Rendering the Palestinian Authority irrelevant

Although the calm in Gaza did not last for more than a few days it marks a very significant development in the ongoing power struggle between Israel, Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Israel has always avoided giving any impression that Hamas could be a counterpart for anything, whether peace or war. Hamas, in turn, has been willing to take all the necessary steps in order to appear, in the eyes of the Palestinian public and maybe the Arab public at large, as the only Palestinian party that is either fighting the atrocities of the occupation or representing the Palestinian side in any ceasefire.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, worries about the possible development of any kind of interaction between Israel and Hamas, because that will affect not only its credibility, but also the legitimacy of the PA as the leadership of the Palestinian people and thus the proper counterpart in any arrangement with Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel has been careful to prevent any positive development in the relations between Hamas of Gaza and Fateh of the West Bank. The current split is very comfortable to Israel. With two different Palestinian counterparts, regardless of whether for peaceful or military purposes, Israel can preempt any progress toward a single independent Palestinian state on all occupied Palestinian territory.

The ceasefire may be the first of its kind. It was mediated by Egypt and hinted at by Israeli officials at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denied it. This double talk resulted from the fact that Israel needed the ceasefire but was embarrassed to admit it.

Hamas' 'primitive homemade rockets' have proven a significant irritation to Israel, which faced two unacceptable possible scenarios. The first was to re-occupy Gaza, something Israel is trying to avoid because it has enough experience in Gaza and had enough reasons to leave. The second was to live with the rocket fire, which would be a domestic embarrassment for the current Israeli leadership. These possibilities seem to have forced Israel to go for a ceasefire, which in turn granted Hamas a sizeable victory and boosted its public position.

What aggravates the situation for the PA is that these developments in Israel-Hamas relations, fierce confrontations that ended in a ceasefire, came in parallel with the disastrous situation of the Annapolis negotiations. Israel is still refusing even to talk about final status issues and has meanwhile announced yet new tenders for construction in the illegal settlements of the West Bank. This is pulling the carpet from underneath the PA, rendering it further irrelevant.

If Israel by its behavior vis-à-vis Hamas--including the siege and the boycott, the bombardment and ceasefire--and its behavior vis-à-vis the PA in Ramalllah--including the continued settlement building, more checkpoints and its refusal to enter into any substantial negotiations--is trying to shift the balance of power within Palestinian society in favor of Hamas and against Fateh and the PA, then it is achieving its aim.

There have recently been some relatively clear statements against Israeli settlement expansion from both Europeans and Americans. This has made an impact on the Israeli leadership. If this is the beginning of a responsible international attitude, then that might create some hope. If it is simply paying lip service yet again, and these are words that will not be followed by any serious attempts to force Israeli compliance with the legal and political requirement of ending settlement construction, then the deterioration will continue as will its negative reflection on the region as a whole.

Ghassan Khatib is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of Internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. This was originally published at