your connection to The Boston Globe

Poor leadership cited in Fatah's failure

Fighters were outgunned by smaller Hamas

Critics say Mahmoud Abbas has been too indecisive. Critics say Mahmoud Abbas has been too indecisive.

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Fatah's old demons -- lack of leadership, petty quarreling, corruption -- are being blamed for its dismal showing in the fight against Hamas in Gaza.

While the disciplined Hamas systematically built and hoarded weapons, Palestinian observers pointed out, Fatah failed to prepare in time for the inevitable showdown with the Islamic militants. In this week's fighting, disorganized Fatah fighters were outgunned and overrun by the smaller Hamas.

Many angry West Bankers, watching the fall of Gaza on their TV screens, pinned the blame on Fatah's leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, seen as far too indecisive and detached to lead a countercharge against Hamas.

On Wednesday, even as Hamas besieged his forces in Gaza, Abbas still tried to strike a neutral presidential pose, blaming both sides for the violence. A day later, as the Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza City came under heavy fire, he hesitated before sending his Presidential Guard as a backup; an hour later, Hamas captured the strategic compound.

"This wouldn't have happened under Abu Ammar," was a common living room lament yesterday -- a reference to Yasser Arafat, Fatah's legendary founder and Abbas's predecessor.

When Hamas launched its assault on Fatah's security compounds in Gaza this week, no prominent Fatah leader was in the coastal strip to take command.

Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who had been Fatah's main hope for fending off Hamas, was on extended leave in Egypt for a knee injury, and even before then, had spent much of his time dabbling in West Bank politics. Fatah's top security official for Gaza, Rashid Abu Shbak, moved to the West Bank last month after Hamas attacked his home in Gaza.

He joined one of Dahlan's lieutenants, Samir Masharawi, who had already set up house in Ramallah several months earlier. The local Fatah chiefs left in Gaza didn't have enough experience to fill the void.

The arsenals of Hamas and Fatah are difficult to assess because of the secrecy surrounding the arms buildup in Gaza. Both sides have been smuggling weapons through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, while Hamas, which is backed by Iran, also runs a flourishing homegrown weapons industry, producing mortars, rockets, and grenades.

Fatah has more fighters, but Hamas gunmen are better trained. In recent days, Hamas also gained a definite advantage by seizing weapons and ammunition from captured Fatah positions.

Yet in the end, it came down to mind-set, not hardware. "Hamas has leadership, a goal, an ideology and funding," said Gaza analyst Talal Okal. "Fatah has neither leadership, nor a goal, a vision or money."

Left without a central command or plan, Fatah forces quickly disintegrated. In some cases, reinforcements were sent too late, or couldn't get through Hamas roadblocks. At the northern security headquarters, which fell Tuesday, Fatah fighters said they had only two ammunition clips each, while being pounded with Hamas mortars.

Hamas, on the other hand, moved step by step, taking over outlying posts before zeroing in on the major targets, Fatah's four security headquarters in Gaza City. A battle can't be fought by mobile phone, complained Fathi Kader, a colonel in the Palestinian police, referring to Fatah's far-away leaders.

Hamas fighters are driven by fundamentalist faith, but also by a desire for revenge. During 12 years in power, Fatah had repeatedly cracked down on the Islamists, including in 1996 when the Preventive Security Service, then led by Dahlan, arrested Hamas leaders and shaved their beards in an act of humiliation.

Hamas fighters kissed the ground after capturing the Preventive Security headquarters yesterday and then executed several security agents in nearby sand dunes, witnesses said.

In contrast, one of the leaders of a 1,500-strong Fatah militia, set up in February as a counterweight to Hamas, simply left for Egypt before this week's decisive round, apparently because he hadn't been paid. In recent years, Fatah fighters have also sold weapons to Hamas for profit, according to Issam Abu Bakr, a party leader in the West Bank city of Nablus.

The stage for this week's defeat in Gaza was set years ago, when Fatah leaders failed to heed warnings that the party's corruption and arrogance were alienating voters. Such sentiments, along with the 2004 death of Arafat, brought Hamas to power in 2006. But even after its crushing defeat, Fatah failed to reform or resign itself to being in the opposition.

"Fatah has been disintegrating for a while, and no real attempt was made to renew the leadership," said West Bank analyst Said Zeedani. Instead, Fatah's activists were entangled in petty power struggles.

Abu Bakr, the Fatah leader in Nablus, said he hoped Fatah's routing in Gaza would be a wake-up call for his movement.