Hamas nearly wins control of Gaza

Fighting between Palestinian factions is dividing their turf and dashing statehood hopes.

Hamas tightened its grip over Gaza Wednesday, leaving just a few pockets of Fatah resistance as the final obstacles to the Islamic militants establishing complete control over the coastal strip.

Clashes between the two Palestinian factions continued throughout the day, killing at least 10 people and causing many to call the conflict an all-out civil war between America-backed Fatah and their Islamist rivals who oppose a peace deal with Israel.

The prospect of Gaza falling to Hamas, and Fatah retaining a military advantage in the West Bank, is raising concerns that Palestinians could find themselves divided, which would deal a severe blow to their movement for an independent state.

"This is the end of the Palestinian state, frankly," says Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi. "If you have two separate systems, there is no way that you can have a Palestinian state that is contiguous." If there is no change in the tide of the fighting, Gaza will become a "hostile" Palestinian ministate in the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas, while the West Bank would remain under Israel's control with a Fatah-run militia in control of the cities, Mrs. Ashrawi says.

That would mean a de facto reversal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements that recognized Gaza and the West Bank as a unified political entity despite their physical separation.

Fighters from the Hamas movement seized most of the security headquarters in southern and northern Gaza Strip that belonged to rival Fatah, a Hamas military spokesman said Wednesday. Abu Obaida, spokesman for Hamas's military wing, told reporters that "no security positions in northern and southern Gaza Strip are left."

The Hamas gains were confirmed by Fatah spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, who conceded that the Islamic militants had taken over some Fatah security posts.

At least three key locations in Gaza City – the compound of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the headquarters of the Preventative Security Service, and the compound of the Palestinian Military Intelligence – were thought to be still under the control of Fatah.

Repeating a call for a truce between the two groups, President Abbas indirectly threatened to pull his Fatah Party out of the Hamas-led unity government if fighting did not stop. On Tuesday, Fatah suspended its participation in the government, calling the fighting in Gaza a coup attempt.

"I don't blame any party. I blame those who point their guns at the faces of their brothers," Mr. Abbas told a joint news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah after a meeting with Holland Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen.

Palestinian self-rule

If Hamas consolidates its military control in the Gaza Strip, it would raise questions about the fate of Palestinian self-rule in the coastal strip of about 1.5 million people. The breakdown of central authority in Gaza has already left the Palestinian Authority (PA) with few functioning offices.

The Islamic militants will have to decide what type of rule to establish in Gaza and whether to consolidate the gain or push the fighting into the West Bank, where its militias are much weaker.

"If we see continued Hamas control over Gaza, we will be in a new paradigm," says Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv and an architect of the Oslo Peace accords.

Israel, Egypt, the Arab League, and the international community will all need to recalibrate foreign policies to account for two different Palestinian entities, Mr. Pundak says. "In my mind, what we have to ask is how to prevent this from spreading into the West Bank and how to strengthen the counterrevolutionary forces – because this is a revolution."

"I would like to see Israel dealing differently with the Palestinian Authority and Abbas in the West Bank" by freeing up restrictions on Palestinian travel and releasing prisoners, he says.

It wouldn't be the first time the West Bank and Gaza were under separate political regimes. During the 19 years preceding Israel's conquest of the territories in the 1967 Six-Day War, the West Bank was part of Jordan while Gaza was administered by Egypt. Under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, the two territories were recognized as one economic entity, and Israel committed to building a transportation artery to allow free passage of Palestinians back and forth.

Palestinians have accused Israel's policy of frequent closures of Gaza's borders and a ban on Gazans traveling to the West Bank as an effort to create a de facto separation.

The historic Gaza-West Bank divide

For years, a socioeconomic gap has existed between the two regions. The West Bank, with more natural resources, more arable land for agriculture, and a larger middle class enjoys a per capita gross domestic product that is 30 percent higher than that of the Gaza Strip, according to Samir Barghouti, an economist who directs the Arab Center for Agricultural Development in Ramallah.

A robust middle class has made the West Bank less receptive to the influence of religious fundamentalists, the economist says. "In Gaza, the middle class is very weak, and the influence of the poor, who are looking for radical solutions, is stronger."

Mr. Barghouti says he expected that a Hamas-run Gaza Strip would fall under the orbit of Egypt, while the West Bank would be influenced by Israel and Jordan.

"The consequences of Hamas taking over Gaza means that we are losing 40 years of struggle; we are losing the Palestinian national dream," he says. "We will have two separate entities. This was not the goal of the Palestinian national movement. "

• Safwat al-Kahlout contributed to this report from Gaza.

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