By Ghassan Khatib
There has always been a very strong correlation between internal Palestinian issues and Palestinian-Israeli relations. This is true because Israel is a key player in all aspects of Palestinian life. Israel’s troops are on the ground in the West Bank, and occupy the Gaza Strip by air and sea. But Israel’s occupation was never an issue of military or security control alone; it has interfered with Palestinian economic and political development for the four decades of its existence. Because of this, whatever happens inside the occupied Palestinian territories will be affected one way or another by Israeli practices and vice-versa. Reconciliation between the two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, is one of the best illustrations of that.
On the one hand, Israeli policies and practices in the occupied territories were among the factors that led to the schism between the Palestinian factions. At the same time, that split has impacted Palestinian-Israeli relations. The failure of the peace process to achieve the legitimate Palestinian objectives of ending the occupation ultimately weakened the Palestinian leadership and contributed to the rise of the alternative: Hamas. By the same token, Israeli unilateralism, which reached its climax under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the first few years of this century, rendered the Palestinian leadership irrelevant and compounded its decline. The subsequent shift in the balance of power towards Hamas among Palestinians was partially an outcome of Israeli positions and practices.
Palestinians are approaching the reconciliation process with the belief that its success is not only important in serving internal Palestinian objectives — like better government, more efficiency in running the affairs of the Palestinian people, and improved services —but is also crucial in meeting the aims of the peace process, which is based on a two-state solution. A unified Palestinian Authority and leadership governing a less divided society and its polities are ultimately more conducive to peace talks and delivering the Palestinian side of any agreement. At the end of the day, the peace process is about two states, one of them Palestine in the territories Israel occupied in 1967, which include Gaza and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem. The current political division contradicts our dreams for this state.
In addition, everyone must acknowledge that Hamas is not a small spoiler that can be left out of Israeli political calculations. Keeping Hamas outside the process and excluded from the legitimate Palestinian political system could also jeopardize the outcome of the peace process.
Recent experience has led many analysts and politicians to conclude that engaging Hamas and involving it collectively in social responsibilities have a moderating effect on the movement. Engaging Hamas empowers its moderates and encourages healthy debate within the group. Isolating it, on the other hand, plays into the hands of the movement’s most extreme elements.
For these purposes, Palestinians are having difficulty understanding Israel’s anxiety about the reconciliation process. They are suspicious that Israel’s hostility to reconciliation arises because Israel is actually hostile to an independent, unified, and contiguous Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.