Fatah's War on Hamas

On most mornings in early November, if you had stepped into the Delice café in Gaza City, you wouldn't have noticed anything unusual about the man chatting amiably at the corner table. He sipped his cappuccino, picked at his croissant and soaked up the daily gossip —which, in Gaza, invariably comes around to the rivalry between the Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah parties. The man casually urged other patrons to show up at an upcoming rally to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of Fatah founder Yasir Arafat. "It's one day of the year," he told the cafégoers. What he didn't tell them is that, for the past three years, he'd been working as an undercover agent for the pro-Fatah General Intelligence service.

Two days before the Nov. 12 rally, the operative—who agreed to speak to NEWSWEEK only if his name were withheld—swept through the coastal strip collecting yellow Fatah flags and kaffiyehs from friends and neighbors to hand out to the crowd. When the day arrived, a handful of Fatah supporters in the 250,000-strong crowd did their best to provoke the Hamas troops that had ringed the sandlot in pickup trucks, armed with Kalashnikovs. They climbed the minarets of the nearby Sheik Zaid Mosque, tore down the green Hamas flags fluttering there and replaced them with the yellow ones. Then, as the rally was coming to a close, the agent heard a sniper's bullet crack through the air above him. It hit a Fatah supporter leaning out a fifth-floor window in an abandoned cinder-block building that overlooked the rally. The wounded man tumbled headfirst out the window and slammed into the dirt below.

In the ensuing melee, seven protesters were killed and more than 100 were wounded—the worst outbreak of violence in Gaza since Hamas took over the coastal strip last June. The outcry was instantaneous. President Mahmoud Abbas vowed to "topple this gang," Amnesty International condemned the crackdown as "unwarranted" and Hamas saw its approval rating plunge to as low as 14 percent in some flash polls. The massive rally, organized by a range of Fatah loyalists, was held up as evidence of how sentiment in Gaza was turning against the Islamists. Less attention was paid to the role of the rally's Fatah organizers, who, in an ironic twist, now seem to be using classic guerrilla tactics to confront the former insurgents in Hamas. In his manual "Guerrilla Warfare: A Method," Che Guevara writes that "a dictatorship tries to function without resorting to force. Thus we must try to oblige the dictatorship to resort to violence, unmasking its true nature." Told his tactics were reminiscent of Che's, the Fatah intelligence officer replied boastfully: "Exactly. We're doing the same. When we tell people [Hamas is] bad, they don't believe us. They have to see it."

Abbas may have been talking peace at last month's summit in Annapolis, Md., but Fatah leaders have a war to fight at home. Any peace deal Abbas manages to negotiate will be virtually useless unless he can ensure Gaza is not used as a base for attacks against Israel. Toppling Hamas is probably impossible—the Islamists have a monopoly on force in Gaza. "There's no military solution," says Tawfiq Tirawi, the head of General Intelligence, adding that an Israeli invasion would also probably only rally Gazans around Hamas. That leaves Fatah's spooks in the unfamiliar role of provocateur—trying at least to weaken the Islamists in the eyes of the public. Tirawi thinks demonstrations may do the trick. "A few people start chanting," the spymaster says, "and then others start chanting without even thinking what they're saying."

In the West Bank, Tirawi's men can fight more openly. The intelligence chief says he's beefing up an elite unit of former naval paramilitaries—known as the Himaya force— to arrest Hamas activists and seize weapons. (More than 1,000 Hamas supporters have been detained since June; most have since been released.) As the Islamists are learning in Gaza, the hardball tactics are risky. Even some Fatah supporters blanched earlier this month when police opened fire on a rally in Ramallah organized by the Islamist Hizb et-Tahrir group, killing one. "These people don't know how to operate," says Jibril Rajoub, a former chief of Fatah-controlled Preventive Security. "Their fingers are too heavy on the triggers."

Tirawi—a slight man who favors beige sport coats and Gucci belts—doesn't look like a heavy. As a college student in Beirut he studied philosophy and psychology. (Freud's a favorite, he says.) Many of his troops have received training from their counterparts in the CIA. Yet the intel chief, who has been on the job for a month now, inherits a force renowned (and in many quarters, despised) for its repressive tactics. While Fatah's anti-Hamas campaign is necessarily milder in Gaza than the West Bank, Abbas has done little to ease the economic stranglehold Israel and the West have imposed on the coastal territory. Harsh measures, says Tirawi, are necessary. "You read British and American case studies, but the reality is different here," he says. "That's the ideal world. Few people can relate to it here."