The latest round of violence between Hamas and Fatah signal the need for diplomats to consider decoupling the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With Hamas battling Fatah for control of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territories could well be on the way toward splitting into a largely secular West Bank and Islamist Gaza Strip. Even if a temporary truce is reached between the two warring parties, and the shelf-life of such truces has proved short, the fundamental ideological differences that divide the two Palestinian territories will persist. Such differing worldviews will have a potentially major impact on the larger Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
From their starkly contrasting vantage points, the West Bank’s leaders will continue to view their dispute with Israel as a political matter. The Gaza Strip’s Islamists will see the dispute in terms of religious obligation. The West Bank’s leaders will seek political settlement to bring about a better future. The Gaza Strip’s leaders will seek only total victory. Consequently, negotiations with the West Bank’s leaders would be the “art of the possible,” while any talks with the Gaza Strip’s leadership would be the “art of the impossible.” Given this reality, international and regional diplomats should seriously examine treating the historic Israel-Palestinian dispute, not as a single matter subject to a grand, if not idealistic, final settlement at some time in the future, but as two separate disputes: one between Israel and the West Bank, and the other between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Then, the diplomatic process could proceed on a more realistic path that focuses on achieving progress where it is possible, while limiting the spread of violence from areas where progress is not feasible.
Even if the latest round of fighting wanes, the disparate political dynamics that govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip have already created a de facto two-entity reality. Furthermore, no matter the outcome of the latest round of Hamas-Fatah combat, the ideological differences that separate the two areas are likely to grow with the passage of time. In turn, the de facto two-entity reality will only harden, making diplomacy that ignores this reality even more futile.
The ideological differences between Fatah and Hamas are unbridgeable. Fatah’s position, as expressed in the 1993 Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization Agreement is that it is “time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize their [Israelis’ and Palestinians’] mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process.” Even as Yasser Arafat ultimately proved unwilling to reach a historic final settlement, Fatah had staked out a position that allowed for mutual recognition and peaceful coexistence.
Hamas, on the other hand, embraces a radical triumphalist approach. Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist and seeks only its destruction. Furthermore, Hamas defines its rejectionism as a matter of religious obligation. The Hamas Charter declares, “The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that. Palestine is an Islamic Waqf land consecrated for Moslem generations until Judgment Day.” The Charter also proclaims, “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Abusing any part of Palestine is abuse directed against part of religion.”
A diplomatic formula that ignores the irreconcilable differences that currently divide the predominantly Fatah-led West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza Strip has very little chance to succeed. Failure to consider the emerging two-entity reality will only thwart the possibility of diplomatic success, limit the possibility of containing the spread of violence from the Gaza Strip, and provide time for radical Islamists to accumulate power in the West Bank. A new approach that seeks to consolidate gains made in the West Bank from past diplomatic accords and then incrementally advance the West Bank along a political horizon toward full-fledged sovereignty, coupled with a tough approach that erects a “firewall” around the radical Islamist “statelet” that is emerging in the Gaza Strip holds the most realistic prospect of promoting stability and advancing political reconciliation. Such a two-track approach would leverage the West Bank’s leaders’ relative pragmatism to reach negotiated agreements, allow the pragmatists to strengthen their standing from diplomatic achievements, and provide mechanisms by which the West Bank could develop a viable and sustainable economy and functioning political and legal institutions necessary for full sovereignty. An approach that seals off the Gaza Strip to all but humanitarian assistance would insulate surrounding areas from the spread of the kind of violence and radicalism that currently plague the Gaza Strip.
Some might argue that such an approach would lead Gaza toward “state failure.” However, it is already a failed “statelet.” Hamas’ illiberal domination of that area has suffocated investment flows, barred economic development, and made the rule of law all but impossible. Violence is widespread, legal authority is practically non-existent, and 63% of the Gaza Strip’s residents live in poverty.
Others might assert that such an approach would require Israel to invade the Gaza Strip. They would warn that such an approach would lead to the kind of insurgency that bedeviled Israeli forces in Lebanon and currently hinders U.S. forces in Iraq. They would also caution that beyond the Gaza Strip, Israel’s invasion of that area would give new fuel to regional and global radical Islamist movements. Those arguments are actually irrelevant. Containment of the Gaza Strip does not require an Israeli invasion. It entails sealing off that area’s borders and waters. Egypt and Israel both have the means and the national security interests to do so. Both are eager to curtail the spread of instability from the Gaza Strip. Both are concerned about growing Iranian influence over Hamas. Therefore, they have genuine reason to work together to safeguard their common interests.
Nevertheless, even as the Gaza Strip is sealed off, the diplomatic process should leave available an avenue by which the Gaza Strip could later have a chance to rejoin the larger negotiating process or eventually be absorbed into an increasingly sovereign West Bank, perhaps modeled after West Germany’s absorption of East Germany at the end of the Cold War.
There would be the possibility that visible political and economic progress in the West Bank could eventually inspire a new pragmatic leadership to gain sufficient popular support within the Gaza Strip to topple Hamas, whose rule would bring only hardship and economic misery for the isolated territory. Smart diplomacy always leaves openings to seize upon positive developments that might occur. A process that decouples the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be no different.
To bring about such a process, the Madrid Quartet (United Nations, European Union, Russia and the United States) should negotiate quietly behind the scenes with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and/or other Palestinian leaders who embrace the Madrid Quartet’s basic principles to secure their consent for the two-track approach. As noted above, such an approach could be temporary e.g., an avenue for returning to a joint framework would be left open.
In the end, if there is a silver-lining to the current Hamas-Fatah fighting, it is that this conflict has put into the open the reality that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are truly two distinct entities. A diplomatic approach that embraces this reality, offers perhaps the best chance to unfreeze the status quo that benefits none of the parties. If the new approach can achieve progress in the West Bank and contain the spread of instability from the Gaza Strip, the seeds for a new regional architecture that would be more conducive to political reconciliation could be planted. At a time when chaos reigns in an increasingly sectarian Iraq, possible ethnic conflict simmers in Lebanon, and Iran continues its rise toward possible regional hegemony, the potential benefits from decoupling the West Bank and Gaza Strip are made even more attractive than they would otherwise be.