Analysis: Will PA infighting degenerate into civil war?

ME expert: The future of the Palestinian Authority may be in "who splits first."

fatah  hamas clash 298.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
fatah hamas clash 298.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
This week's flare-up of violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has academics, politicians, and journalists alike asking whether or not the Palestinians are headed for a long-term, bloody conflict. While Hamas and Fatah have been locked in a power struggle since Hamas's victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, the most recent surge in violence looks less like political friction and more like a civil war. As The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday, some Gaza City residents feel the situation is analogous to a "mini-Iraq." The scale of the violence aside, the difference between the situation in Iraq and the one in the Palestinian Authority is that the Palestinian conflict is, for now, a Palestinian matter, whereas the United States, Iran, and Syria are all embroiled in Iraq's current state of affairs. Although the three analysts interviewed by the Post disagreed on whether the current violence in the PA was likely to escalate, they all agreed that an all-out war between the Palestinians would be a disaster for Israel, if not a regional catastrophe. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, former head of the National Security Council, foresees an imminent collapse of the PA. "When the PA falls, the outcome will be the collapse of all Palestinian cease-fires - between the Palestinian [factions] and with us." "Hamas is trying to grow into 'Hizbullah Junior.' The threat is that when the PA collapses, Hamas will begin to pursue anti-tank missiles and Katyusha rockets, which would pose a serious strategic threat to Israel" he said. Dr. Eli Karmon, a senior research scholar for the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, agreed with Dayan that the current intra-Palestinian conflict should be taken seriously. Karmon said that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's statements in Teheran this month that Hamas would never recognize Israel represented a permanent gap between Hamas and Fatah. Karmon believes that Hamas perceives Israel as weakened by the summer's Lebanon war, and the US too tied up in Iraq to come to Israel's aid. Yoram Schweitzer, a researcher at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, however, said the conflict is not yet at a level that could be defined as "civil war," let alone a regional conflict. In his opinion, full-scale conflict is still "avoidable." "Abbas and Haniyeh have the ability to keep this conflict from developing into something more serious," Schweitzer said. For Schweitzer, "Anarchy in the West Bank and Gaza is not in Israel's interest. What Israel needs is a partner, and civil war precludes that." Dayan believes that regionally, the Gaza-Egypt border presents the main risk for an escalation of violence. "It is not the Egyptians, but rather militants inside Sinai that would be happy to sell Hizbullah-like weapons to Hamas," Dayan said. So although the recent violence has not yet exploded on a regional level, the possibility exists that external players could become involved. Schweitzer believes that the best thing for Israel to do is nothing. "Intervention in Palestinian affairs could by a unifying factor for the Palestinians, against us." While Dayan agrees that "blaming Israel is what unites Hamas and Fatah," he disagrees that inaction on Israel's part is the appropriate response, and strongly feels that Israel should use its military power to quash Hamas. Dayan suggested that Israel should "use the carrot-and-stick approach" - supporting Fatah diplomatically and weakening Hamas militarily. Dayan also hopes that the IDF will be redeployed on the Egyptian border to stop the arms flow, and worries that failure to stop Hamas would necessitate a larger military redeployment in the Gaza Strip. He dismisses the position of some pundits that Israel ought to release imprisoned Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five consecutive life sentences for murder and attempted murder of Israelis in terror attacks, as a non-starter. "Israel cannot release a prisoner who was sentenced, by its own courts, to five life sentences," he said. Karmon added that the Palestinian people might view Barghouti, if he were released, as an "Israeli collaborator, which would amount to Israel releasing a convicted criminal in return for nothing." Karmon sees the future of the Palestinian Authority in terms of "who splits first." "If Hamas splits, with the moderates joining Fatah, then there is chance for stability, even peace," he predicted. Unless Abbas can unify Fatah, Karmon believes, the crisis will get worse before it gets better. Karmon speculated on the possibility of Hamas reinventing Gaza as a fundamentalist Islam outpost, and Fatah controlling a more moderate West Bank. All three analysts agree that the short-term picture does not look rosy for Israel, Fatah, or the region as a whole. Those who stand to lose the most right now are not the regional players, however, but the people of the West Bank and Gaza, whose government is crumbling and whose security has disappeared.