Jerusalem The Palestinian militant groups who carried out the attack Thursday night in the Gaza Strip that killed six Israeli civilians said they had been planning the assault for weeks. But the timing is not coincidental: it is the first major challenge by armed groups to the newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Close to 11pm militants detonated more than 100 kg of explosives that blew a large hole in the security wall at the Karni crossing on the border between Israel and Gaza through which merchandise and goods are moved. Three gunmen then forged through the hole, shooting and tossing grenades. Israeli guards killed all three.
Israel immediately closed the crossing, as well as two other border points in Gaza, one in the north that connects to Israel and one in the south that connects to Egypt.
Abbas will be particularly concerned that the attack was carried out jointly by different groups including the Islamic Hamas movement which boycotted the Palestinian elections Jan. 9, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades associated with the new Palestinian leader’s ruling Fatah party.
Throughout his election campaign Abbas had reiterated his call for an end to attacks on Israelis, believing that these undermine the Palestinian cause. On Friday he condemned the Gaza attack as well as Israeli military action. "These attacks (at Karni) and what Israel did last week by killing nine Palestinians do not benefit peace," he told reporters.
But Abbas has insisted he will not accede to Israeli and U.S. demands that he use force to crush armed groups. He says he prefers to employ dialogue to get militants to agree to a ceasefire. Ultimately, Abbas wants to coopt militants rather than lock them up.
He hopes Hamas will join the political process by participating in Palestinian parliamentary elections in July, and he would like to give jobs back to some of the al-Aqsa militants who once worked in the Palestinian security forces. One message of Thursday’s attack was that the armed groups will not be easily tamed or bought off by Abbas.
Truce talks involving the various Palestinian factions are planned in Cairo in a few weeks time, but what is now unraveling in the occupied territories is a battle of will between Abbas and the armed groups.
Despite the joint attack, these groups do not always have common interests and goals. For Hamas, continuing attacks is a way of negotiating with Abbas over the terms of a truce: the organization wants to ensure it has a role in the running of Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal planned to begin in July. It also wants to send the message that it has no intention of disarming, even in the event of a ceasefire.
The participation of the al-Aqsa Brigades in the Thursday night attack can also be seen as part of the power struggle under way over positions in the Palestinian security bodies that Abbas is about to reorganize.
Under Arafat there were 12 different security arms, but Abbas has pledged to reform this chaotic structure a major demand of the Americans and Israel and to set up three armed forces under a single command. With an announcement expected in the coming days over how the forces will be restructured, security heads within the Palestinian Authority and the heads of the armed factions within Fatah have been jockeying for influence.
Israeli leaders have said in recent days that Abbas will be judged by his ability to subdue armed groups. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Thursday that the test for the new Palestinian leader would be "whether he has the will and determination to bring Palestinian terror to an end."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will only return to the negotiating table if the Palestinians move against armed groups. He is skeptical about Abbas’ efforts at dialogue with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Brigades. But Israel is unlikely to launch a harsh response to the latest attack, in part because it does not want to be seen to be undermining Abbas, who is viewed in Washington as a moderate and pragmatic leader.
Israeli justice minister Tzippi Livni said Friday that "in order to try to prevent the next attack, we have to try and strengthen Abu Mazen (Abbas) as a leader, based on the assumption that he can control the terror groups."
The attack must also be viewed against the backdrop of Sharon’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and to remove all 21 settlements there. Militant groups are anxious to portray an Israeli pullout as their victory, and have been escalating attacks in recent weeks, including the firing of mortar shells at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, and makeshift rockets at an Israeli town close to Gaza.
The enormity of Abbas’ task was underlined Friday when several thousand people turned out for a march in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza in support of the Karni crossing attack. If, however, Abbas is able to convince the militants to hold their fire, and Israel ceases military action, pressure on him from Israel and the United States to take more forceful action is likely to subside.
But recent history is not on his side. His previous attempt at forging a truce when he was prime minister briefly in 2003 was ultimately abortive. After a ceasefire was declared by Palestinian groups, it fell apart amid renewed attacks and renewed Israeli military action.
The new Palestinian leader is convinced that the best way to achieve Palestinian national aspirations is by ending violence and negotiating with Israel. Can he now convince his people and the armed groups that have spearheaded the Intifada uprising that he is right?