News Analysis: Clashes leave Palestinian unity rule in doubt

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 16-May-07 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Militants from the Hamas movement in Gaza City.

JERUSALEM: With Hamas and Fatah fighters killing each other again for a third day Tuesday, any serious effort at seeking peace now between Israel and the Palestinians seems quixotic.

The fighting - on the day that all Palestinians commemorate as the "Nakba," or the "catastrophe" that overtook them after Israel's independence - is the best sign that the new Palestinian unity government, put together under Saudi auspices at the end of March, is a fiction. It never started to work in a serious way, and as the resignation of the independent interior minister, Hani al-Qawasmeh, made clear, the leaders of the Hamas and Fatah fighting men were never prepared to listen to him anyway.

But the continuing battle between Fatah and Hamas for power in Gaza has also been fed by continuing Hamas suspicion of American motives in training, funding and, indirectly, arming the Presidential Guard, Fatah fighters loyal to the Fatah president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his recently chosen national security adviser, Muhammad Dahlan.

It seemed no accident that Hamas chose Tuesday to attack the training base of the Presidential Guard, near the Karni crossing, which the Fatah men are supposed to protect under Washington's latest security plan for Gaza and the Palestinians. The attack seemed aimed as much at the United States for siding with Fatah as at the guardsmen themselves, who did not fight very well, witnesses said.

Dahlan, though abroad, ordered a brigade undergoing training in Egypt to return to Gaza, another measure of the stakes for Fatah there, where there are no Israeli troops to keep Hamas underground.

More problematic, the fighting raises the possibility that the Palestinian Authority itself may collapse, leaving no titular administration in the Palestinian territories responsible for security, law and justice, and no one able to deal with Washington and the West.

Sometimes Palestinians, like Ali Jarbawi at Birzeit University, say it would be better to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, designed as an interim administration for the transition to statehood, to end the fiction of real government. Even Abbas has been known to raise the subject.

This would be a bad outcome for Israel, which still retains legal responsibility over the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, as the occupying power.

But it would also be a bad outcome for the peace process. How would any Israeli government consider pulling out of more of the occupied West Bank - as it pulled out of Gaza - with no authority to whom to hand the territory?

That is a main reason that Abbas and even Hamas political leaders like Khaled Meshal in Damascus pressed so hard to make this unity government a reality, to restore a sense of security and dignity to Palestinian life by including all political streams.

But the project may yet fail. And if Hamas believes that its choice for politics was the wrong one, it is likely to return to all-out violence against Israel, setting off another round of intifada.

The Palestinian chaos and failure of leadership explain why senior Jordanians are seriously talking about a new form of Jordanian stewardship over the West Bank. King Abdullah II believes that urgent peace talks are required to solve the Israel-Palestine problem in the face of the Islamist challenge. But he also appears to believe that unless the Palestinians are helped to get their own house in order, Israel has no reason to withdraw from the West Bank.

Palestinians like the Abbas assistant Saeb Erekat say that any new confederation or relationship with Jordan is impossible, and that may be one reason why the king, citing weather problems, cancelled his planned visit to Ramallah on Sunday to see Abbas, who was also said to be resisting an invitation to come to Jordan on Tuesday to meet with the king and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel.

More and more, Israel feels trapped into its occupation by the chaos on the Palestinian side. Some Israelis, like Gidi Grinstein of the Reut research institute in Tel Aviv, believe that the chaos is part of Hamas's strategy. For Hamas, he argues, peace is a disaster, so the key is to prolong the occupation and, hence, the enemy.

For that very reason, he and others believe that Israel cannot rule out unilateral withdrawals, despite the Gaza experience.

Some think another modest pullback can be managed with American mediation between a weak Olmert and a weak Abbas.

But there are those in Jordan, like the former prime minister, Abdel Salam Al-Majali, who was supposed to come to Ramallah with the king, who are said to believe that only if Israel can hand over territory to a Jordanian-monitored Palestinian Authority will Israel be able to hand over any more territory at all, let alone make peace.

Hamas has made it clear that while it generally respects a cease-fire with Israel, it will do nothing to stop other militant groups of the "resistance" from firing rockets into Israel or carrying out attacks on Israeli civilians.

In the West Bank, at least, the thinking goes, Jordan could help, especially since American and European troops would not risk trying to police a border or boundary with Israel. There are similar hopes for Egypt in Gaza, but Hamas is much stronger there, and the Egyptians have their own problems with the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is a part.

Majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians want peace and a division of the land into two independent states. Israeli and Palestinian officials, meeting quietly in Washington at the Brookings Institution, were able to come up with ideas to solve the problem of Palestinian refugees and the Jerusalem holy places in less than a day.

But until there is some authority on the Palestinian side of a new line or, eventually, a border, both willing to and capable of stopping that small percentage of Palestinian militants who want to fire rockets into Israel and blow up Jews, Israel will not make a lasting peace.

Jordan, however, with its long relationship with the Palestinians, its former rule over the West Bank, its peace treaty with Israel and its strong alliance with the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, might be a kind of temporary answer.