Hamas-Fatah Rift Deepens, Threatens Peace Efforts In the Gaza Strip, leaders of the militant Islamist group Hamas declare an end to a six-month truce with Israel. With little in sight to diminish the grip of Hamas, the political chasm between Gaza and the Fatah-ruled West Bank looks increasingly permanent.

Hamas-Fatah Rift Deepens, Threatens Peace Efforts

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today Hamas declared that a six-month-old cease-fire with Israel is over. The militant Islamic group controls the Gaza Strip, and its declaration is likely to lead to an increase in violence. Israeli officials say Hamas is deliberately escalating the situation.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hamas came to power through elections two years ago. Its decision to end the cease-fire highlights a larger issue. No leaders in the West or the Middle East have come up with a practical strategy for dealing with Gaza, and there is a political chasm between Gaza and the West Bank. Those are the two territories meant to make up a future Palestinian state. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Gaza, that chasm appears increasingly permanent.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Surrounded by an estimated 200,000 supporters waving green and white Hamas flags and banners, Hamas' Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, earlier this week celebrated the 21st anniversary of the group in Gaza City. Haniyeh told the mass crowd that the ongoing economic and political blockade of Gaza had only made Hamas more resilient.

(Soundbite of Hamas anniversary celebrations)

Dr. ISMAIL HANIYEH (Palestinian Senior Political Leader, Hamas): (Through Translator) Brothers and sisters, we confirm with this huge crowd on this great and special day that our people have only grown stronger since the siege of Gaza.

WESTERVELT: Despite the inflated Hamas rhetoric, Haniyeh nonetheless had a point. The policy by Israel and the West of trying to weaken and isolate the group ever since Hamas swept parliamentary elections in Gaza more than two years ago has largely backfired. Instead, the policy has mainly deepened the misery of ordinary Gazans, who have borne the brunt of crippling economic sanctions and border closures. Today many Gazans feel trapped between Israel's sanctions and the warring Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

Susanne Al-Sayidi(ph) burns scraps of dirty cardboard and nylon cord in a makeshift brick oven. There's little cooking fuel these days in Gaza, so she's using garbage and scrap wood to bake bread for nine children with flour donated by the U.N.

Ms. SUSANNE AL-SAYIDI: (Arabic spoken)

WESTERVELT: There was no meat this Eid, no money for it, she says of the recent Muslim holiday feast in which a sheep is traditionally slaughtered. Maybe I should've slaughtered Abbas or Haniyeh, especially Haniyeh, he's got a lot of meat on him, she jokes about the portly Palestinian leader. Today, the rhetoric between Fatah and Hamas is as divisive as ever. Hamas argues that Fatah and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' presidential term ends early next year. After January 9, Hamas will appoint its own man as president of the Palestinian Authority.

The coastal territory would then have its own head of government that leaders in the West Bank and the West will almost certainly dismiss as illegitimate. Meantime, President Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, says he has the authority to extend his term for one year, but that he may call new elections - a vote Hamas would likely ignore as illegal.

Dr. GHASSAN KHATIB (Vice President, Birzeit University, Palestine): We have a crisis in legitimacy. The next year is going to witness expiry of legitimacy of many bodies and individuals.

WESTERVELT: Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian analyst in Ramallah. Since seizing full control of Gaza by force in June of last year, he notes, Hamas has cracked down on opponents, promoted its supporters, and kept Gaza's fragile economy from completely collapsing by allowing hundreds of smuggling tunnels to flourish along the Gaza-Egypt border. Hamas and other factions have also regularly fired rockets into Israel, while the West Bank Palestinian leaders engage in ongoing - if ineffectual - peace talks with Israel. Dr. Khatib says the split between the West Bank and Gaza looks increasingly irreversible, which will have huge implications for the Palestinian people.

Dr. KHATIB: First, undermining the potential achievement of our objective of an independent Palestinian state in West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Second, it will also damage further the image of the Palestinian people and Palestinian cause, and it will worsen the life conditions of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

WESTERVELT: The deepening internal Palestinian rift could undo the already shaky U.S.-sponsored Annapolis peace process. Middle East analyst Shibley Telhami says the U.S. doesn't necessarily need to negotiate with or recognize Hamas. But the incoming Obama administration, he argues, would do well to pressure moderate Arab states to help bring about genuine Palestinian unity and preserve hope for a two-state solution that includes Gaza. Without unity, a real peace process with Israel, he says, may be impossible.

Dr. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland): You have to bring about some kind of reconciliation that would allow the Palestinian Authority to negotiate credibly and would minimize the chance that Hamas is going to be a spoiler.

WESTERVELT: But that would mean Hamas, at least implicitly, recognizing Israel's right to exist and renouncing violence. Hamas has shown no inclination toward meeting those key concessions demanded by Israel and the West. In fact, no leader or diplomat seems to have a viable solution to the Hamas challenge, nor are they proposing workable proposals to bring about Palestinian unity. Former Israeli lawmaker and longtime peace proponent Yossi Beilin says Palestinian unity is probably a pipe dream. Continue to negotiate with the moderate Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, Beilin says, but a long-term truce, he argues, may be the best the Jewish state will ever get with Hamas.

Dr. YOSSI BEILIN (Israeli Politician; Political Science Researcher, Economic Cooperation Foundation): You believe that I'm the devil, and you don't want to talk to me. I will not woo you. If you are ready for a cease-fire, for a long cease-fire, and if you have the dream that eventually I will commit suicide or whatever, have your dreams, I'll have my dreams. In the meantime, don't kill me. I don't kill you. We will have peace with half of them and armistice with the other one.

WESTERVELT: That's not a solution, I know, Beilin says, adding, but when it comes to Hamas and Gaza, it's the best I have. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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