Palestinian divisions serve no one

Palestinians themselves are first and foremost to blame for the breakdown in their internal relations and the split between Fateh and Hamas and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is especially true of the fierce military clashes in Gaza that led to this division between the two major Palestinian factions and the two main areas of Palestinian territory.

However there are also significant external factors that have provoked this domestic division. Hamas, for example, was partly encouraged to oust Fateh from Gaza by regional interests, including those of the regional Islamic Brotherhood Movement that Hamas is part of, those of Syria, which hosts the Hamas leadership and those of Iran, the main provider of military, financial and other kinds of support to Hamas.

But the most significant external factor is of course Israel. Over the past seven years, the parties in power in Israel, that is the Likud under Ariel Sharon and then Kadima under first Sharon and now Ehud Olmert, have made clear their opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state on all occupied territory including East Jerusalem. One tactic that Israel has pursued in order to undermine Palestinian aspirations for such statehood has been to divide the Palestinians and their territory.

That is not a new tactic. One only needs to look at the Israeli settlement project over the years to understand that, in the main, this has been a deliberate attempt at dividing Palestinians from each other in order to make the occupied territory less viable as a single entity. From the mid-1970s, Israeli settlements were thus located between major Palestinian population concentrations in both the West Bank and Gaza. Together with the settler-only roads and, more recently, the roadblocks and the separation wall, Israel has now successfully severed the connection between the major population centers in the West Bank as well as between East Jerusalem and its Palestinian hinterland. Include the settlement project in the Jordan Valley and it is clear that Palestinians are isolated from the outside world as well as each other.

Meanwhile, the unilateral evacuation of settlements from Gaza by the Sharon-led government was part of a grander strategy to divorce the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. This was perhaps intended as the coup de grace in undermining any potential for the emergence of a single Palestinian state in the occupied territories. The West Bank was kept under direct Israeli control and Gaza was kept under a complete Israeli siege. The 2005 US-sponsored Agreement on Movement and Access–which dealt with the Palestinian territories as one integral unit and stipulated the need to enhance the movement of persons and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, from Gaza through Israel to the outside world and from Gaza to Egypt and the rest of the world–was thus, consistent with this strategy, completely ignored.

In addition to the practical obstacles confronting any Palestinian state, Israel also gains from Palestinian disunity in the detrimental effect this has on the Palestinian negotiating position and general performance. The most obvious recent example is the Israeli response to Palestinian demands that Israel fulfill its obligations under the roadmap, as demanded at the Annapolis conference. While the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas has had notable and recognized successes in fulfilling its own obligations under the roadmap in the West Bank, Israel has been quick to point out that the PA has not done so in the Gaza Strip. No matter how much success the PA has in the West Bank, its lack of control over Gaza will inevitably count against it in its endeavor to fulfill its security obligations under the roadmap. Thus Israel has a ready stick to beat the Palestinians with the minute it feels any pressure to act rather than talk.

The Israelis are mistaken, however, if they think Palestinian disarray will serve them in the long run. On the contrary, if the two-state solution is the only viable option to end this conflict as most countries in the world seem to think it is, then Palestinian unity, both politically and territorially, is vital for all concerned.