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Palestinian Divisions Run Deep

Some analysts say that the recent downfall of the Hamas-dominated government could foster a new radical wave in the Middle East. But others argue that the new government installed by Fatah’s leader Mahmoud Abbas could revive the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Most Palestinians are angry over the recent fighting between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip, which led to the dissolution of the Palestinian unity government. A new public opinion poll, conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that a majority of the respondents have also lost confidence in their leadership.

Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and Fatah runs the larger West Bank. The two factions are poised to administer the two territories, only 45 kilometers apart, as rival entities.

Islamist Hamas and pro-secular Fatah, many experts say, have a history of competing strategies. Fatah, a loose umbrella group of a number of Palestinian organizations established in the mid-1960s, seeks the creation of a Palestinian state through negotiations. It endorsed the 1993 Oslo peace agreement with Israel.

Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1987. Its charter doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and the organization seeks to reclaim Palestinian territories by force. A legacy of suicide bombings has landed Hamas on the U.S. and European Union’s list of terrorist groups.

Bitter Infighting

Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation, here in Washington, says years of intense antagonism between the two factions have led to many Palestinian deaths.

“In the 1990s when the Oslo peace process began and Hamas was dead against that, there were often clashes between the two. There are still scars that some of the Hamas people carry from their treatment by Fatah when they were prisoners being held by Fatah security forces in the 1990s. Looking more recently, Fatah never really handed over governing responsibility after Hamas won the election,” says Levy.

In January 2006, Hamas won a major victory in legislative elections. Fatah, which had been criticized for corruption, lost power not just in Gaza, but also in many West Bank municipalities.

The West cut off aid and financial resources to the Hamas-led government and Israel froze Palestinian tax revenues for Hamas’ failure to honor pre-existing peace treaties and recognize Israel.

Loretta Napoleoni, author of the book Terror Incorporated says the moves were partly intended to show the Palestinians the cost of supporting an Islamists organization. She notes that the expectation Palestinians would turn against Hamas didn’t happen.

“Here we have the Gaza Strip, but also the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories being completely destroyed by the sanctions,” says Napoleoni, “particularly by the decision of Israel to withhold from the Hamas government the taxation [i.e., tax revenues], levied on all their Palestinian imports and exports. And that kind of policy created such a serious economic crisis that people resorted to violence.”

Doomed Peace Talks?

James Phillips of The Heritage Foundation says that Hamas should not have taken part in the 2006 elections without accepting the Oslo agreement that created the Palestinian Authority and authorized the elections.

“As an organization that advocates a violent ideology and has a militia, it should not have been acceptable for it to participate in elections because when organizations like that get into power, even if they are voted in, it is very difficult to get them out,” says Phillips.

He doubts that the Palestinian political crisis can be overcome easily or that peace negotiations with Israel will resume soon.

“As long as Hamas is in power, there can not be a genuine peace because Hamas is not just opposed to peace, it is opposed to Israel’s existence,” says Phillips. “You can’t ask a country to sit down with an organization that wants to destroy it. I think the peace process was already comatose and the most recent Hamas coup in Gaza has finished the job and it’s now dead.”

The new pro-Western government installed by Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has quickly gained the support of the United States, the European Union and Israel. And while economic restrictions have been lifted on the West Bank, Gaza is still under sanctions.

New Instability?

University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick says international isolation of Hamas is risky.

“I think what we’ll see is an attempt by Hamas to trade its ability to impose order in Gaza and prevent the rocket attacks on Israel for enough breathing room to sustain itself until it has new opportunities,” says Lustick. "The problem is that Hamas might not be able to exert its control, and might be faced by threats by very radical Islamic jihad groups that would then drag Israel into occupying the Gaza Strip with all that entails."

Terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni warns that Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza could trigger a new wave of instability throughout the region.

“The Hamas government, imposed through a military coup, will have great impact in Iraq among the Sunni resistance and in the neighboring countries. The emulation effect in the Middle East today is more powerful than any weapon,” says Napoleoni

Still, Alastair Crooke, founder of Conflicts Forum, which has facilitated informal dialogues between Western officials and Islamist movements, predicts renewed regional efforts to reconcile differences between Hamas and Fatah.

“I think the anger will gradually fade in Ramallah [Fatah’s West Bank headquarters]. And Hamas, I think, will pursue a policy of keeping the door open for talks, of recognizing the legitimacy of the presidency, but not accepting that they are bound to hand over all the powers of government”, says Crook. "Eventually, we will see the Arab League, Egypt or Saudi Arabia acting as an intermediary to try to bring about a new unity government.”

According to pollsters at the Center for Policy and Survey Research, most Palestinians are looking to new elections as a way out of the stand-off between Fatah and Hamas.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.