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Western Nations Back New Palestinian Government

18 June 2007

Western nations are working quickly to support the new Palestinian government in the West Bank, following the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Islamic militant group Hamas. The United States and European Union have announced they will resume financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, now that Hamas is no longer a part of the government. Middle East analysts say the current situation in the Palestinian territories is unprecedented, as we hear in this background report from VOA correspondent Meredith Buel.

The bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas has split the Palestinian government, with the Hamas leadership in Gaza headed by deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the new Fatah-allied cabinet in the West Bank sworn in by President Mahmoud Abbas.

In announcing the resumption of direct aid to Mr. Abbas' government, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Hamas is attempting to divide the Palestinian people, a move the United States rejects.

"Hamas has made its choice," said Condoleezza Rice. "It has sought to attempt to extinguish democratic debate with violence and to impose its extremist agenda on the Palestinian people in Gaza. Now responsible Palestinians are making their choice, and it is the duty of the international community to support those Palestinians who wish to build a better life and a future of peace."

Analysts say the division between the West Bank and Gaza has endangered the Palestinians' goal of forming an independent state in the two territories, which are located on opposite sides of Israel.

President Abbas seeks peace with Israel while Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, wants to destroy the Jewish state. The United States, Israel and the European Union consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

Robert Malley, the Director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group, says the Hamas takeover of Gaza means the Palestinians have entered an extraordinary period of uncertainty.

"Are goods going to be able to come in from Israel? Is the border with Egypt going to be open? What is going to happen to the maritime border? Those are questions that everyone is asking right now because, frankly, this is a new situation, it is an unprecedented situation and nobody has any guidebook to go by," said Robert Malley.

While western nations are restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and are pledging more money to help the United Nations fund assistance in the Gaza Strip, fears are being raised about a possible humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which is home to about 1.4 million Palestinians.

Ghaith al-Omari, a visiting fellow at the New American Foundation who has served as a senior advisor to President Abbas, says Palestinians in Gaza will face international isolation.

"We will start seeing two different realities in the West Bank and Gaza," said Ghaith al-Omari. "In Gaza, most likely, it [Hamas] will be unable to receive any international funding, any international support. We will see further poverty, further deterioration there. The West Bank might fare a little bit better."

Hamas began its rise to prominence in the late 1980s during the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Following the Oslo peace accords in the early 1990s, the group's armed wing launched a campaign of suicide attacks against Israeli targets.

Early last year Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections, defeating the Fatah-led government, which was seen as corrupt and ineffective.

The group's popularity is partly due to its extensive network of social services, including schools, health clinics and mosques.

Following Hamas' victory at the polls, western nations cutoff aid to the Hamas-led government, and Israel froze hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues.

Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group says the international pressure helped fuel the internal fight between Hamas and Fatah.

"Part of what has happened between Fatah and Hamas is very much the superposition of an internal struggle of power over who was going to control the security services, who was going to control the Palestine Liberation Organization, who was going to control the Palestinian Authority and overlaid on that was a regional and international struggle and, unfortunately, one fed the other," he said.

Some analysts are expressing concern that a total boycott of Hamas could turn the Gaza Strip into a breeding ground for international terrorism.

Former advisor to the Palestinian Authority Ghaith al-Omari.

"If central authority in Gaza crumbles, if Hamas crumbles, it will not now be replaced by Fatah," he said. "It will have to be replaced by either small gangs, regionally or locally based gangs, and more frighteningly it might be a good ground for al-Qaida-type organizations to start flourishing."

Analysts say the United States and Israel are backing President Abbas to send the message that more is to be gained by negotiations than by violence.

Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

"In the short term I think the strategy is going to be to try to decouple the West Bank and Gaza," said Malley. "To build a showcase of success, if that is possible in the West Bank, and to contrast it with Gaza."

The general outlines of a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians have been known for years, although no significant progress has been made since the Oslo process collapsed.

Analysts say achieving a two-state solution appears more difficult than ever, now that the Palestinians are virtually split into two separate states themselves.

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