US, Israel can help ease Palestinian crisis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

Lootings and executions in Gaza reminiscent of events in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein reflect the tragedy of the collapse of Palestinian unity. The rout of Fatah security forces by Hamas fighters leaves 1.4 million Palestinians physically cut off from their compatriots in the West Bank, under the rule of the military wing of a movement that calls for Israel's destruction and is boycotted by the international community.

This represents a defeat for all Palestinians and for US and Israeli policy. The two-state solution to the Palestinian question envisaged in the internationally brokered road map for peace - the only conceivable settlement on the table - is more remote than ever. Instead, the region faces a dangerous replay of this week's events in Gaza in the much more strategically important West Bank. To head it off and exert a more constructive influence, the United States and Israel urgently need to adopt a new approach.

Since Hamas won democratic Palestinian elections 17 months ago, Washington and Jerusalem have focused on isolating its government with policies that have done nothing to strengthen the position of their preferred negotiating partner, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah group. The withholding of economic aid, and Israel's retention of tax revenue rightfully due to the Palestinians, has exacerbated poverty and hopelessness and fuelled factional fighting that played into the hands of Hamas militants.

Mr Abbas has sacked the government and declared a state of emergency, but his authority and credibility are at stake. Washington and Jerusalem must do more to help, first with steps to ease the lives of ordinary Palestinians and give them hope. Easing economically crippling blockades on Palestinian movements within the West Bank and releasing withheld revenues would be a start. This should be followed by an offer of talks with Mr Abbas on substantive issues related to a final peace settlement, including the creation of a Palestinian state. Without Hamas, such talks are meaningless, but at least it puts the dream of ordinary Palestinians back on the table and is a civilised alternative to the movement's unacceptable objectives.