After an unexpected show of strength at a rally on Monday by supporters of the Palestinian Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip, rival Hamas forces – which control the area – moved quickly to arrest hundreds of Fatah activists, increasing the likelihood of more conflict in the territories.
The Palestinian split into two camps, a Fatah willing to compromise with Israel and a Hamas still insistent on refusing to recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist, and the newly heightened tensions between the camps have further clouded the outlook for peace.
The Associated Press reports on the widening divide between Fatah and Hamas, including David and Goliath scenes between the two groups reminiscent of Israel's past confrontations with unarmed Palestinians.
Hamas security forces moved swiftly against their Fatah rivals in the aftermath of a mass Fatah rally that ended with seven people dead, rounding up 400 people in an overnight crackdown, Fatah officials said Tuesday.
Monday's rally, a memorial service for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, drew 250,000 people, making it Fatah's biggest show of force in Gaza since Hamas took control of the coastal territory in June.
The Fatah supporters pelted Hamas troops with stones, surging forward even as they were met by heavy bursts of gunfire. One Hamas policeman dropped to one knee for better aim. At one point, a young stone thrower collapsed and was carried off by others.
The internecine violence points to grim prospects for peace talks the US is expecting to sponsor between Fatah and Israel before the end of the year, something that Israeli officials emphasized on Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reports.
A senior Israeli official said the meeting, due to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, may only last a single day and not involve any real negotiations on ending the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
[Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak also suggested that there could be no progress while the Islamists of Hamas control the Gaza Strip and until the Palestinians recognize the "Jewish character" of Israel.
Israel's Jerusalem Post reports that Fatah members are describing the events at the Gaza rally as a public relations coup for their group.
Undoubtedly, the clashes are seen as a PR disaster for Hamas, which is now being accused by some Palestinians of suppressing a "peaceful" rally in honor of Arafat. Scenes of Hamas militiamen opening fire at Fatah supporters and beating them on the streets of Gaza City are likely to alienate many Palestinians.
In the past few days, Fatah has exploited ceremonies to commemorate Arafat to wage a campaign against Hamas. At speeches in Ramallah and Gaza City, Fatah representatives and leaders declared that the countdown for Hamas's "coup" in the Gaza Strip had begun.
The proposed peace conference in Annapolis has only escalated tensions between Fatah and Hamas, whose leaders have stepped up their attacks on [Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud] Abbas, warning him against making concessions to Israel at the parley.
The deepening divisions among the Palestinians cast a serious shadow of doubt over Abbas's ability to deliver at the Annapolis conference. Moreover, the severe crisis raises questions about Abbas's ability to sell any agreement with Israel to the Palestinian public.
Nevertheless, the Voice of America, a US government-owned news service, reports that Israel is planning on a major release of Palestinian prisoners in the coming days to bolster the chances of success at the scheduled conference at Annapolis.
Speaking before the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says plans to release about 400 Palestinian prisoners are intended as a confidence-building measure before a planned Mideast Peace conference.
At the same time [Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark] Regev says Israel is unlikely to ease roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank that hinder the movement of Palestinians.
"Everyone I think understands, including the Palestinian leadership that if Israel moves in an irresponsible way - if we move too quickly and a security vacuum is created - then extremists - groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will come into the vacuum they will launch a whole series of extremist and terrorist operations and that will kill the peace process," Regev said.
On his blog Prospectsforpeace.com, former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy says that Israel's politicians are also weakened by divisions, limiting the prospects for concessions from their side, though he also argues they could make some concessions if the country's prime minister is willing to take some political heat.
A major reason for the shifting of emphasis away from core permanent status issues has been the lack of political wiggle room afforded to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by the coalition math. Parties within Olmert's governing coalition, as well as members of his own Kadima party, declared their opposition to any far reaching understandings with the Palestinians on territory, Jerusalem…etc. Nevertheless, whether before Annapolis in a last ditch effort to make the gathering something more than a "photo-up" or post-Annapolis as negotiations move forward, the core issues will eventually have to be addressed.
Bottom line, should he be so inclined, Olmert has a majority to pursue negotiations and for many key Roadmap deliverables; and yes there would be the political knocks, bumps and crises that can be safely avoided by doing nothing. None of those crises will be as damaging to Olmert politically or to Israel strategically as the folly of last summer's Lebanon war.
Israel's Haaretz newspaper quotes an unnamed Palestinian Fatah official as saying that two key members of Olmert's cabinet are standing in the way of a commitment to a meaningful "joint declaration" on the peace process that Fatah wants to be the result of the Annapolis meeting.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are preventing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from moving forward on a joint declaration with the Palestinian Authority, a senior PA official said Tuesday.
"Olmert is willing but the problem is with Livni and Barak," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous. "As of yet [they] haven't been able to reach an agreement on anything, and there has been absolutely no progress."