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization, 'Abbas Zaki, gave an interview to the Hamas-run magazine Filastin Al-Muslima (FM). Zaki, who is a member of Fatah's Central Committee, told FM he believed all the Palestinian factions in Lebanon would soon be assembled under one umbrella and cited the Nahr Al-Bared committee as a successful precedent. "When this new phenomenon of Fatah Al-Islam appeared in Nahr Al-Bared, all the Palestinian factions met to discuss the issue. What is easier than to meet and find common grounds?" Zaki asked then. Zaki went on to say that in the coming sessions of the committee, an attempt would be made to form a new "national council" and to elect an executive committee for the benefit of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees are living today in Lebanon in terrible conditions. They are not allowed to own property or to become Lebanese citizens. They are barred from practicing dozens of professions, including law, engineering and medicine. They are denied access to the Lebanese healthcare system, and are even denied access to the national phone network. These refugees are waiting for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement which would allow them to return to their homeland. But the problem of the refugees is one of the most complicated issues on the negotiating table and a solution is almost inconceivable. So, while the right of return is high on the list of their priorities, the refugees' every-day lives are of much greater concern to them. The establishment of a joint cross-factional activity vis-à-vis the Lebanese authorities, is therefore very important. On June 14, one day before Hamas completed its takeover in Gaza, Zaki changed his tone. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Zaki still maintained that the Nahr Al-Bared follow-up committee would be able to continue its activity, but only after Hamas deferred to the authority of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud 'Abbas. When it was clear that Hamas was not going to cave in, the consequences in the Lebanese arena were quick to follow. "Since the Gaza coup, all direct contacts with Hamas' representative [Osama Hamdan] have ceased," Zaki told The Media Line in an exclusive interview. "I will not meet with him until Hamas withdraws, the Palestinian Authority's institutions are restored and the perpetrators of the crimes against the Palestinian people are punished," Zaki added. Zaki explained that the joint committee had already begun to supervise various matters concerning the Palestinian refugees in the social, economic and security fields. The committee had even sent joint delegations to the Lebanese prime minister, the army and the ministry of defense. "There must be here a unified Palestinian stand; we must not have political disputes among us. We must concentrate on the needs of our people in the refugee camps, who are living in hard conditions," Zaki said. But despite this enthusiastic call for unity, the Gaza events still echoed in Zaki's words. "We open the door to all the Palestinian factions to cooperate with us, except for Hamas," he concluded. Given recent events, the effectiveness of a joint committee might never be revealed. What is clear, however, is the committee's performance until now. "In retrospect, clearly it was not effective," Dr. Karim Maqdisi of the American University in Beirut told The Media Line. According to Maqdisi, the short-lived committee did not improve on the Palestinian leadership's overall performance over the last few decades. "On the ground they have all done quite a bad job in terms of taking care of their own people in the camps. "There has not been any unified Palestinian leadership in Lebanon that has been able to focus on the special needs of the Palestinians here," Maqdisi said. He added that one could not find a fundamental difference between Hamas and Fatah in Lebanon, as both strive toward the main goal, which is the right of return. "But in the meantime people are miserable in their everyday lives, and all the Palestinian representatives here are failing in alleviating this humanitarian condition," Maqdisi concluded.

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