The Guardian (Special Report)
October 25, 2007 - 11:33am,,2198515,00.html

Occasionally the mask slips and unpalatable truths emerge. The Guardian has filmed rare scenes inside Hamas-controlled Gaza which the various players in the unfolding tragedy of the Middle East would rather we did not see - Hamas beating up Fatah dissenters, Palestinian doctors forced by their Fatah paymasters to go on strike or forfeit their salaries, the militants who log on to Google Earth to search for Israeli targets for their Qassam rockets. The images, now on the Guardian's website, affront our concept of right and wrong, but they serve our understanding of what is going on.

Gaza is a wound that is being left to fester. Fatah, Israel, the US and the international community have different motives for leaving half of the Palestinian people to rot in this prison, but they are all, for the moment, united in their attempt to isolate Hamas. What these films show is not a Gazan population turning against the gunmen who took the enclave over by force in June, but its opposite - the hatred that the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is incurring among his own people.

The Palestinian schism has been regarded not as an impediment to peace, but an opportunity for it. The brief but brutal civil war between Fatah and Hamas (in which atrocities and human rights abuses were, and still are, being committed by both sides, as a report by Amnesty International on Tuesday showed) provoked a reawakening of interest in Mr Abbas. Funds and prisoners were released, guns and training provided. The theory was that by isolating the one group that refuses to recognise Israel an opportunity was being created to get a deal with the other group that does.

This is not how it is turning out. Expectations for the forthcoming peace conference in Annapolis in Maryland are rapidly being lowered. It is no longer being called a conference, but a meeting and it may now be put back to December. The star guest, Saudi Arabia, looks less, not more likely, to turn up. Mr Abbas wants as much detail as he can extract about the future contours of a Palestinian state. The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert wants as little detail as possible in the final declaration.

What this situation demands is a strong Palestinian leader, rather than a pliant one. Strength comes from authority and Mr Abbas is in danger of losing his among his own people by tightening the screw on Gaza. One of the few levers the Fatah-controlled emergency government in Ramallah has over what happens in Gaza is paying the wages of government workers. And yet when it pulls those levers, the consequences are disastrous. Attempting to steer funds away from Hamas's hands is one thing, but paying people on the condition they do not turn up for work just looks like an attempt to stop any government working. As it is, Mr Abbas's writ does not even run the length of the West Bank. If his title of president is to mean anything, it is that he represents all the Palestinian people and not just that part which Israel believes it can deal with. At some point, a deal with Hamas has to be struck and a new power-sharing government created. This task may be distasteful for Fatah, but it cannot be put off indefinitely. Otherwise Mr Abbas becomes the hostage of a process that makes him weaker still.

Time is not on anyone's side. The bitter memories of the second intifada which followed the collapse of Camp David seven years ago are still fresh. But the risk of failure at Annapolis is not just one of spurring another round in the conflict. The longer the two-state solution stays on the drawing board unbuilt, the less Palestinians will believe in the scheme. This is not about tunnels, land swaps, or the status of Jerusalem, but the concept that a Jewish and a Palestinian state can ever coexist in the same space. If that idea withers, not only do the Palestinians not get the state they deserve, but that part of Israel that believed it would ever live in peace with its neighbours dies too.


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