The conflict between Hamas and Fateh, the two largest Palestinian political movements, has its roots in the 1993 Oslo peace accord with Israel. At that time, Palestine Liberation Organization and Fateh leader Yasser Arafat’s interim agreement with Israel was rejected by the comparatively-new Hamas movement.
Hamas - the Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement” - emerged in 1987 at the beginning of the first intifada or uprising. The movement’s goal was one state in the whole of historic Palestine. Not party to the PLO umbrella group or its peace agreement with Israel, Hamas announced it would continue the struggle against Israelzzz*zs occupation. It subsequently became the main opposition of the interim government in the occupied Palestinian territories, the Palestinian Authority or PA.
Tensions between the two movements increased in the mid-90s when Hamas embarked on a series of bomb attacks inside Israel. This campaign began in response to the March 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in Hebron. Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-American settler, army reservist and member of the Jewish extremist Kach movement shot dead at least 29 Palestinian worshipers at prayer in the mosque.
Two weeks later, on April 6, 1994, a Hamas operative on a bus in the lower Galilee town of Afula set off a bomb, killing nine (including himself). This was repeated in Hadera, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities. The PA under Yasser Arafat (elected president in 1996) relented to Israeli and American pressure to declare Hamas illegal and track down and arrest its members, along with members of Islamic Jihad, which also participated in the bombing campaign.
In 1997, Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was released by Israel in a prisoner exchange deal involving Jordan. Yassin sought to ease tensions between Hamas and the PA, was widely admired, and - much like Arafat - seen as a national figure transcending political factions. The invalid sheikh was later killed by an Israeli missile attack in Gaza on a crowd emerging from morning prayers. The assassination also claimed nine other victims.
THE SECOND INTIFADA
With the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, tensions between Fateh and Hamas eased. The armed wings of both factions began launching armed operations against Israel. Fatehzzz*zs attacks were spearheaded by the new group, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which sprang up at the start of the second intifada. (The relationship of the chaotic al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to the formal Fateh movement is complex and debated, however, al-Aqsa fighters are certainly Fateh members or at least sympathetic.)
In November 2004, Yasser Arafat died after a long Israeli siege of his Ramallah headquarters. Fateh’s new leader Mahmoud Abbas was elected as the second president of the PA in January 2005. Hamas boycotted this election, citing their rejection of the Oslo agreements that led to the establishment of the PA (mainly because they included recognition of Israel without reciprocal recognition of a Palestinian state).
The Sharm al-Sheikh Summit of February 2005 is sometimes regarded as the end of the second intifada. President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formally agreed to a mutual cessation of violence. In March 2005 a conference of Palestinian national dialogue was held in Egypt to consolidate this ceasefire, with the participation of Abbas and representatives from 13 Palestinian political and military factions. The result was the "Cairo Declaration".
Signatories promised to maintain the truce, conditional on a halt to all forms of Israeli aggression. In exchange, Hamas received commitments for a reform of the now largely defunct PLO (its role had been overshadowed by the PA since 1993). The declaration called for a "reactivation" of the PLO integrating Hamas and Islamic Jihad (“all the Palestinian powers and factions”). This reform was never implemented and remains a Hamas demand.
Implicit in the Cairo agreement was Hamaszzz*z intention to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections, thus joining in the Palestinian political process for the first time.
Hamas had already relaxed its elections boycott by participating in student and local council elections. The movement committed itself to running in the second Palestinian legislative elections of January 25, 2006 after the Cairo declaration stipulated important electoral reforms, including a proportional representation system.
Hamas, running as the “Change and Reform” list, won a substantial majority of seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council, with Fateh in second place. While Hamas initially sought to share power in a coalition government, all other factions refused. Hamas formed a government alone in March.
Now Fateh controlled the presidency (in Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas controlled both the legislative branch (the PLC) and the cabinet, led by new Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
After 13 years of running the PA alone, suddenly the Fateh movement found itself out of power. Since the 1960s, it had dominated the PLO and led the Palestinian national struggle. And as the Hamas government took office, an internal PA rebellion began. Leading Fateh members refused to hand over the levers of power.
Most contentious was who controlled the many Palestinian security agencies, such as the police force. These had been delegated to the cabinet under Abbas, but with Hamas in control, such powers were effectively revoked. Increasingly, power was centralized under the president, in effect undoing years of international intervention with Arafat and Abbas for more transparent government.
In May 2006, the Hamas-led government established its own police entity, the Executive Force. Operating in the Gaza Strip, the Executive Force was run by minister Said Sayam (killed by Israel in January 2009). International and Israeli media reported that substantial US military aid was going to elements of the Fateh security forces via Egypt, Jordan and Israel, especially those associated with Fateh “strongman” Mohammed Dahlan (instrumental in the PA’s mid-90s campaign against Hamas). Secret documents published in Vanity Fair magazine confirmed covert US plans to topple the elected Hamas government.
Hamas accused Fateh of collaboration with Israel and the US. Fateh, on the other hand, blamed Hamas for an international aid blockade that stopped much donor funding, criminalized bank transfers to Palestinian ministries, and allowed Israel to stop transferring taxes collected on behalf of the PA. Public sector workers went on strike to protest the lack of wages, but Hamas accused them of forwarding Fatehzzz*zs agenda.
Beginning in May 2006, the dispute became violent. The Executive Force and elements of the Fateh-controlled security services clashed on the streets of Gaza, resulting in many deaths and injuries, including those of unarmed bystanders.
In May, leading Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails reached an agreement named “the national reconciliation document” (also known as “the prisoners’ document”, and amended in June). The paper was drafted by five top Palestinian prisoners representing the main armed factions: Hamas, Fateh, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The prisoners’ document took the Cairo declaration as its starting point. It reiterated calls for reform (using Fatehzzz*zs language of "activating" instead of Hamaszzz*zs "restructuring") of the PLO. It also called for a national unity government on the basis of parliamentary representation. Responsibility for negotiations with Israel was to remain with the president. Abbas responded to the document by suggesting he would use it as the basis of a referendum on a final status agreement with Israel. This caused the Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners to withdraw their names from the document.
The bloody internal clashes heightened calls for national unity, and eventually Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah attempted to negotiate national reconciliation in Mecca. Abbas and Dahlan on behalf of Fateh, and Haniyeh with Khalid Meshal of Hamas eventually signed an agreement on February 8, 2007. The Mecca agreement called for an end to internal Palestinian violence and a national unity government including ministers from Hamas, Fateh and other factions.
Although it was formed, and even formally recognized by one western nation (Norway), the unity government soon fell apart after more violent clashes in Gaza. The final rift came on June 14, 2007 when Hamas took control of the whole Gaza Strip in what it described as a preemptive strike against those elements of Fateh acting to overthrow the Hamas-led government. Fateh in turn took control of the West Bank and Abbas dismissed the unity government, setting up a new emergency cabinet that excluded Hamas. It was led by former World Bank and International Monetary Fund official Salam Fayyad.
There were now effectively two Palestinian cabinets, one in Gaza and one in Ramallah. Both claimed to be the legitimate government. Each denounced the other as a coup against the legitimate government.
Despite later attempts at national reconciliation, including Yemeni, Arab League and Egyptian initiatives, the divide between the respective West Bank and Gaza Strip governments remains. Hamas says Mahmoud Abbas’s four-year term as president expired on January 9, 2009, although his supporters argue that his term will not end until new presidential and legislative elections can be held.
In Ramallah, the Fayyad government remains in power, appointed by presidential order. Since Hamas took power in Gaza, its West Bank leadership has been driven underground, subject to arrest by both Israeli and Palestinian security forces.