Hamas and PLO battle for power in Gaza

Outside al-Sadiq mosque in Gaza City yesterday Kahlid el-Bach said he was starting, once again, to feel afraid. Three weeks after Israel pulled back its forces, the worshippers around him were talking of new oppression. 'The people are nervous. They think it's just the beginning,' said Mr Bach. The cause of the fear is a new order, issued in the name of a senior Palestinian police commander, banning political activity and the distribution of leaflets in all mosques in the south-east of Gaza.

The order is the first salvo in a battle for control of Gaza's mosques, the nerve-centres of political, social and religious power for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. The order is likely to have been directly approved by Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO. Evolution of Palestinian self-rule will be dominated by a power struggle between the PLO and Hamas, the main opposition grouping. It is now clear that this struggle is under way.

Hamas leaders say Mr Arafat also intends to send his own religious leaders from Egypt to take control of the mosques and to oust the Hamas imams. There is no evidence of this but such reports are raising doubts. 'Now the Israelis have gone, the people do not want conflict with our own police. But we are worried,' said Mr Bach.

Nobody expected the honeymoon with the Palestinian police in Gaza and Jericho to last. Hamas leaders knew Mr Arafat would use the police sooner or later to outmanoeuvre them. The movement is ready with its response. As a first step, Hamas leaders are proposing launching a political party for the first time since the movement was founded.

Since the Gaza-Jericho agreement became a fait accompli, the leadership has undergone a fundamental rethink of its strategy. Hamas has always aimed to establish an Islamic state in the whole of Palestine, including Israel proper, and this has not changed. However, the leadership is shifting its emphasis from the 'struggle' and talking instead of 'engaging' with Mr Arafat when he returns later this month to claim his autonomy prize.

The political party would not replace the religious, social or military structures of the movement. Rather, say the Hamas leaders, the political arm would allow the movement to become part of a broader opposition to the new Palestinian authority. While Hamas still insists its members would not stand in elections, its strategy is evolving so fast that this cannot be ruled out.

Hamas is ready to challenge the democratic and human-rights credentials of Mr Arafat. Leaders are already issuing warnings in Gaza that he will bring 'Algerian-style' democracy with him to Palestine. 'Maybe the new authority will implement the kind of democracy we have seen in Algeria and other Arab countries,' said Mussa abu Eta, another Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

Hamas is also looking to exploit the weakness of Mr Arafat's new administration to win support for its own social networks, which it is planning to expand with new orphanages, a hall for 'Islamic weddings and celebrations', new summer camps and Koran schools.

While insisting that military resistance against the Palestinian authority is out of the question, provocation may yet test this resolve. The mosques clamp-down is not the only sign in Gaza that Palestinian police are beginning to take off their gloves. Yesterday the Palestinian police took their second political prisoner.

The head of the Palestinian police, General Naser Yusef, has also clamped down on Hamas punishment of collaborators, and repeatedly threatened to disarm some of the militants. All these moves, say Hamas leaders, are 'red lines' which the Palestinian police must not cross.

JERICHO - Palestinians freed by Israel yesterday were stranded at the entrance to this self-rule zone by a dispute between Israel and PLO officials over terms of their peace deal, Reuter reports.

Palestinians said PLO police stopped busloads of prisoners in protest at Israel's insistence that they be confined to the self-rule zone rather than released to their homes elsewhere in the West Bank.

(Photograph omitted)

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