As the Palestinian world turns


RAMALLAH, West Bank — Soap operas usually block out scenes with two cameras, one for each of the glaring opponents. The editor switches between each actor as they snarl and sneer. As for the plot, you can tune in every few months and nothing seems to have changed.

Sorry, did I write “soap operas?" I meant to type “current Palestinian politics.”

In the latest episode, Hamas — in the role of bad guy, at least according to most Western viewers of this particular soap — stares wild-eyed and affronted from the Gaza Strip toward Fatah in the West Bank. Fatah, playing the loose-living, stylish cousin, tosses its chin high and looks down its nose. Egyptian mediators pop in like script doctors searching for a new twist. But they come up with the same tired old plotlines.

Over a recent weekend, Egypt’s deputy chief of intelligence, General Muhammad Ibrahim, spent two days in Ramallah just trying to convince the different Palestinian factions that they ought to turn up in Cairo on July 25 for the next round in the “national reconciliation” talks — the seventh such meeting since the spring of 2007, when Hamas threw Fatah out of the Gaza Strip (and also threw some Fatah officials out of high windows).

Ibrahim’s suggestion, according to Palestinian officials, was for both sides to agree that Hamas would rule the Gaza Strip, while Fatah would control the West Bank.

Did I mention that he didn’t come with any new ideas?

The Egyptians hoped that if the two sides agreed not to be angry any more about the status quo, Fatah could be persuaded to contribute to rebuilding Gaza after the damage caused there by the war at the turn of the year. In return Hamas might consent to allow policemen from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to return to the Gaza Strip, the Egyptians suggested.

Ibrahim’s aim wasn’t to solve the entire problem of the Palestinian civil war, but rather to stanch the bleeding.

Without grabbing headlines, the blood is flowing. Hamas recently arrested a series of Fatah-affiliated Gazans who, according to human-rights organizations, face torture or injury during their incarceration. Fatah responded by rounding up more Hamas people in the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sounded in no hurry to make a deal when he said Sunday that he’d "accept any Egyptian proposal that ends the internal rift and lifts the siege imposed on the Palestinian people." Except the proposals put to him over the weekend, of course, which he appears to have rejected.

Like any good soap opera, the reason for such hardheadedness is trouble inside the family.

Fatah officials face a party congress in early August and are reluctant to make any concessions to Hamas. Such a move could make them vulnerable to attack by party rivals striking a tough guy pose.

That’s likely to make the talks next week in Cairo a waste of time, though the Egyptians vowed to press ahead.

Hamas has been talking more softly about regional politics, even as it’s been taking a hard line against its compatriots. In late June, the group’s Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshaal, said Hamas accepted the idea of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (even as he rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, calling it “racist, no different from Nazis.”)

Hamas seems to be in a bit more of a hurry than Fatah to make nice because of the desperate straits of Gaza’s population. Fatah refuses to budge in the Cairo talks unless it gets a true foothold in Gaza, where the Palestinian Authority pays the wages of civil servants and is largely ordering them to stay at home.

Even so, Hamas isn’t ready to roll over. It maintains the arrests of its activists in the West Bank were ordered by the Israeli army and the U.S. security coordinator to the region, Keith Dayton. (Israeli military officials say cooperation these days with the Palestinians is better even than during the years of the Oslo peace agreements — in the West Bank only, of course.)

Hamas also insists that the term of the current parliament be extended because, since it won a majority in the legislature in 2006, it has been unable to exert control due to international boycotts and, later, the civil strife with Fatah.

Perhaps Meshaal dropped his opposition to a two-state solution because he’s staring in the face of a three-state solution, in which Fatah gets an internationally recognized state in the West Bank and Hamas heads a pariah outpost in Gaza under the shadow of the Israeli war machine.

What would such states look like anyway? These days, despite the money flowing into the West Bank from the U.S. and the cash smuggled to Hamas by Iran, they’d be fairly sorry specimens.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said this week that the population of the Palestinian territories was about 3.9 million, with 2.4 million people in the West Bank and 1.5 million in the Gaza Strip. 

Of those, 25 percent are unemployed. With plenty of time for bad daytime TV.

More GlobalPost dispatches by Matt Beynon Rees:

When poets do the talking

In Hebron, Noam Arnon sits tight and worries

Two Israeli politicians to keep an eye on

Tel Aviv celebrates hundredth birthday

Analysis: Inside Netanyahu's head