Israel Policy Forum (Editorial)
November 16, 2007 - 4:10pm

It is now three years since Yassir Arafat’s death on November 11, 2004, and a good time to evaluate the prospects for Palestinian statehood. Perhaps the best evaluation has been provided by Arafat’s successor.

On the first anniversary of his death, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the opening of Gaza’s crossings, the linking of Gaza to “the rest of our Palestinian homeland,” and calm from Palestinian factions. On the second anniversary of his death, following increased fighting between the respective security forces of Hamas and Fatah, Abbas called on Palestinian factions to rise above “narrow factional interests” and he announced that the formation of a national unity government was near.

At this year’s memorial rally in the West Bank—a day before a Fatah rally commemorating Arafat erupted in a violent confrontation that left seven dead—Abbas condemned Hamas as “forces of darkness” and accused them of committing a “conspiracy and coup against the unity of our country and the future of our people.”

The Palestinian national movement personified by Arafat always envisioned one unified Palestinian state. The Hamas takeover of Gaza in June and President Abbas’ dissolution of the government and creation of a West Bank regime, divided the Palestinian territories into a Hamas-administered Gaza and a Fatah-administered West Bank. The violent Hamas-Fatah power struggle reveals the deep divisions within the Palestinian national movement. These divisions simultaneously threaten Israel’s security and the future of a unified Palestinian state.

The break-up of Gaza and the West Bank into separately administered territories is particularly relevant now because Israel is engaged in peace talks with one party and not the other. As a result, the West Bank has become a testing ground for Israeli-Palestinian coordination, while Gaza has been increasingly closed off and isolated. Gaza has also become a launching pad for rocket attacks into Israel—a situation that could put an end to any peace process.

Beyond the threat to the peace process, there is growing concern that Gaza’s crisis could extend to the West Bank, further endangering Israel and destabilizing Palestinian life. This concern is shared by many Israelis, the Abbas-Fayyad government in the West Bank, and by many Palestinians. (According to a September 10 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research [PSR], the Hamas’ takeover was opposed by 73 percent of Palestinians. Another Palestinian polling organization, Jerusalem Media and Communications Center [JMCC], found that support for Hamas has fallen from 30 percent to 20 percent in the past year, while support for Fatah has increased from 31 percent to 40 percent.)

For Palestinians, the debate is not merely about their preference for Hamas or Fatah, but over the nature of the Gaza-West Bank relationship and of a future Palestinian state. According to Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the current situation is “one of the most difficult in Palestinian history,” a situation in which a “battle over the soul of Palestine is being waged.”

While the Palestinian national movement always envisioned one viable state, this vision has been complicated by the distinct differences in the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Those differences were entrenched following the 1948 Arab-Israel War, when Gaza’s mere 360 square kilometers absorbed significantly more refugees than the West Bank. (The UN Work and Relief Agency for Palestinian refugees [UNWRA] states that over three-quarters of Gaza’s current population of about 1.4 million are registered refugees.) Gaza has also had a significantly different relationship with its Arab neighbor than the West Bank. After the 1948 war, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were annexed to Jordan, its populations receiving Jordanian citizenship in 1950. Gaza, on the other hand, was administrated by Egypt, which did not extend citizenship to Palestinians and restricted Palestinian access to Egypt.

These differences helped lead to Gaza’s economic, political, and social isolation. Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 made matters worse. Gaza became particularly dependent on Israeli facilitation to export goods and the ability of its residents to enter Israel for work.
During the second intifada the situation deteriorated further. While the economies of both the West Bank and Gaza have been affected, a March 2007 IMF-World Bank report on economic development in the West Bank and Gaza demonstrated that the economy in Gaza in 2006 was “subject to higher instability and to major closures by Israel” than the West Bank. According to that report, by the end of 2006, 75 percent of households in Gaza were considered poor compared to 59 percent of households in the West Bank. The report goes on to state that while unemployment fell somewhat in the West Bank in 2006—from 20.3 percent to 18.6 percent—it rose in Gaza—from 30.3 percent to 34.8 percent.

The situation in Gaza has become even more dire since the Hamas takeover. According to the United Nations, the humanitarian situation has been “deteriorating alarmingly” recently as the truckloads of humanitarian goods have drastically decreased.  This  economic privation, along with the Hamas-Fatah power struggle, have the potential to disjoin the territories further—economically, politically, and socially. A more explosive situation could hardly be imagined, for the Palestinians and Israel.

Israelis understand this although they are at odds about the best means of containing the situation.  On September 19, Israel’s security cabinet declared Gaza a hostile territory citing continued terrorist activities and rocket fire into Israel. This enabled the cabinet to impose additional sanctions on Gaza—restricting further the passage of goods, the movement of people, and the flow of fuel and electricity (Israel’s Attorney General Menahem Mazuz overturned the decision to cut electricity pending a legal review). The government defends this policy as an attempt to stop rocket attacks by punishing the Hamas government that is responsible for them. Others, such as Israeli journalist, Nahum Barnea, disagree. Barnea wrote in Yediot Aharonot that this policy works against Israel and in favor of Hamas. He argued that it reinforces Israel’s image as a cruel occupier and provides Hamas with an excuse for not meeting basic needs and continuing attacks on Israel.

The Abbas-Fayyad government is certainly concerned about the suffering of their fellow Palestinians in Gaza. They are constrained, however, by the fact that they do not control Gaza’s institutions or security forces and therefore cannot control Hamas actions from its territory. The Hamas-Fatah conflict clearly exacerbates Gaza’s economic decline and the division between it and the West Bank. Isolating Gaza in order to contain Hamas contributes to the desperation and extremism of its people.

The international community is in a position to help. Following the Annapolis meting, the international community is planning a major donors’ conference focused on development assistance to the Abbas-Fayad government which is facing a deficit of approximately $90 million a month. This conference, which could be crucial in securing aid for the Palestinian economy, will consider how it can help Gazans without strengthening Hamas.  

Annapolis and the international donors’ conference that will follow it are critical to advancing toward the goal of Palestinian statehood. But it is not only the Palestinians whose destiny will be determined during these next few months.  Israel has almost as much at stake as the Palestinians. As always, their fates are inextricably linked.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017