President George W. Bush’s call for a new peace conference for Israel, Palestine, and neighboring states that back a two-state solution is a welcome, if very tardy, development. But efforts to re-start the peace process now confront a stark new reality: two mutually hostile Palestinian entities in Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-led West Bank must now be factored into the process.
The Hamas/Fatah face-off marks a dramatic shift in Palestinian politics, whose top priorities until now has been an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent state. It also tremendously complicates peace negotiations, which both the Palestinians and the “Quartet” (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) had premised on maintaining the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a single territorial unit.
Ironically, these territories were reunited by Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, after 19 years of separation. Previously, Egypt had ruled in Gaza, while Jordan annexed the West Bank. Under Israel’s occupation, and then with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, the territories remained separated geographically, but not politically. The Hamas takeover in Gaza has – at least for now – ended that political unification.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has now set his conditions for dialogue. Hamas must withdraw its armed men from all security headquarters they occupied, return power to the legitimate authority, and apologize to the Palestinian people. Although internal division harms Palestinians’ national interest, it is unlikely amid mutual accusations and incitements that dialogue between Fatah and Hamas will be conducted soon.