Palestinians vs. Palestinians

June 14, 2007

On the 40th anniversary of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War and its capture of the Palestinian-dominated West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas bemoaned a war potentially more dangerous to the Palestinian cause than the long-standing occupation - the internecine violence between his political faction, Fatah, and the ruling Islamic party, Hamas. His was a candid, prophetic assessment of the violence that has littered the streets of the Gaza Strip with bodies in recent days and a stark indicator of the consequences of a failed Palestinian leadership.

If it's not civil war, it might as well be.

The government in power, led by members of the Islamic militant group Hamas, has failed to provide basic services to Palestinians, and in its larger role, to effectively represent the Palestinians' plight to the outside world. Palestinian officials would blame the U.S.-led aid boycott of the Hamas government for its troubles, but they would be only marginally right. Neither Hamas nor its rival Fatah has put the needs of Palestinians above its individual claims to power. A three-month-old effort to jointly rule under the guise of a coalition government never mustered any credibility at home or abroad.

Neither Mr. Abbas nor Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has been able to control the factional fighting. That was clearly evident from an attempt at a cease-fire this week so high school students in the Gaza Strip could take their exams without raging gunbattles distracting them. It, too, failed.

Hamas fighters scored a strategic victory Tuesday when they routed the Gaza headquarters of the Fatah forces, which Mr. Abbas likened to a coup attempt. An overwhelming victory by Hamas would critically weaken Mr. Abbas, close off any prospect for peace talks with Israel and isolate Palestinians even more in the eyes of the world.

Palestinians on the West Bank who live under the strictures of Israeli security control have escaped the chaos until yesterday, when some fighting broke out in Nablus. Nonetheless, their fate is tied to the events unfolding in the Gaza Strip. As the violence intensifies, Washington, Europe and the Saudis would not risk intervention, and it's folly to talk of renewing a peace process.

And yet a peace process remains the only credible way to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and forge a Palestinian state. A civil war won't change that.

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