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Palestine on the Brink

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: October 4, 2006

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Just weeks ago Palestinian leaders were talking seriously about forming a unity government. But after days of intense infighting among rival factions, it’s unclear whether the existing government will survive (Reuters). The upheaval comes during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who hopes to restart the peace process (VOA). In her trip to the region this week, Secretary Rice has prodded both the Israeli and Palestinian sides (Bloomberg), despite the slim prospects that negotiations will resume any time soon. But the real purpose of Rice’s visit is to enlist moderate Arab leaders (BBC) to help ward off the threat posed by extremists in Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, as well as their state sponsors, Iran and Syria. This appeal was not well received by Egyptian and Saudi leaders, who object to being pitted against other Arab nations (WashPost).  

Violence broke out over the weekend when Palestinian government employees, many loyal to the Fatah party, took to the streets to protest unpaid wages (BBC). A Hamas militia’s attempt to put down the demonstrations backfired, provoking clashes in the West Bank and Gaza that left eight people dead and the Palestinian government’s Ramallah offices ransacked. Though the violence has ebbed, tensions remain high (UPI). Hamas appears to be bracing for civil war (Ynet) in the event that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolves the government, something he hinted at earlier this week.

Though Abbas has declared the unity talks dead, he has accepted a Qatari plan (Haaretz) to end the fighting, form a unity government, and ensure the release of an Israeli soldier held captive since June. Forming a unity government is particularly important, as it is seen as the key to unlocking Western aid that the stricken Palestinian economy (Palestine Chronicle) desperately needs. In September, Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh raised hopes when they announced they were negotiating the details of a ruling coalition between Hamas and Fatah. As analyst Rashid Khalidi told CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, such an arrangement would have helped relieve the PA’s economic crisis and could have set the stage for substantive negotiations with Israel. But negotiations floundered so quickly that, even before the outbreak of violence, prospects for a unity government were “fading fast” ( Al-Ahram).

One sticking point continues to be Hamas’ refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel. According to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, both Palestinians and Israelis want direct dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, yet Israel refuses to negotiate until it receives Hamas’ official recognition. Abbas is unable to serve as an effective negotiator because, as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nathan J. Brown explains, he has "very few tools to act unilaterally" (PDF). In the meantime, Lebanon’s Daily Star writes, Palestinian infighting has given Israel a free hand to do what it wants in Gaza. Indeed, Israeli Major-General Dan Halutz told a radio station Sunday that Israel was considering another incursion into Gaza (Reuters).  

Rice’s arrival came just as the last of Israel’s forces withdrew from Lebanese territory (Daily Star). As UN and Lebanese forces take control of southern Lebanon, tensions remain high along the border, with Israeli forces threatening to intervene if UN peacekeepers can’t prevent Hezbollah from reclaiming border posts (Ynet). Writing in the New York Review of Books, journalist Max Rodenbeck puts the Israel-Hezbollah war into context, calling it "a proxy war, a nasty skirmish at the margins of a strategically bigger struggle."

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