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Palestinian Rift In The West Bank Intensifies

Palestinian police hold a position during clashes with Hamas fighters in the northern West Bank city of Qalqilya on June 4.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh
AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian police hold a position during clashes with Hamas fighters in the northern West Bank city of Qalqilya on June 4.

Increasing tensions between rival Palestinian factions in the West Bank have turned violent. Fatah leaders say Hamas is plotting to take over the West Bank by force — in a move similar to events in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas fighters overwhelmed Fatah forces.

Ahmed Shreen, the Fatah representative in the West Bank city of Qalqilya, says that Hamas militants are stockpiling weapons in the city.

"The Hamas leadership wants to take over the West Bank, and the proof is that we have discovered large weapons caches right here in Qalqilya in Hamas areas," Shreen says.

In 2007, bloody clashes broke out between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza, ending in a major defeat for Fatah. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, while Fatah retained control in the West Bank.

The two groups have fundamentally different views on how to deal with Israel. Hamas — which Israel, the U.S. and other Western countries consider a terrorist organization — refuses to recognize Israel and insists on armed resistance. Fatah, which heads the Palestinian Authority, has acknowledged Israel's right to exist and has engaged in almost two decades of peace negotiations.

The two Palestinian factions have held several rounds of talks in Cairo aimed at forming a unity government, but Fatah's Shreen says a deal with Hamas is unlikely.

"The possibility of a solution is very remote, even though we have put all our efforts into dialogue with Hamas. What I'm worried about is that while they are talking in Cairo, Hamas will be planning the coup in the West Bank," he says.

Fatah Crackdown Leaves Nine Dead

Now, though, it is the Fatah-dominated security forces that have been cracking down on Hamas fighters in the West Bank.

Over the past few weeks, Palestinian Authority security forces have fought two gun battles with Hamas militants in Qalqilya. Nine people have been killed, including four Hamas fighters and four Palestinian Authority policemen.

Qalqilya Mayor Wajia Qawais is a member of Hamas. One of his nephews was among the Hamas members killed in the shootouts.

"Qalqilya is going through a very tense period, which has brought pain to all the citizens. ... There are big and crucial differences between the different factions," he says.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ihab Al-Ghussain alleges that Fatah is doing the bidding of the Israeli occupiers.

"They are continuously arresting our men in the West Bank. They committed an awful crime against a group who were fighting the Israelis for more than six years. The Israelis couldn't capture them, so the Palestinian security forces did the Israelis' dirty work and assassinated them," Ghussain says.

The Obama administration has called on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on militants and enforce the rule of law. Some analysts say that the renewed raids on Hamas fighters are an attempt by the Palestinian Authority to show that it is heeding that call, in advance of the possible resumption of peace talks with the Israelis.

Residents Fearful, Say Infighting Only Hurts Palestinians

On the streets of Qalqilya, there is fear. Few people want to talk publicly about the clashes.

Residents say privately that they are worried that all-out war could break out between the two sides.

One resident who consented to speak, Abu Ahmed, says that's a real concern here.

"People are very angry about what happened. People do not want resistance fighters like those Hamas men to be killed. At the same time, people do not want chaos; we want the rule of law. The Hamas fighters are from our families. The Fatah policemen are from our families, too," he says.

He says the people want the power struggle between the two groups to stop. This infighting, he says, only hurts the Palestinian people and helps the Israeli occupation.

At a nearby house, the mother of one of the slain Hamas fighters sits with other female relatives. Raba al-Qawais says her son was initially taught to be a fighter by members of Fatah.

"Fatah is the foundation of the resistance in Palestinian society. Now they have sold out and they have betrayed the young men who followed them. This is what happened to my son," she says.

She says she thought he'd die in battle with Israelis, not at the hands of fellow Palestinians.

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