For two decades, at least, events within the Palestinian political world pointed to a day of reckoning some time in the future pitting the secular against the religious in Palestinian life. That day apparently has dawned.
Hamas, the militant Islamic movement which won the last Palestinian election in Januray 2006 and had reluctantly shared power with the rival Fatah movement since, lost patience on Tuesday and conducted a violent purge of the remnants of Yasser Arafat's old guard, seizing de facto control of the Gaza Strip (Bloomberg). President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah senior statesmen, urged his forces to resist and denounced the move as an attempted coup, but reports suggest Fatah's power in Gaza has been smashed. But Abbas also fled the presidential compound in Gaza City, declared a state of emergency, and from his new base on the West Bank, swore in a new Palestinian government bereft of Hamas (BBC).
Ever since Hamas’ election victory, one effort after another to forestall direct conflict between Fatah and Hamas has failed. Dennis Ross, the longtime U.S. Mideast envoy, put his finger on the explosive nature of things in Gaza (WashPost) earlier this month. The debate, he writes, no longer focuses on a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, “it was about the conflict between Palestinian organizations in Gaza— Hamas vs. Fatah—and whether Gaza was in fact already lost to the Islamists. Both Israelis and Palestinians were wondering about the consequences of Gaza’s becoming, in their word, ‘Hamastan.’”
The founding of Hamas in 1987 during the first intifada undermined the near monopoly on politics enjoyed by secularist Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, which dominated the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) during its decades in exile, and then the Palestinian Authority until Arafat’s death in 2004. As author and former Israeli soldier Jeffrey Goldberg noted in his most recent book, Prisoners, the decision by the United States and Israel to isolate Arafat in his final years seriously weakened the secularists who, whatever their faults, at least professed to be open to negotiations.
While the fighting also reflects deep divisions between the two movements, it similarly exposes the cracks within them. On one side are political leaders hoping to find a formula that will lift the Western aid blockade of the Palestinian Authority dating to the Hamas election victory of 2006. On the other stand radicalized military wings which reject Israel’s right to exist. Significantly, these “rejectionists” have influence inside both the Hamas political leadership and in Fatah's military arm, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
For the United States and Israel, a reckoning of a different sort is at hand. President Bush meets this week (AP) with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Together, they engineered the diplomatic isolation of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, and while they may be happy with its inability to govern, they certainly never intended for Hamas to emerge as sole ruler of the unruly Gaza Strip (WashPost). Over the years, many analysts in Israel and elsewhere predicted the event as inevitable – some even present it as a necessary prerequisite (Guardian) to any lasting peace agreement.
Yet the prospect of a full Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip drew recasts the issue for Israel and creates a deep dilemma for the United States (NYT). Reports suggest the current situation - with Hamas ensconced in Gaza, and Fatah running the West Bank - could lead Israel to channel back tax collections and vestiges of the Oslo peace agreement to Abbas in his new Ramallah headquarters. The EU chose a less ambiguous tack, declaring outright it would funnel money to Abbas' new government (France24).
But military intervention in Gaza could still happen, particularly if rocket attacks, abduction attempts, or suicide bombings in Israel recur. Only recently, Israeli officials had openly discussed such an intervention, as former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told CFR.org in May. Now, Haaretz suggests, Israel’s defense establishment must rethink its policy toward Gaza, including whether to continue to maintain economic ties and provide electricity. Already Israeli forces have moved on parts of northern Gaza, where they fear militants could stage launch rocket attacks on Israel (JPost).
Israel can hardly ignore the situation. Olmert suggested the United Nations might be called on to deploy forces along the Egyptian-Gaza border to stop arms smuggling (Haaretz). He meets with the UN Secretary General on Monday. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli analyst Harris Schoenberg suggests it may be time for a full-blown UN peacekeeping force in Gaza akin to the UNIFIL force in Lebanon.