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Palestinian Split Raises Questions About a Two-State Solution in Middle East

18 June 2007

Palestinians are grappling this week with a new political reality - the Palestinian territories are now effectively split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from our Jerusalem bureau the split is likely to fundamentally change how Israel, western donor nations and Israel's neighbors such as Egypt deal with the Palestinians.

It was the worst violence ever between Palestinians. Many called it a civil-war, but it was over quickly. In just a few days the Islamic militants of Hamas routed their more secular Fatah opponents, and became the de-facto rulers of more than 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Ali Jarbawi, who teaches Political Science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah, says the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip opened new wounds for bitterly divided Palestinians that will take a long time to heal.

"I do not think reconciliation is going to take place soon," he said. "It needs time. It is going to need weeks and probably months to come. The de-facto situation is that we have two governments; one in Gaza, and one in the West Bank."

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli who edits Bitterlemons.org, a web periodical that addresses conflict-resolution issues in the region, describes the Hamas takeover in Gaza as a revolution, and he says the effects will be felt for years to come.

Alpher says for Israelis the Hamas victory is unsettling, but Israel is not the only country that needs to be worried by a strengthened Hamas.

"To the extent that the Egyptians now recognize the dangers of a Hamastan, if you like. A Muslim Brotherhood mini-state on their border with Gaza. To the extent the Egyptians recognize these dangers and now begin to take more resolute steps to seal the border and prevent weaponry from entering Gaza, and prevent Hamas fighters from leaving in order to be trained in Iran," he said. "There will be a strong sentiment in Israel to avoid any real heavy military action that could mean re-occupation of part or all of the Gaza Strip."

Alpher says above all, Israel wants to avoid a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, and that could lead to some sort of an accommodation between Israel and Hamas, even though Israel considers the group a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of hundreds of its citizens.

"From the Israeli standpoint it is clear that from Prime Minister Olmert down through the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] there is recognition of the danger of a humanitarian crisis and a determination to prevent it," said Alpher. "But to what extent we will be able to, or wish to work with Hamas, is an open question. It seems to me that if Hamas does go pragmatic and maintain an effective cease-fire there will open avenues of interaction between Hamas and Israel, at least on the day-to-day pragmatic issues."

Meanwhile, Israel and western donor nations like the United States are offering support to President Mahmoud Abbas, who has quickly moved to establish a new government led by Salam Fayyad, a respected international banker.

Israel says it will likely release Palestinian customs and tax revenue it has been holding to Mr. Abbas, and U.S. officials say they will restore donor aid to the Palestinians.

Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University says the aid will help Mr. Abbas restore his authority, but he has to remember he is the President of all Palestinians, and not just those in the West Bank.

"The danger is not in taking international assistance but to direct this assistance to the West Bank and to keep Gaza under severe embargo; to punish Hamas basically," said Jarbawi. "If that happens it might be counterproductive. He is the president of all Palestinians, of the West Bank and Gaza, and this division, if it happens, and it might actually happen, that the assistance might reach the West bank other than Gaza, then it is extremely dangerous especially if we want to reunite the West Bank and Gaza once again."

Jarbawi also says Mr. Abbas must offer his people more than simply economic assistance if he wants to be able to claim legitimacy as a leader of all Palestinians.

"Abbas is in need of empowerment. However, this should not only be financial empowerment, economic empowerment. He needs to be politically empowered. He needs to have a political horizon. He should tell his people he has something to offer; an end to the occupation at one point in time and the creation of a Palestinian state. If he does not have that and has all the money in the world in the world, it will not work," said Jarbawi.

Ali Jarbawi says Mr. Abbas will need the cooperation of Israel, who he says should share the blame for the current divide among Palestinians for its policies of isolating the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. Israel, Jarbawi says, has ignored President Abbas for years, undercutting his authority and undermining the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yossi Alpher says the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip is not a welcome development when it comes to peace efforts in the Middle East, but it should not be seen as an end to that process.

"Obviously the developments last week in Gaza are a blow to the two-state solution. Indeed the two-state solution has suffered heavy blows in the course of the last six or seven years," he said. "But, things are so unpredictable in the Middle East in general, and in our conflict in particular that you really never know. Sometimes very surprising things can happen to reinstate previously discredited solutions."

Yossi Alpher says for years Israeli leaders discussed amongst themselves the idea of working to build up the West Bank as a model of economic development, as a way of diminishing the influence of Hamas. That never happened, but now with Hamas in control in Gaza, Alpher says Israel and western donor nations should move quickly to ease tensions and boost economic development in the West Bank, to show Palestinians that there is an alternative to Hamas.

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