Let Palestine Split Into Two

Opinion

By Martin van Creveld

Published June 12, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Many divorces are bitter, and they rarely make for a pretty spectacle. Nevertheless, once the fireworks die down some of them end well. Quite often a divorce enables two people who cannot live together to go their separate ways, if not to achieve reconciliation then at any rate to find new partners and make a fresh start.

The ongoing hostilities in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas certainly do not a pretty spectacle make. On both sides, fighters are being shot, mortared and rocketed. Some have been thrown out of the windows of high-rise buildings, others executed as they lay wounded in their hospital beds.

In the war of Palestinian against Palestinian, it seems, no holds are barred and almost every means is acceptable. Even if the leaders of Fatah and Hamas, assisted by Egyptian mediators, succeed in bringing about a cease-fire, experience shows that it will not last.

Meanwhile, a growing number of civilians — women and children included — are being caught in the crossfire. Wherever one looks, all one sees are villains and victims. In this entire bloody drama, the only heroes are the hospital workers, both local ones and those working for international agencies, trying to save whomever they can.

But while the pictures coming out of Gaza are grim indeed, out of the prevailing chaos a better future may yet emerge.

Although the West Bank and Gaza are inhabited by a people known as Palestinians, the two pieces of land form distinct entities and differ sharply from one another. The West Bank is less densely populated — a lower percentage of the people it contains are refugees — and socially and economically more developed. Before the outbreak of the second intifada, its economy was based partly on tourism. And to this day, it remains more open and less committed to religious extremism.

In contrast to the West Bank with its many holy places, Gaza is a godforsaken piece of land that has almost nothing to recommend it. Not only is it the most densely populated area in the world, but it also contains a higher percentage of penniless refugees living in squalid, overcrowded camps.

Socially and economically, Gaza is less developed than the West Bank. As the political and military strength of Hamas proves, its inhabitants seek to make up for these problems by embracing a more fundamentalist version of Islam.

In part, these differences reflect the fact that it was only fairly recently that the two areas came under the same government.

From 1948 until it was occupied by Israel in 1967, the West Bank was an integral part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jordan granted citizenship to all West Bank residents, refugees included.

By contrast, Egypt, which ruled for the same 19 years over Gaza, never granted the strip’s inhabitants citizenship. Instead, Cairo kept Gazans under military government and did what it could to thwart their development.

Now that Fatah and Hamas are fighting one another in Gaza, most people in Israel and the West are hoping for hostilities to cease and for the two areas to be reunited under the authority of a single moderate government that can negotiate with Israel. In the long run, such an outcome is highly unlikely — but it is fair to ask whether it is even desirable.

Of all the obstacles to eventual peace in the Holy Land, perhaps the most troublesome one is the long-time Palestinian insistence upon the so-called right of return. The Israelis, who rightly see the realization of this demand as leading to the destruction of their state, cannot grant it. The Palestinian leadership, which claims authority not only over the residents of the West Bank and Gaza but also over that part of the Palestinian people which lives in refugee camps in the neighboring countries, is unable to give it up.

The result is deadlock that, apart from everything else, has bedeviled every attempt to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians — and seems destined to go on doing so for a long time to come.

Suppose, however, that the current fighting ends not with the reestablishment of a single “moderate” government, but with the West Bank and Gaza going their separate ways. In that case, Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah will rule the West Bank, and Ismail Haniya and Hamas will govern Gaza.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas would be able to speak — or even claim to speak — for the Palestinian people as a whole. Unable to speak for the Palestinian people as a whole, each of the two will find it easier, if not to stop insisting on the right of return, at least to put it aside for the time being.

The fighting in Gaza is not pretty; divorces rarely are. In the long run, however, it is at least conceivable that the war of Palestinian against Palestinian will lead to the removal of the single most important obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. If so, then perhaps the blood currently flowing is not being shed altogether in vain.

Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of the forthcoming “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq” (Presidio Press).






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