In a land under siege, the tensions - and the dangers - are rising

The Independent

16 December 2006

On a foreign fundraising tour earlier this week, the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told reporters in the Sudanese capital Khartoum that "words such as 'civil war' don't exist in our dictionary". But to the outside world, the situation in Gaza seems to be edging dangerously close to such a conflagration.

Yesterday there were exchanges of fire between followers of Hamas and militants loyal to the Fatah movement. Tension between the two has been building all week. On Monday three sons of a Fatah security chief were shot dead. On Wednesday a Hamas judge was executed in an apparent act of retribution. Then on Thursday came the most serious incident of all. Mr Haniyeh's convoy was fired upon as he crossed back into Gaza from Egypt. A Hamas spokesman made the grave charge that that this was an attempt by Fatah to assassinate Mr Haniyeh.

These tit-for-tat attacks show that law and order in Gaza is close to breaking down altogether. Militias and powerful clans are operating in Gaza beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority's weak security forces. Hamas and Fatah seem intent on pursuing their own agendas. Negotiations between the two parties to form a unity government broke down last months. The threat from Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, to call new elections is only likely to stoke the conflict further. The true interests of the Palestinian people are being overlooked. Division would be disastrous not only for the Palestinian people but also for prospects of a settlement with Israel. The opponents of negotiation are already beginning to argue that it is pointless for the Israeli government to talk to the Palestinian leadership, because no one is truly in charge.

The leaders of Fatah and Hamas must come to their senses. But we must not forget the context to all this. Sanctions on the Palestinian Authority imposed by the international community since the election of Hamas have crippled the Palestinian economy. The salaries of 165,000 public sector workers have not been paid. This was the reason Mr Haniyeh was forced to travel abroad to raise funds.

On top of this, Israel allows no agricultural exports to leave the strip. Since the Israeli air force bombed Gaza's only power plant in June, people have been receiving only a few hours of electricity per day. Punitive military incursions by the Israeli military into Gaza this year have killed more than 200 Palestinians and traumatised many more. The Independent's sponsored Christmas charities - Merlin and the Welfare Association - are helping to alleviate such suffering, but the task grows more formidable all the time. Palestinian society in Gaza is under a state of siege. It is little wonder that political tensions are flaring.

It is true that Israel has - in the main - kept to a ceasefire agreed last month. This is an encouraging sign. But Israel and the international community still need to do a great deal more to strengthen the domestic hand of Mahmoud Abbas, the one figure among the Palestinians in a position to resume negotiations with Israel. This does not mean encouraging him to take on Hamas militarily. But it does mean lifting the restrictions on the Palestinian economy and helping him to deliver tangible improvements to the quality of life of the Palestinian people.

Some in Israel will be tempted to conclude that a civil war among the Palestinians would be in their interests. It would not. The only solution to the murderous violence between these two peoples will involve two viable states living side by side. Their futures are bound up together. If the history of this tormented region tells us anything, it is that when one side suffers, so too, eventually, will the other.