With the Hamas rout of Fatah on the Gaza Strip last week, the land claimed by Palestinians now falls under the sway of three separate entities, leading to new problems and talk of at least some new opportunities. Fatah, the old guard of Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization led by President Mahmoud Abbas, has consolidated its hold on the West Bank and set up a new government bereft of the Islamists of Hamas (ArabNews). Meanwhile, Hamas claims all legitimacy flows from the January 2006 elections it won handily, and insists its man, Ismail Haniyeh, remains prime minister. And so a new complication is added to the puzzle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The standoff between Hamas and Fatah dates back decades, of course, but the geographical clarity provided by the Hamas purge is new. Already, the United States and European Union restored to Abbas' faction millions of dollars (WashPost) of aid money, which had been suspended during the long, dysfunctional coalition with Hamas. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says millions in back taxes collected on Palestinian trade by Israel also likely will be given to the Fatah-backed government (Ynet) in Ramallah. The Arab League, too, said it regarded Abbas' decision as legitimate (Al-Jazeera).
When the celebratory gunfire dies down in Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas and the 1.4 million Palestinians now in its charge will find themselves more isolated than ever, and more vulnerable to the fact that fuel, water, and trade is dependent on the largesse of their enemy, Israel. Another, perhaps unintended result, says Zaki Chehab of Al Hayat, is that Hamas “will have to become responsible (PostGlobal) for the activities of all its members.” The old “two-state solution” formula hardly looks viable for the moment, but the sudden emergence of a moderate Palestinian alternative on the West Bank in some ways simplifies the issue for Israel and the international community.
President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Tuesday and reaffirmed their faith in the "two-state" formula (WashPost). "Our hope is that President Abbas and the prime minister, [Salam] Fayyad, who's a good fella, will be strengthened to the point where they can lead the Palestinians in a different direction with a different hope," Bush said in a joint White House appearance.
Yet many lay the blame for what has happened at the White House doorstep. Michael Hirsh of Newsweek called it a “historic rebuff” of Bush administration democracy promotion, as well as its more specific Arab-Israeli peace effort. Aluf Benn, diplomatic editor of Haaretz, sees the diplomatic failures of the past forty years as a series of fallacies driven by the fact that, in the end, “Washington's actions are tailored for its interests (Newsweek Int'l), rather than for some moral or legal principle." The Washington Times calls it a “strategic black eye” for America and a gain for the “Damascus-Tehran axis.”
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.’”
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. The founding of Hamas in 1987 during the first intifada undermined the near monopoly on politics enjoyed by secularist Yasir 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. But Fouad Ajami, the Johns Hopkins Mideast expert, cautions against overstating the moderation of Fatah (NYT). "In the cruel streets and refugee camps of the Palestinians, this is really a distinction without a difference."