Some Palestinians fear physical split is terminal blow to statehood

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

The long-mooted dream of two peoples residing peacefully in nations between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River took an unexpected shape this week. Instead of Israel and Palestine, the nations are Palestinian - a notional Hamasstan in the Gaza Strip and Fatahland in the West Bank.

Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip has created fears among Palestinians that the prospect of statehood has been shattered and that West Bank residents and Gaza residents may have to go their separate ways politically.

'They are destroying the Palestinian national project,' said Hafez Barghouti, a prominent newspaper editor on the West Bank, in a reference to Hamas.

For Israeli analysts, the new reality emerging from the smoke in Gaza presents a more coherent picture than existed before when Hamas and Fatah contended for power within the Palestinian Authority.

'There is now one entity in Gaza that we might call Hamasstan,' said Gidi Grinstein, head of the 'non-partisan' Zionist Reut Institute think-tank, on Israel Radio, 'and another in the West Bank that we can call Fatahland. The Gaza entity will be regarded as an enemy entity and treated accordingly. The fate of the West Bank entity remains to be seen.'

Some believe that Israel may be able to negotiate with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, also head of Fatah, about the fate of the West Bank. It has refrained from serious talks as long as the Palestinian Authority was two-headed - Fatah desiring peace with Israel as Hamas proclaimed its desire to destroy it.

Over the last 60 years, residents of Gaza and the West Bank have been separated by at least 32km of Israeli territory and they have developed differently. Two-thirds of Gaza's 1.5 million residents are refugees who arrived during the 1948 Israel-Arab war. In the West Bank, a quarter of the more than 2 million Palestinians are refugees. The Gaza Strip is more conservative and more religious; the West Bank more open to outside influences. Over the years, cultural differences developed, extending to cuisine and dialect. Gaza is also far poorer than the West Bank.

A resident of Ramallah, who gave his name only as Qassem, spoke dismissively yesterday of Gaza, which he said was made up of 'tribes and clans like in the pre-Islamic era'. Said Qassem: 'Here, in the West Bank, we're more civilized, educated. It's a different nation, not like in Gaza.'

While Fatah is the dominant force in the West Bank, Hamas and other Islamic groups have strong networks there and experts do not rule out an attempt by them to take over the West Bank as well.

This would be difficult inasmuch as Israeli security forces, which were not present in Gaza, are deployed in the West Bank. Israel has arrested thousands of militants on the West Bank and one of the first moves by Palestinian forces there following Gaza's fall was to round up hundreds of Hamas officials and supporters.

One of the most important achievements of the Palestinians in the 1993 Oslo Accords, said Mr Grinstein, was to win Israeli recognition of the West Bank and Gaza as a single entity. This may now change.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is to meet US President George W. Bush in Washington on Tuesday, is expected to urge him to regard the West Bank and Gaza as separate entities.

Recognising the danger, the deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said in Damascus on Thursday that there could be no separation of the West Bank and Gaza and that Islamic rule would not be declared in Gaza.

A people divided


Ismail Haniyeh Leader of the now-dissolved Palestinian government.

Islamic militant group, which calls for destruction of State of Israel, is listed as a terrorist group by the west. US says Hamas is backed by Syria, receives Iranian funds and weapons smuggled from Egypt, and is linked to al-Qaeda - a claim denied by Hamas.

Executive force

Fighters mostly from militant Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades and Popular Resistance Committees

Number estimated at 6,000


President Mahmoud Abbas Leader of Palestinian Authority and Fatah. Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Palestinian Security Services

Fatah-dominated state force of about 30,000

Presidential Guard

US-backed force of 5,000

Force 17

Mr Abbas' personal security detail of 3,500

National Security Forces

Group under Mr Abbas' direct command, numbering 450

Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades

Military wing of Fatah. Strength around 10,000