Events inculminated last week when Hamas gunmen seized control of the Strip’s border crossing with Egypt on Thursday in a gun battle with Fatah-allied border guards Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who was prevented on Thursday from entering the Gaza Strip by an Israeli closure, was carrying $35m in suitcases, graciously donated to him by Iranian officials to fill the empty coffers of his Gaza administration. As his motorcade was leaving the border, he was attacked by Fatah loyalists firing on his cars, killing a body guard and wounding Haniyeh’s son.
Only hours later, tensions skyrocketed in the Gaza Strip with Hamas accusing Abbas of launching a coup after he announced a plan for early elections in an attempt to break a political deadlock and have crippling international sanctions lifted. Whereas, Hamas violence in Gaza was directed mostly against Fatah, the opposite happened in the West Bank, where Fatah loyalists rioted against Hamas.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh vowed Sunday that his Hamas party will not participate in fresh elections, and branded Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ remarks on the matter “inflammatory.” The tensions between the two camps are immense, and the militants in each camp are anxious for combat and arming themselves with whatever is available. Analysts are determined that Hamas will not, under any circumstances, allow Fatah and Abbas to nullify their great achievement of legally taking control of the parliament and cabinet. As far as Hamas is concerned, this is not just a Palestinian development, but a pan-Arab one, a precedent for a political Islamic takeover of an Arab nation. The first skirmishes after Abbas’s speech in Ramallah erupted in the southern Gazan towns of Khan Younes and Rafah Saturday night. Hamas used heavy RPGs for the second time in two days. At least a dozen people were injured. Rumors that both factions had rigged bomb cars for detonating against each other emptied Palestinian streets. On the West Bank, where Hamas is at a disadvantage, the bulk of al Aqsa Brigades units stand ready opposite Hamas. Last week, they received a supply of automatic weapons from the US and Israel. Incidents sparked off religious tones when Hamas leaders refer to their war with Fatah as a “struggle between the “Movement of God and the Party of Satan.”
Palestinian factional warfare in Gaza and the West Bank and its radical religious overtones are being watched with increasing anxiety in neighboring Egypt, Jordan and other Arab nations in the region. PM Ehud Olmert cautioned his ministers to keep a low profile on neighboring events until a clear outcome will be in sight. What worried most Arab leaders in the region, was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s openly pledged financial and military support to the Gaza Hamas leader elected prime minster Ismail Haniyeh on his latest visit to Tehran. This could mean no less than the establishment of a strategic Shiite forward base in Gaza, right on the doorstep of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, already under growing pressure from alQaeda backed insurgents in Sinai.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been disintegrating for months and virtually ceased functioning as a central control element. This has increased substantially following the election of Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas government, last January.
The glue that held the West Bank and Gaza strip together, as long as President Yassir Arafat’s iron rule, is long gone but aftershocks of his demise are still rocking the occupied territories, as local clans are battling for their power base. The Israeli-freed Gaza Strip failing to become an aspired Mid-Eastern ‘Singapore’ model, has turned instead into a lawless terror base on the verge of civil war.
With no single charismatic leader or clear chain of command available, it proves very hard for anyone to take decisive action ending the vicious circle of violence, nor creating a situation for engaging in serious negotiations with the Israelis to solve the peoples hardship.
The Palestinian movement is split along several political issues: between Palestinians inside ( local leadership, West Bank and Gaza ) and outside leaders in exile: like Khaled Mishal of Hamas in Damascus and Farouk Qadoumi of PLO in Tunis. Even during Arafat’s rule, the rift between the locals ( led by the emprisoned, Marwan Bargouti) and Arafat’s “old guardsmen” from Tunis providing the cause for last January’s landslide victory of the Islamist groups- a clear protest vote against the corrupt Tunis clan.
A critical development in the post-Arafat era is the revival of traditional rivalries between factions in the West Bank and Gaza, which have created local power bases in different areas, especially in Gaza and some of the West Bank townships, in which the central rule has no virtual control.
Into such chaotic circumstances, dangerous elements like Hezbollah, backed by Iran, or even Al Qaeda, have been expanding their influence, which could, if not curbed in time, reach strategic proportions for the entire region.
As result of this central power disintegration, the breakup of the hard-won Palestinian Autonomy of 1993 could split Gaza and the West Bank into two geographically distinct entities. Palestinian analysts even fear, that the northern part ( Samaria) could split from the southern part ( Judea), if a viable solution not be found to achieve the long anticipated territorial land-link between the two, solving the crucial Jerusalem question. Under the present circumstances, in which Israel’s politics are shifting more and more to the right, such a solution seems unrealistic.
But there is much more to be considered. Palestinian society has been traditionally characterized by local tribalism, influenced by strong regional differences which set hill dwellers apart from plainsmen, nomads from a ground-settled population, townfolk from villagers and peasants, not to mention Christians and other religious Arab minorities.
While the southern area of the West Bank is less than fifty kilometers distant from Gaza, there is much more separating the two territories than an expanse of Israel’s Negev. A major element in Palestinian domestic problems are the refugees, the majority of which are living under inhuman conditions for decades and remain the breeding cradle for inner-strife unrest and Islamic fundamentalist extremism. While less than 25 percent of West bankers still live in refugee camps, in Gaza these become nearly two thirds of the total population!
Moreover, in the West Bank, patriarchal families have traditionally dominated local politics. Under the British Mandate, which ruled Palestine for nearly thirty years after WW1, the local leadership in Jerusalem, the seat of the mandatory administration, was firmly in the hands of the Nashashibi, Husseini, Ja’abari and Masri clans. British administrators had encouraged strong Arab family ties and awarded these substantial grants, creating not only a political elite, but strong allies during turbulent times, in which Jews fought Arabs, Arabs fought British and finally, Jews fought British in the last phase of colonial rule.
In contrast, the traditional Gaza population was, until 1948 lesser concerned with local politics. This was mainly due to the sheer distance from the West Bank power base during the Mandate. Later, with the influx of the 1948 refugees, the local clans, including the Shawwa, Shafei and Middein families remained, and still are, a clear minority among the Gazeans, which renders them little political influence and many members have already emigrated abroad.
There is also a significant psychological barrier between West bankers and Gazeans, which must be considered. Khalil Shiqaqi, a prominent Palestinian sociologist, has noted in his study on Palestinian demographic affairs that a psychological barrier between the inhabitants of the two territories with mutual suspicion exists, which cannot be disregarded or ignored.
Shiqaqi’s study, entitled The West Bank and Gaza Strip: Future Political and Administrative Relations, indicates the existence of a predominant West Bank conception, that the Gaza Strip is “nothing but a big refugee camp.” Regarding the Gaza Strip society as backward, plagued by crime, extremist fanatism and causing constant instability, the more moderate West Bankers, especially the city dwellers, distance themselves to a greater extent, from Gazean influence. Another notion of Palestinian demographics, little known, are the varied Arabic dialects spoken throughout the territories. West Bank dialects are related to the Jordanian, while influences of Egyptian dialect are traditionally recognized throughout Gaza.
Palestinian Territories Might Become Two Separate States. Geopolitics have long aggravated Palestinian tribalism, abating the already limited ties between the West Bank and Gaza. After the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan annexed the West Bank. A pro-Egypt, pan-Arabist movement developed in Gaza influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which formed the ideological background of Hamas. The West Bank came under the control of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, developing near full allegiance to the Kingdom, which not only ruled it by iron fist from its military, but also reinstated the traditional mandatory era family clans by restoring their political influence.
During Israeli occupation of the territory, since 1967, the Jordanian administration maintained its ties with the West Bank until August 1988, when the late King Hussein officially declared breaking off all legal and administrative links with the Palestinian territories.
Recent insider reports, related to Israel internal intelligence, have indicated that behind the scene, young King Abdullah II of Jordan has taken new interest in the West Bank and a possible revival of the shelved “Jordan Option” of the late eighties. According to Ehud Ya’ari, a leading Middle East expert, central figures from the Palestinian leadership have lately started talking in closed forums, about the need for Jordan to resume an active, substantive role in the West Bank. Eighteen years after the late King Hussein was forced to declare his kingdom’s disengagement from its former possessions across the river, amid the wrath of the first Intifada, there are again whispers over the need to find a new formula, re-establishing some kind of linkage between efforts to create an independent Palestinian state and its Arab neighbor to the east.
However, even if the “Jordanian Option” should materialize, its efforts to re-establish some stability in the prevailing West Bank anarchy seems highly dubious. Factually, the Palestine National Authority (PNA) can exercise control only over the ‘greater Ramallah’ region and even there it is not complete, as the dramatic scenes of Arafat’s funeral and later total chaos between Fatah and Hamas activists in the city have demonstrated.
In a latest move, media reports circulated in Jerusalem last Sunday mentioned that President Mahmoud Abbas has negotiated with Jordanian authorities to a possible deployment to the West Bank of part of his loyalist forces belonging to the Palestinian Badr Brigade, which is under control of the Royal Jordanian Army. Such action, to which Israel has objected in the past, could beef up the weakened PNA security forces to counter efforts by Hamas and other rival Palestinian factions currently bolstering their ranks with Iranian and Hezbollah aid.
Experienced Mid-East analysts estimate that there is little chance that any liberal democracy will succeed in the Palestinian Authority. Not now. Not for a long time. In the best-case scenario, a temporary and future leadership will be mired-in, powerlessness against growing internal unrest. Even if Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ( aka “Abu Mazen”)will manage to achieve an agreement forming a so-called unity-government- this will only be of short-lived duration, until the bloody power struggles resume. Hamas, under the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalist ideologies, backed by Iranian strategic interests in Gaza, will refuse to give up its hard-won power grip on the Gaza Strip. Fatah is rapidly losing its last power base in the Gaza Strip, as the new Hamas army is gathering strength through massive arms smuggling activities over the uncontrolled Egyptian border at Rafah.
Even throughout most of the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas and his loyal followers, are lacking any power among the grassroots activists or “Tanzim” (organization). The leadership of the “interim generation” who led the 1987-1993 intifada and have served as the backbone of Fatah ever since are gaining political power. Under Arafat, these Tanzim activists were relegated to secondary positions in the PA institutions, while the front ranks were reserved for the “Tunisians.” This has little changed under Abu Mazen and most Palestinians are growing disgruntled by lack of a political horizon to improve their livelihood.
But no matter who will take the reigns, the chance of a West Bank-Gaza Strip split seems very real. Despite a recent flood of books and articles indicating long-standing patriotism, the Palestinian Arab community has a longer tradition of factionalism and disunity and it is doubtful that the growing rift can be mended in time to form a single national entity.