Hopes of establishing a full-fledged Palestinian state never seemed more distant as the Islamist movement, Hamas, took control of the Gaza Strip after ousting the largely secular, US-backed Fatah administration. More than 100 people were killed and dozens wounded in the fighting between the rival Palestinian factions. The big question now is whether this would lead to a permanent division of the Palestinian territories, with Gaza controlled by Hamas, and Fatah governing the West Bank. The balance of power between the Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has shifted since the last Palestinian uprising, when Hamas gained in popularity among an increasingly radicalised Palestinian population.
The PA’s inability to improve economic conditions for its people helped Hamas to exploit the situation by setting up a parallel welfare system in Gaza. So it was inevitable that the influence of Hamas and its brand of Islamic extremism would be strong in any government that controlled Gaza after the Israelis left. Which is what happened when Hamas defeated Fatah in the January 2006 polls. The two groups were constantly engaged in a bitter power struggle, and even the decision of Hamas to join the national unity government was probably more a pragmatic move, than a tacit acceptance of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s legitimacy. For militancy and pragmatism always coexisted within the Hamas whose leaders clearly do not want to be seen acting against Palestinian national interest. And they would have been perceived as doing just that if they continued the infighting and prolonged the misery of the Palestinians. The dismissal of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh by Mr Abbas last week, however, seems to have been the proverbial last straw, triggering violence between Fatah and Hamas.
Now that the conflict has all but split the two parts of a putative Palestinian state in half, the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — or what’s left of it —hangs in the balance. Sadly, so does the fate of nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza who may have to bear the brunt of any sanctions that the international community slaps on the Hamas.