Palestinian politics is approaching the point of no return. The power struggle between the Islamist Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his secular and nationalist Fatah movement is intensifying, with tensions breaking into outright combat.
Since Hamas was founded in the early 1980s, it has refused to come under the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas' victory in the parliamentary election earlier this year -- a democratic watershed -- demonstrated that it had come of age politically. For the first time in Palestinian history, a religious party is dominant. But Fatah has not accepted defeat, while Hamas is convinced that elements within Fatah agree with Israeli and US plans to topple the Hamas government.
Abbas remains the Palestinian president, and the Basic Law makes him commander of all Palestinian security forces. However, while most official security forces remain loyal to him, over the past year Hamas has created an alternative security structure, built around a 4000-member "Operational Force." Moreover, Hamas has announced plans to recruit 1,500 additional security personnel for the West Bank, Fatah's stronghold. In recent weeks, the two sides have clashed frequently across the Gaza strip, heightening tensions further.
The confrontations have come at a time when Abbas has been trying to persuade Hamas to moderate its anti-Israel stance and ally with Fatah in a national unity government. Abbas believes that Hamas' acceptance of negotiations with Israel is the only way to break the international sanctions that are devastating Palestinian society.
Despite this, both sides are building up their forces. Intelligence reports suggest that Hamas is smuggling weapons and explosives from the Sinai into the Gaza Strip at an accelerated pace. The US, Israel and some Arab governments plan to arm and train forces loyal to Abbas, especially his presidential guard. They want to prepare Abbas' forces in Gaza for a confrontation with Hamas, which they believe is inevitable.
Israel is considering Abbas' request to transfer arms and ammunitions from Egypt and Jordan in hopes of bolstering his loyalist forces. There is also a US proposal to allow the Badr Brigade -- a wing of the Palestine Liberation Army that is stationed in Jordan -- to relocate to the Palestinian territories as Abbas' rapid reaction force in Gaza in anticipation of a feared civil war. The Badr Brigade is composed of several thousand Palestinians, mostly long-time PLO activists.
As the maneuvering continues, Israel and Egypt find themselves working together to bolster Abbas and Fatah. With the Gaza Strip in its backyard, Egypt has already mediated several times between Hamas and Fatah, and has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to arrange a swap of prisoners with Israel following Hamas' abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
But Egypt's government is angry with Hamas for opposing the formation of a coalition government. Indeed, the seizure of Shalit deepened the rift between Hamas and Fatah, which believes that the abduction was staged in order to sabotage discussions for a national unity government.
More generally, Egypt is concerned that Gaza is becoming politically radicalized and may be transformed into "Hamastan." This, Egypt fears, would give a boost to its own Islamic radicals, against which the government has long fought.