Ties that bind?

In this selection from 'Hamas vs. Fatah,' the author explains the Gaza-West Bank divide.

As the internal strife between Hamas and Fatah became more pronounced, and as Hamas and Fatah became more entrenched in their new territories, it became increasingly evident that, if conditions continued to deteriorate, the West Bank and Gaza Strip could evolve into two geographically and politically distinct entities. ...While the Palestinians nearly unanimously reject the notion of a Gaza-West Bank split, it is not so outrageous a concept. After all, Palestinian society always had been strongly characterized by tribalism and strong regional differences that set West Bankers apart from Gazans. In other words, while the West Bank is about 30 miles from the Gaza Strip, there has always been more separating the two territories than a patch of Israeli desert. Competing patriarchal clans have long dominated local politics in the Arab world. The same holds in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the Palestinians have talked of nationalism for nearly a century, nationalism is a recent concept in the Middle East; it was introduced by western powers in the World War I era. Thus, despite arguments to the contrary, regionalism often trumps nationalism in the Arab world. And regionalism, in turn, often is trumped by family (a'ila) and clan (hamula) allegiances. ...the absence of intermarriage between clans or families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is another traditional dividing line. Although traditional marriages arranged between tribal chiefs are no longer common among Palestinians, one study notes that "kinship-based marriage arrangements now exist as a way to preserve the continued identity of dispersed communities." These communities derive from specific, smaller areas of the former Palestinian mandate and rarely cross the West Bank-Gaza Strip divide. Geopolitics have also reinforced Palestinian tribalism and limited the ties between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. After the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip and Jordan controlled the West Bank. With the Gaza Strip under the control of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the powerful and gripping speaker who championed a brand of socialism known as Arab nationalism, and the West Bank under the command of King Hussein, a royalist who was often wary of Nasser's socialist influence, ties between the two territories were often lukewarm, or even cold. Until the Jordanians and Egyptians lost their territorial spoils during the Six Day War of 1967, two distinctly different political cultures took root in the territories. ...When Israel assumed control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip following the June 1967 war, the gap between the two territories widened in several ways. Israel placed tight travel restrictions on the territories for security reasons, as postwar tensions ran high. The Israelis also allowed tribal structures to remain in place and in some cases reinforced them. In the 1970s, for example, the Israelis employed Gaza's patriarchal leaders to preside over disputes as a means of maintaining order. It can be argued that the influence of these leaders kept the Gaza Strip isolated and set in its provincial ways. ...The poverty associated with the problem of the Palestinian refugees has contributed directly to two distinct economies and, consequently, two different cultures. In 1997, more than 40 percent of Gazans were living below the poverty line ($650 a year). That was four times the West Bank's 11 percent poverty rate, which was still high by most standards. Before the al-Aqsa intifada of 2000, 22 percent of all Gazans were unemployed, while only 9 percent of West Bankers were not working. Although the uprising and subsequent Israeli response to the Palestinian violence certainly took its toll on both territories in recent years, Gaza was unquestionably harder hit; unemployment topped out above 50 percent. In light of the sanctions imposed on Gaza after the Hamas coup in June 2007 and the monetary infusions enjoyed by the West Bank to support the Palestinian Authority (PA), the gap between the two separate economies widened further. Given the devastating effects of the international sanctions against Hamas in 2006 and 2007, it may take years for the economy of Gaza to recover. As economic and cultural differences emerged in the West Bank and Gaza, residents of the two areas have reportedly developed a quiet animosity toward each other. After conducting hundreds of interviews in the early 1990s, Khalil Shiqaqi, the aforementioned Palestinian sociologist and pollster embroiled in the 2006 elections controversy, noted "a psychological barrier between the inhabitants of the two territories and... mutual suspicion" that cannot be "disregarded or ignored." Shiqaqi's 1994 study, The West Bank and Gaza Strip: Future Political and Administrative Relations (published in Arabic), uncovered a prevailing West Bank belief that the Gaza Strip is "nothing but a big refugee camp." West Bankers also saw the Gaza Strip as a backward society with "increased crime... inclined to roughness, extremism, grimness, fanaticism, and instability." Gazans, in turn, resented the patronizing and discriminating West Bankers, who show them little respect. Gazans were frustrated that while they were often willing to accept the consequences of insurrection against Israel, "workers from the West Bank fill the work spots left vacant from when [Israel] prevents Gaza workers from coming to their jobs in Israel." ...On the eve of the 2000 intifada, the animosity between the two territories appeared to have changed little. One Israeli internal security report, released just before the violence erupted, noted "mounting hostility and a growing rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip," to the point that "senior officials in the West Bank are against opening the 'safe passage' route [with the Gaza Strip], as the result could be to flood [the West Bank] with Gazans." ...the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 destroyed the vestiges of political ties that bound the two territories. Indeed, a different Palestinian leader assumed power in each territory. In Gaza, Hamas began to govern its people with a blend of authoritarianism and Islamism. According to the International Crisis Group, clan and family allegiances actually "helped prevent a total collapse." In the West Bank, Abbas kept his hold on the Palestinian Authority by mobilizing its military but stressing a more secular, nationalist approach. Family and clan also played a significant role in the West Bank, but Abbas's canton suffered less from the feuding and fighting between clans and families than in Gaza. In fact, Fatah actually sought to reignite family and tribal vendettas where there were none, particularly if they could be used against Hamas. Journalist Amira Hass noted another important dividing line between the two territories. The Hamas leaders in Gaza created new government institutions, separate from those of the Fatah-ruled West Bank. She notes that Hamas "tightened its grip on three important civilian institutions: the court system, the municipality, and the Central Palestinian Bureau of Statistics." Hamas members also held sessions of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza, which were not attended by Fatah. ...The drastic economic and political divisions that developed between the two Palestinian territories, made worse by the June 2007 coup and the January 2008 breach of the Gaza-Egyptian border, called into question whether the two territories would ever be rejoined, even in the event of political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. As the International Crisis Group observed, "[the] geographic split of Palestinian territories risks enduring..." From Hamas vs. Fatah by Jonathan Schanzer. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted with permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin's Press LLC.