In factional war, hope is the loser

Published May 18, 2007

The world saw again this week how badly Palestinians are served by their so-called "unity" government. Five days of factional fighting between Fatah and the more radical Hamas killed at least 45, shut down Gaza City and unleashed tit-for-tat reprisals with Israel, which announced it would renew pre-emptive attacks on Palestinian guerrillas. The violence, which follows an outbreak in January, worsens conditions in the impoverished territory and dims the outlook for reviving peace talks.

The tragedy is that this is exactly what the unity government was formed to prevent -- not only factional violence but further fissures within the Palestinian cause that would weaken its bargaining with Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was so unprepared to restore security Thursday he cancelled a meeting with Hamas government leaders to arrange a cease-fire, the fifth this week. That opened the door for Hamas to ratchet up the pressure by unleashing rockets on Israel, which responded by bombing Hamas facilities, killing seven. Four more people died Thursday, though a new cease-fire brought relative calm.

Hamas clearly believes drawing in Israel will unify Palestinians behind hard-liners who eschew compromise. But Fatah's Abbas also plays that game, citing Hamas' street clout to rationalize his own failure to bring the radical militias to heel. Abbas has had plenty of time since taking over after Yasser Arafat's death in 2004 to establish security and rein in the police forces -- certainly Fatah's own. But this week's fighting showed the lack of central authority, as gunmen on both sides attacked with almost impunity just as they did in January. The unity government created in March has not made the movement stronger because it papered over fundamental differences in how to deal with Israel.

Abbas needs to prove his presidency means something. With Gaza becoming a lawless state -- gunmen used ordinary Palestinians for human shields Wednesday -- he needs to press the case for Palestinians to speak with a single voice. That will not be easy. Many blame the West for crippling sanctions and overlook the Hamas-led government's aggression toward Israel that prompted them. Hamas even used the Israeli reprisals to demonize Fatah as a Zionist stooge for having benefitted from the attacks on Islamic militants.

Moderate Arab states, who have mediated for months to end the power struggle, need to put aside their frustration and work to end the fighting. They also need to help Abbas shore up his credibility. He needs more support for humanitarian relief and the will to root out party corruption and consolidate security. As long as Palestinians are killing each other, who will insist that Israel return to the bargaining table, and what world leader will invest time in negotiating peace?