First, Hamas militiamen were filmed beating guests at a bachelor party. Then, the deposed Hamas prime minister claimed Fatah forces had tortured a Hamas activist to death, only to have the prisoner, very much alive, presented in a TV broadcast.
The power struggle between the Palestinian rivals over image and credibility is increasingly playing out on TV screens. The two clips, broadcast repeatedly on Fatah-affiliated Palestine TV, were the talk of the Palestinian territories Saturday.
In the case of the erroneous death claim, Hamas might have been set up by the Fatah-allied intelligence service — a measure of how desperate both sides are to discredit each other and how deep the animosity runs between them after Hamas seized Gaza by force in June.
Weight of public opinion
Even though polls indicate Palestinians are becoming more and more disillusioned with their two main parties after months of infighting, public opinion still has its weight.
“It brought Hamas to power and it can bring Fatah back,” said Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib.
The latest round of claims and counterclaims began Friday with a bachelor party for a Fatah supporter in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.
The groom had set up a small outdoor stage and rows of plastic chairs alongside a road in town. Fatah songs in praise of its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, and his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, blared from loudspeakers, and young men danced on stage.
A camera set up on a roof on the opposite side of the road was trained on the stage, occasionally moving to the right for a wider view. The celebration appeared to be almost over and guests had begun leaving when four jeeps carrying members of the Hamas police, or Executive Force, drove toward the stage at high speed.
The armed men jumped off, assault rifles raised. Some fired in the air, others wielded clubs as they walked toward the guests. Several Hamas policemen were seen clubbing guests or hurling chairs. As the police left, one man lay unconscious on stage and bystanders tried to move him.
Later, some 150 women and youngsters from Beit Hanoun marched to the nearby Hamas police station, and scuffling and shouting matches ensued, witnesses said.
Medics said 10 people suffered beating injuries in both clashes. Fatah said a total of 15 people were arrested, while Hamas put the number at four.
The video was repeatedly broadcast on Palestine TV and the cameraman, from the local Ramattan news agency, was detained and questioned by Hamas for several hours.
Hamas later said the police station about 100 yards away had come under fire from the area of the party, and that guests had also illegally fired in the air.
“We emphasize that we didn’t arrest anyone for his political affiliation,” said a statement by the Executive Force. “The four were arrested for committing crimes.”
It was not clear to what extent the footage was edited. But as broadcast, it made the Hamas militiamen look heavy-handed at best, undermining their efforts to portray themselves as champions of law and order.
The other tug-of-war was over Muayad Bani Odeh, 25, a Hamas supporter from the West Bank who was arrested by Abbas’ intelligence service last month and was being held in the city of Nablus.
After Hamas seized Gaza, Fatah formed a moderate government that rules the West Bank.
Bani Odeh’s family and independent legislator Khaleda Jarrar said they were told by intelligence officials on Thursday that the prisoner was in serious condition in an Israeli hospital. Jarrar said she checked again later with the intelligence chief, Tawfiq Tirawi, and was told Bani Odeh was clinically dead.
The information reached Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, deposed as prime minister by Abbas after the Gaza takeover. In a speech after Muslim prayers Friday, Haniyeh accused Fatah-allied forces in the West Bank of persecuting and torturing Hamas supporters.
“The latest of these is Muayad Bani Odeh, a holy warrior, a son of Islam in the West Bank, who was tortured to death,” Haniyeh said. Later, thousands of Hamas supporters in Gaza staged marches to protest the purported death.
On Saturday, Palestine TV broadcast footage from what appears to be an interrogation of Bani Odeh, in which he confessed to collaborating with Israel.
Sitting on a bed, he said he provided information that led to the killing of five fugitives, including three from Hamas, by Israeli troops in his home village of Tamoun in 2003. The TV also showed him being checked by doctors and shaking their hands.
Later Saturday, Bani Odeh was presented to reporters at his Nablus lockup, repeating the statements he had made on TV. He said he had ties to Hamas, but was never considered a serious operative. The prisoner said he was not mistreated, though it was not clear whether he spoke under threat from his jailers.
Bani Odeh’s family said he had been coerced into making a false confession.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri was asked why Hamas did not check more thoroughly before announcing Bani Odeh’s death. Abu Zuhri said Hamas had relied on Jarrar, a legislator from a small PLO faction and prisoners’ rights activist.