hamas kid, israeli flag.
(photo credit: AP [file])
How true were the words of Palestinian writer Hassan Nazzal in decrying the internecine violence that exploded in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank over the past few days: "O Palestinians, we are killing our national cause with our own hands," he wrote. "By all accounts, what is happening in Gaza, Nablus, Hebron and Jenin these days marks one of the darkest pages in our history. It's indeed a very, very black page."
One needn't be Palestinian to feel dismay at the unnecessary killing of 11 people and the wounding of scores more that was carried out by the rival militias of the Fatah and Hamas parties. It is a tragedy that inspires no joy.
It does, however, require some clear thinking - from the Palestinians and, especially, from the international community that is no doubt watching with trepidation as these events continue to unfold.
Before seeking a solution to the problem, one must first understand its source.
The violence began on Sunday morning, when several hundred Fatah-affiliated policemen took to the streets in the Gaza Strip to protest unpaid salaries, storming the Bank of Palestine branch in Gaza City and setting it on fire. They also went on a shooting spree. Interior Minister Said Siam, of Hamas, responded by ordering his ministry's 3,000-strong "back-up" force to quell the protests. What followed were scenes described as reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war, with both sides using automatic rifles, pistols and grenades in battles that subsequently spilled into the West Bank as well.
It would be easy to chalk up these confrontations to the financial hardships suffered by a majority of Palestinians, or to the decades-old rivalry between the secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas. But such a judgment would ignore the deeper, more significant cause: the failure of the Palestinian Authority to establish the rule of law upon which any stable democracy must be founded. This failure has been compounded by the refusal of the Hamas-led government to accept the three basic conditions of the international community for granting it aid and legitimacy.
Those conditions - recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and abiding by the interim peace deals signed by Israel and the PA - are the benchmark by which Hamas can show that it has cast off the black mark of terrorism and donned the mantle of leadership.
Instead, it is choosing demonology over dialogue and is placing the purity of its radical and hateful ideology above the welfare of its people.
It is precisely the steadfastness of the international community in demanding this minimum show of civility that has brought Hamas to the realization that its grip on power is slipping. Likewise, it will only be through the world's continuation of this stance that Hamas will be forced to choose its fate - either as partners in peace who bring their people from poverty to progress, or as illegitimate rogues who willfully forgo their right to participate in the political process.
It is significant, as well, that this crisis should arise just as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the region. Her meeting in Cairo on Tuesday night with foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, meant to strengthen and encourage these relatively moderate Arab states, could not have been reinforced by a more poignant display than the one provided by the rifle-toting thugs on both sides of the Palestinian divide.
"Innocent Palestinians are caught in the crossfire and we call on all parties to stop," Rice said on Tuesday. "The Palestinians deserve calm."
PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, apparently does not share that sentiment. "It looks like Mrs. Rice is adopting the old law, divide and conquer," Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza. "She wants to weaken the states and the nations of the region."
What Ismail refuses to acknowledge is that the "states and the nations of the region" are increasingly critical of Hamas's stand. Qatar is even reported to be pressuring Hamas to accept a unity government agreement with the Quartet's three conditions as its basis. If Haniyeh does not recognize that this is the only way forward, he risks, as Nazzal wrote, killing his national cause with his own hands.