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Contours of a Hamas-Fatah concord

Before they can make peace with Isarel, Palestinians must be united.

By Helena Cobban / February 23, 2009

Amman, Jordan

Can Hamas and the other major Palestinian movement, Fatah, bridge the many rifts between them and build a better working relationship?

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If they can, there is still a chance – despite the Israeli electorate's strong shift to the right – that former Sen. George Mitchell can succeed in his presidentially mandated bid to make peace between Palestinians and Israelis. But if this intra-Palestinian reconciliation bid fails, the hopes for peace would be pummeled, and the Middle East might well see new violence, even more extensive and destabilizing than the recent Gaza war.

That's reason enough for Mr. Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East, to give the intra-Palestinian reconciliation his tacit blessing. (And there are some indications he is doing just that.)

Talks between the two Palestinian parties have already started, mediated by Egypt. Egypt is also mediating indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel over agreements to strengthen the Jan. 18 Gaza cease-fire and to exchange abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (held since June 2006) for hundreds of Palestinian detainees.

Israel's exploitation of this Palestinian rift is taking a tragic human toll on the 1.5 million people who live in Gaza. Israel won't let in crucial construction materials and other aid unless officials from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA), rather than Hamas, accept the freight. (Collective punishment of this sort is illegal under international humanitarian law, but few governments have confronted Israel on that yet.)

The dispute between Fatah and Hamas is thorny and multilayered. They have disagreed over the best way to realize Palestinian national goals, and even over what those goals should be.

Fatah wants a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Hamas seeks the end of Israel as a Jewish state altogether. Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has argued strongly for a two-state outcome and for negotiations with Israel as the only way to win it. He has often openly criticized Hamas's use of violence.

Hamas's leaders argue that Abbas's negotiations have gotten him nowhere, and that meanwhile Israeli settlements in the West Bank – illegal under international law – have expanded. Hamas has sharply criticized Fatah for mistreating Hamas activists living in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. And Fatah criticizes Hamas for doing the same to its supporters in Gaza. Fatah accuses Hamas of being a tool of Iran, and Hamas accuses Fatah of being a tool of the United States. The recriminations seem endless.