First Published: 2006-05-23

Gaza chaos spirals out of control

Palestinians fear prospect of realising their dream of independence is growing ever more distant.


Middle East Online

By Charles Levinson - GAZA CITY

Escalating power struggle between rival factions

As violence in Gaza spirals out of control amid an escalating power struggle between rival factions, Palestinians fear the prospect of realising their dream of independence is growing ever more distant.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza last September, the seaside strip with its 1.3 million residents became a 27-mile-long (16-mile) test tube for Palestinian self-rule.

Gaza, observers said at the time, would be a portent of what a future Palestinian state might look like.

But in the intervening eight months, an already fragile security situation has degenerated into a deadly power struggle between the newly-elected Hamas government and the vanquished Fatah factions that many feel could end up in civil war.

Foreigners have been kidnapped and unsubstantiated rumours abound of an Al-Qaeda-inspired presence lurking in Gaza. The European Union and United Nations have had to withdraw their foreign staff on multiple occasions in recent months.

Even before a dramatic firefight by the parliament building in Gaza City on Monday, which left one dead and nine wounded, the Hamas government's refusal to renounce violence or recognise Israel's right to exist had alienated many in the international community and triggered economic sanctions.

Under the terms of an internationally-backed peace plan known as the roadmap, the Palestinians were initially meant to have achieved statehood last year.

With that deadline now having come and gone, there is a growing sense of despondency that independence is slipping out of their grasp.

"Because of the new leadership, international public opinion is now perceiving the Palestinian case as part of the extremist Islamic movements in the world, which is reducing support and sympathy for our cause," said Ghassan Khatib, a former cabinet minister.

"Our delegation at the UN is telling us that we're having difficulty getting the same level of support that we used to have before."

Ahmed Hellis, a spokesman for Fatah, also pinned the blame on Hamas for "hurting our efforts to end the occupation and establish the state of Palestine".

Hamas might be able to shrug off such comments as sour grapes on behalf of its opponents but the public appears equally pessimistic.

Some even say that the price of independence is not worth paying if the past few months are any kind of barometer.

"It's clear that Hamas and Fatah both only care about themselves and having power," said Yunis Abu Sultan, a waiter in Gaza City. "Forget an independent state, we'd be better off if Jordan or Egypt ruled us again."

For its part, Hamas rejects accusations that it is responsible for delaying Palestinian statehood and says the blame lies with Israel.

"There is still hope for a Palestinian state, but the problem remains first and foremost the Israeli occupation and its practices, and their efforts to create chaos," said Yasser Mansur, vice president of the Hamas bloc of lawmakers in parliament.

But with Hamas refusing to recognise the Jewish state's right to exist, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can forge ahead with his plan to unilaterally rewrite the map of the Middle East with borders that the Palestinians say cannot be viable.

The West may not be willing to endorse such a strategy but they will also not be prepared to deal with Hamas until it changes its platform.

The moderate Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas still insists that the roadmap's target of two states living side-by-side in peace and security can be reached.

But analysts believe that US President George W. Bush, who was meeting Olmert on Tuesday, will lose enthusiasm for such a vision and give up on Abbas if he can not stop the situation from unravelling.

"Why would somebody give something to Mahmud Abbas if he can't deliver in return?" asked Jon Alterman, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former member of the policy planning staff at the US State Department.


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