United they can’t: Palestinian internal split

A palestian militant of the Islamist group Hamas (AFP Photo / Said Khatib)
Moderate Arab states have begun a major effort to help the Palestinians resolve their foremost problem – not the conflict with Israel, but the internal divisions that have split the Palestinians into two hostile camps.

Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip two years ago in a violent coup, that area has formed a separate political entity from the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority led by the secular Fatah movement. Israeli territory separates the two areas physically, emphasizing the ideological separation. While the declared policy of Hamas, a militant Islamic movement, is destruction of Israel, the PA’s declared objective is a Palestinian state that co-exists peacefully alongside the Jewish state.

The differences between the two entities were highlighted by the recent conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, which saw half the Palestinians caught up in war while the other half watched uncomfortably from the side.

At the initiative of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Hamas and PA representatives have begun a series of meetings in Cairo aimed at hammering out a compromise that could enable the two groupings to reconstitute the unity government that existed before the Gaza coup.

The war with Israel in January failed to loosen Hamas’s control of the strip despite the severe battering it took. Its status even increased among West Bank Palestinians for having stood up to Israel. However, Israel had demonstrated its ability to severely punish Hamas and it continued to enforce its economic stranglehold on Gaza, making Hamas more open to proposals for resolving its dilemma.

Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, likewise softened his position vis-à-vis Hamas after the war. To maintain credibility as a Palestinian leader he was obliged to call for Israel’s lifting of the Gaza siege and an end to the suffering of the 1.5 million Palestinians living there.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries were motivated to seek Palestinian unity because of their own perceived need for broad Arab unity in the face of Iran – a non-Arab state they fear is attempting to become the dominant player in the Middle East.

Both Hamas and Fatah are cautious about the chances of reconciliation but both appear ready to give it a chance. “Hamas is a pragmatic political movement that reads political developments intelligently,” says Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister. Public opinion in Gaza, he says, is signaling to Hamas a desire to do whatever is necessary to end the Israeli siege.

Israel had imposed its siege after the Hamas takeover and presumably would lift it if Gaza was controlled by a Palestinian leadership it could dialogue with. At the same time, says Khatib, the election of a right-wing government in Israel after the war signals to the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank that there is little hope at present for peace negotiations with the Jewish state. A Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, said that both Hamas and the PA are ready for change. “They need each other and know they have to work together,” he said.

The pledge by the international community of billions of dollars for Gaza’s reconstruction on condition the money is not distributed to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization, gives Abbas the hope of regaining a political foothold in the Strip by overseeing reconstruction projects there. Hamas has signalled a readiness to let this happen. Hamas and Fatah have set up joint committees to discuss the formation of a national unity government and new elections.

Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher warns that such elections would likely see Hamas winning control of the Palestinian Authority and taking over the West Bank, adjacent to Israel’s heartland, from which it would constitute a far greater security threat to Israel than from the Gaza Strip. He proposes instead that Israel lift its siege of Gaza and talk to Hamas about long-term co-existence while retaining political distance. At the same time, Jerusalem would continue to talk to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and strengthen it economically to the point that even Hamas supporters would see the advantages of a peace process.

A different view is voiced by another Israeli analyst, Zvi Bar’el, who believes that it is in Israel’s interest to support Palestinian unity. Only a unity government would be able to arrive at pragmatic arrangements with Israel, he says, even without a formal peace agreement.

“Managing the conflict rather than solving it is probably the most the new Israeli government can deliver, and the American administration can hope for,” he says.

Abraham Rabinovich for RT