The violent confrontation between warring Palestinian factions unfolding in Gaza is far more than a civil war. It's a coup d'etat accompanied by a civil war. And it's also the most serious, most nefarious chapter in the short history of the Palestinian Authority.
The heavy fighting pitting forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a k a Abu Mazen, against members of the Islamist Hamas movement, have not only revived fears of an intra-Palestinian civil war but have shattered the dream of the Palestinians gaining independence and ruling themselves as a sovereign nation at any time in the foreseeable future.
The defeat of Abu Mazen's Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip represents much more than a defeat for the mainstream Palestinian political-military movement. The mega-fiasco in Gaza is also a defeat of U.S. foreign policy in the region; it is the culmination of a policy of inaction on the part of the Bush administration. It represents a failure of Israel's policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian territories. After nearly 40 years of occupation Israel finds itself facing a far more hostile environment in Gaza than when they entered the territory in 1967.
And possibly far more consequential in the Arab world, the resumption of fighting among Palestinians represents a defeat — and loss of prestige — for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah who tried to broker a cease-fire among the warring factions.
"In light of the dramatic escalation of violence in Gaza and President Abbas' move to disband the Palestinian government, the U.S. needs to urgently rethink its failed policy in the Middle East," said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow and director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at the Century Foundation and a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation. "Palestinians, and Israelis too, have much blame to shoulder, but American disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for 6½ years and its pursuit of regime change in Palestine have contributed significantly to the new developments," Mr. Levy said.
The onetime adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said, "In its failed effort to prevent Palestinians from embracing Hamas, they are driving them instead into the arms of al Qaeda."
Mr. Levy cautioned the United States should not be playing off the West Bank against Gaza and Fatah against Hamas but should "allow instead Palestinian politics to take its course." But the only course Palestinian politics seem to follow these days is one bent on violence and bloodshed and all-out civil war.
"In the last couple of days they [the Palestinians] seem to have crossed that Rubicon," Mr. Levy told United Press International.
There is now a de facto schism within Palestinian society: on one side the Fatah-led secularists and on the other the Islamists of Hamas. And all signs indicate the intra-Palestinian conflict is not likely to abate any time soon.
While Hamas stands little chance to defeat Fatah in the West Bank, which is heavily dominated by Fatah sympathizers, the Islamists on the other hand have gained the upper hand in Gaza. President Abbas is now asking for a U.N. military force to restore order there. That, however, is highly unlikely as no nation would be willing to commit troops under such precarious and volatile conditions as prevails in Gaza.
Israel, which is watching the situation very attentively, is caught in a dilemma, a damned if you do, damned if you don't type situation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can hardly stand by with his arms crossed and allow an Islamist entity to establish itself on Israel's border. But Israeli intervention in the fighting on behalf of Fatah would be equally disastrous.
"If, in the context of a Palestinian civil war, Israel decapitates the Hamas leadership, then you might as well hand Fatah Israeli Defense Force uniforms and get them to wear Israeli flags on their lapels," said Mr. Levy.
Mr. Olmert has already warned of "regional consequences" if there is a Hamas victory. When you think of regional consequences, "one's mind immediately goes to the Iranians or the Syrians," says Mr. Levy.
In the interim, though all parties emerge as losers in this latest Palestinian debacle, the gravest consequence is that those who stand to lose the most are the Palestinians, no matter on which side their sympathies rest.
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.