Vision of a unified Palestinian state fades

Times Staff Writer

The deadly factional fighting in the Gaza Strip between the militant Hamas movement and Fatah could doom the long-held Palestinian vision of uniting Gaza and the West Bank into a single independent state.

The latest clashes highlight a growing schism between the two areas, raising the possibility that the power struggle will turn them into ministates, each ruled by its own faction: Hamas in the coastal strip and Fatah in the West Bank.

The violence has dimmed hopes that Palestinians and Israelis might someday reach an agreement for side-by-side nations and raised questions over how Israel responds to having Hamas, which calls for the Jewish state’s destruction, indisputably in charge in Gaza.


The severity of the latest internecine fighting is driving a growing number of Palestinians to consider drastic scenarios, including dissolving the Palestinian Authority or allowing Hamas to manage Gaza more or less on its own.

“Hamas is working toward that. They want Gaza,” Hafez Barghouti, a newspaper editor in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said bitterly. “They are destroying the Palestinian national project.”

It is possible that the two Palestinian factions can find a way to govern together after the fighting, which Hamas characterizes as an effort to weed out troublemakers intent on toppling the government it heads rather than as a bid to eradicate Fatah. A Hamas triumph could bring a halt to the chaos that has made Gazans miserable for months.

The crisis has forced Palestinians to face how far apart the West Bank and Gaza really are, though separated by just 20 miles of Israeli territory at the narrowest point. Israeli restrictions prevent most Palestinians from traveling between the two areas. Palestinian legislators gather via video link because Hamas lawmakers are prevented from traveling across Israel.

“We already see the separation taking place on the ground,” said Samir Said, 55, a grocer in Ramallah. “This is really bad for the Palestinian cause. We can see the Palestinian state vanishing.”

Gaza, by far the poorer and more pious of the two areas, is Hamas’ stronghold, though Fatah had long dominated the established security forces there. The West Bank, especially urban Ramallah, is more liberal-minded. The secular Fatah is the dominant political force, though Hamas enjoys support in some of the bigger towns, such as Hebron and Nablus.


Gaza bears the conservative markings of its years under Egyptian control before its capture by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War, while the West Bank has deep ties with Jordan, said Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University near Ramallah.

“There is almost total separation,” Jarbawi said.

The distinctions have been evident during the current fighting, with Hamas showing the might of its militias in Gaza and Fatah hitting back in the West Bank, where the Islamist movement is weaker.

A lasting split between the West Bank and Gaza could force Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, to consider whether to talk to the Israelis about peace steps limited to the West Bank, such as terms under which Israel would withdraw from isolated settlements, but short of establishing a Palestinian state, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst.

“Will Abu Mazen be willing to talk to us about the West Bank alone?” Alpher asked, using Abbas’ nickname. “If he is, this could open up some possibilities.”

The political crisis has propelled a debate among Palestinian intellectuals over whether Palestinians might be better served by dumping the trappings of the 1993 Oslo peace agreement, which created the enfeebled Palestinian Authority, and leaving themselves under Israeli occupation without their own government.

This would, in effect, swap the two-state solution for a one-state vision in which Arabs might someday achieve a demographic majority in the region that includes Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The idea has gained momentum since the power-sharing agreement reached in February between Hamas and Fatah failed to get the international community to end its ban on aid to the Hamas-led government.

“One cannot exclude such a possibility: that this is the end of the two-state solution,” said Yitzhak Reiter, a fellow at Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem.

Another idea that has circulated is an old one: reconnecting the West Bank to Jordan, somehow, and putting Gaza back into Egypt’s hands. But this scenario is a long shot.

With a Hamas victory, Israel would face some difficult decisions, including whether to send troops into Gaza to keep the Islamist group from stockpiling rockets even more potent than those that militants already fire regularly into southern Israel.

Military action is politically risky because of the possibility of Israeli casualties and the still-unresolved question of how long to remain in Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005.

“You have to ask what happens on the day after: Who will run the civilian systems, how long would it last, the ramifications?” said Amos Gilad, a ranking official in the Israeli Defense Ministry. “We have to find other options.”

Israeli officials have said they might accept deployment of an international force along Gaza’s border with Egypt to stanch arms smuggling. But Hamas is sure to resist such a move, and there is no sign yet which nations would volunteer.

“Once the smoke clears, if Hamas is in sole control, does it resume aggression against Israel? If Hamas in Gaza provokes Israel, we’ll have to respond,” said Alpher, co-editor of a website promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

But having Hamas in sole charge in Gaza after months of divided rule may give Israel the advantage of an “address” -- that is, a single authority it can hold accountable there.

“Now there is one entity in Gaza that we might call ‘Hamasstan’ and another in the West Bank that we can call ‘Fatahland,’ and the two call for different Israeli approaches,” Israeli analyst Gidi Grinstein told Israel Radio. “The Gaza entity will be regarded as an enemy entity and be treated accordingly, and the fate of the West Bank entity remains to be seen.”

Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah and Fayed abu Shammaleh in Cairo contributed to this report.