Gaza: The jailed state

The world cannot afford to stand by while the Israeli army and Palestinian militias fight their unwi

As hundreds of Israeli families leave the town of Sderot in southern Israel to escape Hamas-designed Qassam rockets and mortars, Palestinians in turn are fleeing the wrath of Israeli air strikes on Gaza, which in the past week have killed more than 30 people, many of them civilians. This latest bloodshed in the besieged Gaza Strip comes hard on the heels of deadly inter-Palestinian battles between Hamas and Fatah that Palestinian security forces have been unable to contain.

These events leave the impression that the political leadership within the unity government has neither the will nor the capability to enforce a ceasefire and maintain its effectiveness. Some within Hamas are even saying that it would be in the interests of the Palestinian people to dissolve the Palestinian Authority here and now, because it has proved incapable of alleviating the Palestinians' misery or finding an enduring solution to the conflict with Israel.

While leaders of Fatah and Hamas are united in making strides towards reconciliation, the resistance shown by their supporters has forced Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and President Mahmoud Abbas to order the training of large numbers of police and army to secure the borders and bring order to the unruly state.

The government of national unity had been seriously weakened by the resignation of the Palestinian interior minister, Hani al-Qawasmi. Selected for the key post because he was independent of both groups, Qawasmi believed he had been rendered powerless to implement measures agreed in Mecca on 8 February 2007 in a signed deal between Fatah and Hamas sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The emergency summit had been called by King Abdullah following heavy fighting between Hamas and Fatah factions that had claimed about a hundred Palestinian lives.

During the Mecca summit, the king asked Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, why his movement couldn't recognise the State of Israel. Meshal's response was that this standpoint was not that of Hamas, but of the higher leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the worldwide Islamist movement. Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes that the land of Palestine is held under an Islamic waqf - meaning that no Palestinian, whatever his position, has the right to relinquish any part of it to non-Muslims. For this reason, Hamas has always spoken of relations with the Israelis in terms of a long truce, or what in Arabic is called a hudna.

When the obdurate non-acceptance of Israel led the international community to enforce sanctions against the Hamas-led government, the Palestinian population paid a high price. Some 70 per cent live below the poverty line and many rely heavily on handouts from the United Nations and international aid organisations. Many had been clinging to the hope that the recently formed unity government would revive international confidence in Palestinian governance and lead to the lifting of sanctions.

But Hamas's landslide victory in January 2006 had empowered its leaders to assume that they were not obliged to listen to other voices within Palestinian society. Cronyism and favouritism were the selection processes by which unqualified people were appointed to plum jobs. Freih Abu Middein, a former minister, well-known lawyer and leader of one of Gaza's largest clans, described the level of corruption within the Hamas movement after one year in office as being on a par with that of the much-maligned Fatah administration.

There was no improvement in services or lifestyle. Salaries were paid only in the first two or three months, and then they dried up. This alienated many Palestinians who felt that Hamas was not taking on board their concerns about the movement's handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They believed Hamas had to deal with the reality on the ground - that Israel, like it or not, exists. This is borne out each day as Palestinians undergo rigorous checks at the border. European observers may control the checkpoints, but Israelis monitor from a distance. And Israel has overall authority for the checkpoints, which are being closed several times a week.

As if all this weren't enough, al-Qaeda has emerged in the theatre of Gaza. In a video released and broadcast by al-Jazeera, al-Tawhid wa'al-Jihad - an al-Qaeda affiliate and the kidnap group that has held the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in Gaza for more than two months - demanded the release of al-Qaeda activists. Its list included Abu Qatada, the militant Palestinian-Jordanian imprisoned in the UK and described as Osama Bin Laden's man in Europe, and Sajida al-Rishawi, the Iraqi woman who played a role in the bombing campaign that targeted Jordanian hotels in late 2005.

Johnston's kidnappers gave a glimmer of hope to family and friends when they used the password "Mombasa", the name of Johnston's cat. It appears he is being held by the same group that held two Fox News journalists to ransom in 2006. They were released after two weeks.

But the demands made for Johnston's release, the style of the video and other tactics bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda's operations worldwide. The video has confirmed fears that al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the chaos and lawlessness to extend its reach into the Palestinian territories, and specifically the Gaza Strip.

A likely point of entry is the sprawling secret tunnel network connecting Egypt with Gaza. More than a year ago, Mahmoud Abbas sounded warning bells that al-Qaeda was becoming active in small cells in Gaza. Palestinians do not welcome the idea of extreme elements on their soil, as they wish their fight to remain within the boundaries of the Palestinian territories.

One name widely talked about in connection with the kidnapping of the British journalist is that of Dagmoush, a clan once allied to Hamas. But, according to sources, Mumtaz Dagmoush, one of the clan's leaders, has recently switched allegiance to Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. His close relationship with Hamas was severed after a Hamas activist killed a member of his immediate family. In revenge, Dagmoush threatened to reveal information about the dirty jobs carried out on behalf of Hamas, including the murder of Moussa Arafat, head of Palestinian military intelligence, killed in a raid on his house in Gaza in 2005.

The government of national unity has been much criticised for its response to the Johnston kidnapping, in particular its failure to make make Dagmoush feel under any kind of pressure. In the light of both this and the deteriorating relationship between Hamas and Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas is likely to feel that he has no option but to dissolve the parliament and call an election for both parliament and the presidency. Such a move would have to be approved by both Fatah and Hamas, otherwise Gaza and the West Bank could all too easily face a situation similar to the one in Somalia, where clans and warlords hold sway and determine the daily life of the people.

This places a heavy duty on the international community to address the chaos. The effects of the situation in Gaza could reach far beyond the confines of the Palestinian territories. There is considerable peril in allowing al-Qaeda's newest recruits to operate in Gaza.

The Palestinians urgently need international financial support and a just solution to their crisis. Recent fighting in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and affiliates of al-Qaeda (led by a Palestinian) has already claimed the lives of nearly a hundred civilians and soldiers. Al-Qaeda's new allies in Gaza are banking on the desperation of Palestinians inside the occupied territories to spread throughout the region.

Zaki Chehab is the author of "Inside Hamas" (published by I B Tauris in the UK and by Nation Books in the US)

Key dates in history of the Gaza Strip
Research by Shabeeh Abbas

1949 Egypt occupies strip following 1948 Arab-Israeli War

1956 Occupied by Israel after Suez War, in which Israel, France and Britain attack Egypt. International pressure forces Israel to withdraw in 1957

1967 Recaptured by Israel in Six Day War. United Nations calls on Israel to withdraw

1970 First Jewish settlement in Gaza

1987 First Intifada. Hamas is formed

1993 Oslo Accords. First Intifada ends. Palestinian Authority takes control of strip

2000 Ariel Sharon visits al-Aqsa Mosque, sparking the Second Intifada

2005 Israel withdraws troops but maintains control of the strip's borders and airspace

2006 Hamas wins elections. Crippling economic sanctions imposed on new government because of its refusal to renounce violence and recognise Israel. Clashes between Hamas and Fatah militants become commonplace

2007 Fatah and Hamas form unity government but fail to prevent factional fighting. Israeli air strikes continue to kill civilians