As Jonathan Tobin correctly noted earlier today, the possibility that Pope Francis didn’t really call Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace” doesn’t change the fact that the Vatican definitely did recognize the “State of Palestine.” That’s a setback to the cause of peace for many reasons, which Jonathan detailed in an excellent post last week. But I’d like to go into more depth on one point he raised: the question of which “Palestine” the Church is recognizing. Because “Palestine” isn’t merely split between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza by a quirk of geography; it’s a civil war waiting to happen.
Just last week, for instance, Hamas blamed Fatah for a series of recent bombings in Gaza and arrested 12 Fatah members as suspects. Last November, Hamas reportedly bombed the homes and vehicles of several senior Fatah officials in Gaza, as well as the site of a planned Fatah rally to mark the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death; as a result, Fatah canceled both the rally and a planned visit to Gaza by PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Last month, PA ministers who did visit Gaza left in a huff after Hamas placed them under house arrest in their hotel. The previous month, Abbas and one of his senior advisors separately urged Arab states to bomb Hamas out of Gaza.
Both sides routinely arrest each other’s members, and then accuse each other of torturing the detainees (usually accurately in both cases). Both also routinely accuse each other of collaborating with Israel – the worst crime in the Palestinian lexicon. Needless to say, none of this contributes to Hamas-Fatah brotherly love.
Indeed, the parties are so busy feuding with each other that they can’t provide for their people’s most basic needs, like reconstructing Gaza after last summer’s war with Israel. The reconstruction has made almost no progress in the eight months since the war ended, and astoundingly, everyone except Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth agrees that this is the fault of the feuding Palestinian governments rather than Israel. That, for instance, is the stated view of the Arab League, which is usually quick to blame Israel for anything. And it’s also the stated view of the European Union, which is generally equally quick to blame Israel for everything.
That the violence has remained relatively low-level despite the intensity of this hatred is due to one thing only: Israel. Hamas’s main fighting strength is concentrated in Gaza, while Fatah’s is concentrated in the West Bank, and these territories are currently separated by an impassible barrier – some 37 kilometers of Israeli territory. Moreover, Israeli troops in the West Bank have prevented Hamas from building up its forces there: Last August, for instance, Israel arrested dozens of Hamas operatives in the West Bank whom both Israel and Abbas said were plotting a coup against the Fatah-led government.
But both those barriers to war would disappear if the world had its way: Israeli troops would vacate the West Bank, and some kind of corridor through Israel would be created to link the West Bank to Gaza. At that point, there would be nothing to stop Hamas and Fatah from all-out war. Indeed, that’s precisely what happened after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005: Months of escalating violence ultimately erupted into war.
That war was bloody but swift. One week later, Hamas-ruled Gaza, 600 Palestinians were dead and thousands more had fled to the West Bank (Israel allowed the refugees through its territory). But since then, both sides have built up their forces considerably, so the next war might well be longer and bloodier. And I have yet to hear anyone explain quite how enabling such a war would benefit the Palestinians.
Thus anyone who really wants to create a Palestinian state should start by pressuring both Hamas and Fatah to address basic needs like reconstructing Gaza instead of spending all their time and energy feuding. That way, if and when such a state does emerge, it might actually be a good thing for the people who have to live in it rather than a disaster. And it would surely do far more to help the Palestinians right now than the empty recognition of a nonexistent state does.