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Fatah, Hamas watch, wait

by Mkhaimar Abusada

GAZA CITY — With dueling authorities running Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian people find themselves in the middle of an experiment. In Gaza, where Hamas is in charge, the high price of armed resistance to Israel has discredited any attempts to revive the conflict. In the West Bank, under Fatah rule, negotiations have gone nowhere.

Neither track of Palestinian politics — resistance or negotiation — offers hope of achieving independence. As a result, Palestinians face their most difficult challenge since 1948.

Israeli threats of renewing its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip are taken very seriously. The scenes of devastation are still vivid in the streets and neighborhoods of Gaza, and Hamas is taking no chances of provoking Israel into a new war. The fighting cost Hamas two of its top leaders, Saeed Siyam and Nizar Rayan, and significantly weakened its military capabilities. Only recently have these been rebuilt.

Hamas finds itself in a difficult position, since its policy calls for strong resistance, alongside politics. Yet this policy has failed. Hamas has put pressure on all resistance groups in Gaza to refrain from provoking Israel. In an unprecedented statement, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a top Hamas leader, said any missiles fired at Israel from Gaza would be “betrayal missiles.”

Instead, Hamas has turned its attention to the West Bank, where it has no political authority. It has called on Palestinians there to launch a new intifada against Israel, even while insisting on calm in the Gaza Strip.

Fatah, which runs the West Bank, wants no part of another Palestinian uprising. President Mahmoud Abbas has made no secret of his objection to such a strategy. But, with their government unable to do anything about the expansion of Israeli settlements, including in East Jerusalem, as well as continued conflicts over holy sites in Hebron, Bethlehem and the Al-Aksa mosque, West Bank Palestinians are extremely frustrated. Recent street demonstrations could easily turn into an outbreak of ongoing resistance to Israeli rule.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, is afraid that a popular, nonviolent intifada might quickly turn violent. If so, Israel might use it as a pretext to crush the Palestinians and their newly built institutions. This has happened before, during the last intifada in 2002.

There is another scenario that also terrifies Fatah leaders. An outbreak of violence could strengthen Hamas and its military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, in the West Bank. This, in turn, could produce a repeat of the scenario that brought Hamas to power in Gaza in June 2007, when all Fatah authority in the area collapsed after the Israeli withdrawal.

Yet the peace process has been stalled for more than a year, greatly reducing Fatah’s credibility in the West Bank. Abbas has repeatedly described peace as a strategic choice for the Palestinians. But 17 years since the signing of the Oslo accords and the launch of bilateral talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, there has been very little movement toward a Palestinian state. In popular opinion, negotiations have reached a dead end.

Arab diplomats also show few signs of optimism. At its recent summit in Libya, the Arab League rejected the proximity talks proposed by the U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell. The Arab position is that no proximity talks can be held until Israel freezes its settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinian and Arab opinion is waiting for the U.S., as Israel’s ally, to intervene and press for concessions.

Though the Palestinian economy in the West Bank has improved greatly under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, this is no substitute for serious peace negotiations. In August 2009, Fayyad declared his vision of a Palestinian state in two years.

Under his blueprint, which has received strong financial support from the U.S. and the European Union, the political, economic and security infrastructure of the Palestinian state would be ready by August 2011. Fayyad has also gained the backing of Fatah and most other Palestinian groups in the West Bank.

Fayyad’s strategy for international recognition of a Palestinian state is to fight a legal battle against Israel in the U.N. Security Council and other international bodies. He is convinced that establishing a Palestinian state would serve the interest of all parties, and that the odds favor the Palestinians in international political struggle.

Hamas does not share this view, and Palestinian reconciliation efforts have reached an impasse. The Arab League has given Egypt the lead role in bringing the two sides together, but Hamas has spurned Egypt’s proposals.

Now, with questions about President Hosni Mubarak’s successor in the air, Egypt has put aside these talks. Palestinians are looking instead to Iran, Hamas’ ally, for signs of any revival in discussions between Fatah and Hamas.

Palestinians’ choices are limited, and there is no consensus among them on how to proceed. But there is a growing sense that the waiting game cannot last much longer. Whatever comes next will most likely come soon.

Mkhaimar Abusada is professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza and a writer on Palestinian politics. © 2010 Project Syndicate