The rout of Fatah's military forces in Gaza was as sudden as it was unexpected. Only months ago the Palestinian movement summoned tens of thousands of supporters on to the streets, but yesterday Fatah officials were fleeing ignominiously in boats. The house of the Fatah commander Mohammed Dahlan, the chief hate figure of Islamists in Gaza, was stripped bare by looters and green flags were flying over the National Security headquarters, the residence of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Nobody could have been more surprised to find themselves controlling the streets of Gaza than Hamas. Just as they were unprepared for the victory they won in elections last year, Hamas must be waking up today and asking themselves a familiar question: what now?In other articles I had read that Hamas would score as well in elections as it did in the previous one. Nothing has happened to water down their democratic mandate as far as I can tell and yet there is no mention of either elections or the mandate arising out of the same whereas there is reference to Abbas's "authority."
There are no obvious or easy answers. The border crossings with both Egypt and Israel are closed. No aid can get in and an extended closure would rapidly lead to a food and medical crisis for the 1.4 million Palestinians penned up inside. Hamas said its forces would take up positions at the crossings, but neither Israel nor Egypt, which withdrew its mission to Gaza yesterday, is in any mood to let them. Hamas will need someone to negotiate on their behalf with Israel, which supplies both the water and electricity in Gaza. There are wider questions. Before this conflict started, two political grievances were unresolved by the Saudi-brokered Mecca agreement and the creation of the national unity government. They were the issues of who had control over Palestinian security forces and the question of Hamas's role within a reformed PLO. Control of Gaza could provide Hamas with more leverage in future negotiations, but in the immediate future neither of these two objectives is advanced. Nor does the creation of a mini-state, a Hamastan, make any sense to an Islamist movement with national Palestinian aspirations. If there was little chance of winning more support in the West Bank before this week's bloody events there will be even less chance now, when the air in Ramallah is thick with calls for revenge.
But the biggest question is the fundamental one. Without unity there is no chance of ending the occupation and achieving an independent Palestinian state. Without an end in sight, where is civil war taking the Palestinian people? Each question points to the same answer: fresh negotiations between Fatah and Hamas, and a new attempt to create a national unity government. But will Fatah be in any mood to talk to Hamas after its humiliation in Gaza? Hamas said it would grant an amnesty to senior Fatah officials it had captured, although members of its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, were reportedly searching houses in Khan Younis and Rafah for Fatah weapons. The Hamas spokesman Abu Obeideh said their battle was not with Fatah as a whole, but with the faction that "provided an external agenda" - a reference to Mr Dahlan's group, which has been armed by the US. The sweep against Fatah is a return match for a major crackdown that Fatah conducted against Hamas in 1996, but none of this will persuade Fatah to talk.
Mr Abbas's authority as president has been much weakened, but he has not lost all power. His declaration of a state of emergency and decision to fire the Hamas-led government will have no effect in Gaza. But the appointment of the economist Salam Fayyad as prime minister could well persuade Israel to release the funds that it has been withholding from the Palestinian Authority. With them could come money from the EU and donor countries. There can be no excuse to continue the international boycott of a government that no longer contains members of Hamas. This will mean that funds, denied to Gaza, will start flowing into the West Bank, widening the gulf between the two. Militarily Hamas have never been stronger, but politically they may well be in a weaker position than they think.
Now I don't know whether Hamas's victory was "pyrrhic" or not but I don't see how any article on this can refer to Abbas's "authority" without referring to Hamas's mandate.