Amir Cohen/Reuters
Trails of smoke are seen after the launch of rockets from the northern Gaza Strip toward Israel on Oct. 24.

Momentum builds for Gaza to secede, Israel and West Bank to become one

Gaza and the West Bank have become two irreconcilable entities, many say. Meanwhile, Israelis increasingly support a state shared with West Bank Palestinians, albeit unequally.

After decades of the "two states for two peoples" blueprint more or less dominating proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a new paradigm is gaining momentum. Under this model, Israel absorbs the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians, while Hamas-run Gaza becomes a separate entity aligned with the Middle East’s rising Islamist powers.

Such a development could potentially improve stability after decades of unresolved conflict, but it represents a blow to Palestinians and their aspirations of statehood as well as to Israelis who see a Palestinian state as essential for their own security. Gaza militants’ firing of more than 70 rockets and mortars into Israel today emphasized the security risk posed to Israel by a rogue neighbor that neither it nor the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) can control. 

A visit to Gaza yesterday by the emir of Qatar, a key member of the region’s emerging Islamist alliance and the first leader to make a state visit since Hamas took over in 2007, underscored the fact that Gaza and the West Bank have since become two distinct – and potentially irreconcilable – entities. Unless that split is resolved, Palestinians can’t present a united front at the peace table with Israel.

“It’s a wonderful excuse [for Israelis] … to say, ‘Until you settle things with yourselves and we have one address and we can talk to the new leadership [peace talks will be postponed],’ ” says Alon Liel, a veteran Israeli diplomat who now works in the private sector. “And you hear more and more [talk] about the possibility of annexing the West Bank or at least finding an agreement that in practical terms [makes it] one state while Gaza will stay on its own or have an agreement with Egypt.”

Israeli Jews have long eschewed the possibility of a single binational state out of fear that it would sooner or later result in an Arab majority, undermining their ideal of a state that is “Jewish and democratic.” While the removal of Gaza from the equation would allow Jews to retain a clear majority, the democracy question is more controversial.

If Israel were to annex the West Bank, 69 percent of Israeli Jews would not want the territory's 2.5 million Palestinians to be allowed to vote, according to a poll published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz yesterday.

Mr. Liel had a hand in the poll but says he would support it only if it were democratic. “In practical terms, we already have one state,” he says. “The Palestinian Authority is not an independent political unit. It is dependent on Israel for everything, including security. So … many Israelis feel we don’t have negotiations, we don’t have real pressure from outside world to negotiate, on the ground … it’s quiet. So why not continue?”

A September poll carried out jointly by Israeli and Palestinian groups revealed that roughly 30 percent of Israelis and 31 percent of Palestinians support a one-state solution, up from 11 percent and 27 percent respectively four years ago. (Editor's note: This section has been revised and updated to more accurately reflect the most recent polling data.)

Gaza's secessionists

The split between Gaza and the West Bank goes back to 2007, when Hamas – which had won an overwhelming victory in 2006 parliamentary elections – violently ousted its secular rival Fatah from the Gaza Strip following a year of rocky relations as the two parties tried to govern together.

Egypt has mediated reconciliation talks for years, which at times have appeared close to the parties' reaching an agreement, and Qatar has tried to bridge the gap as well. But many say that after five years under Hamas rule, Gaza has become a fundamentally different place than the West Bank under the Fatah-dominated PA, making reunification nearly impossible. 

“This split is irreversible in this phase of our history,” says Ghassan Khatib, who until recently served as PA spokesman. “The factors that led to this split are still in effect.” 

Among those factors, he says, are Iran’s encouragement of Hamas, attempts by Israel and the US to discourage reconciliation, and Hamas leaders “waiting to see the Arab Spring settle in their favor” with support from Islamist leaders.

“Hamas, since they won, is a secessionist movement – not just in rebellion to the government of the Palestinian Authority," says Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "It’s making Gaza a secessionist territory and a de facto state that breaks away from the Palestinian state in the making. That’s a reality that cannot be ignored.” 

Especially yesterday. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, arrived in Gaza to great fanfare, thanks to his pledge of $400 million in reconstruction aid to the tiny coastal territory. His visit not only underscored Gaza’s emergence as a statelet unto itself, but was widely interpreted as a slight to the cash-strapped PA in the West Bank, which he declined to visit. 

While some expressed dismay with funneling such significant funding to a terrorist group, others say that support from Qatar, plus heightened engagement from Egypt and Turkey, could actually help prevent Gaza from being a more radicalized and desperate place. 

“We have a new Egypt now, with an entirely new situation of a new Egyptian-Turkish alliance,” says Liel, who adds that Qatar is part of this new Sunni Islamist bloc. “Having them involved in Gaza can moderate the Gaza leadership, can create in Gaza … religious leadership aiming at modernization, which would be an unbelievable development. But we have to see if it happens.”

Possibility for future peacemaking

Mr. Palmor of Israel’s Foreign Ministry says the problem of negotiating with the Palestinians before a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation was addressed at the 2007 Annapolis, Md., peace talks, with the Israelis accepting that implementation on the ground would happen gradually. 

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni understood that any peace deal “wouldn’t be automatically and enthusiastically adopted by Hamas,” but would rather be implemented where possible, says Palmor. “The idea was, we will negotiate with those who are willing to negotiate. We will reach an agreement. And when we reach that point, maybe it will create a new dynamic that will change reality.”

While the outlook for the two-state solution envisioned at Annapolis appears bleak, Liel holds out hope that the Palestinian bid to upgrade its status to a “nonmember state” at the United Nations next month could create new momentum in that direction if a majority of European nations backed the motion, indicating substantial international support for the Palestinians' right to a state of their own.

“We know it doesn’t have a practical meaning, but it is of a huge symbolic meaning and a huge legal meaning and I think it could reverse the momentum toward the one-state reality,” he says. “I think it can change the atmosphere among Palestinians, maybe even in Fatah-Hamas relations. It can definitely change the mood inside Israel.”

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