Earlier this year, the government of Canada announced it would discontinue its long-standing financial contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and redirect those funds to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It made the move in recognition of a difficult reality: UNRWA has perpetuated the Palestinian refugee problem, and even provided assistance to the Hamas terrorist organization.
It may now be time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's foreign policy team to face up to another unfortunate reality: The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is doomed to fail as long as the Palestinian civil war continues.
Tensions between the two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, are running high. In June 2007, Hamas conquered the Gaza Strip, killing and maiming dozens of Fatah members in the process. In some cases, Hamas fighters pushed Fatah members off of tall buildings to their deaths. Other Fatah members were merely shot in the legs to ensure permanent disability.
Since then, the two Palestinian territories have split into two quasi-states led by two quasi-governments under two rival political groups. Hamas has maintained control over the Gaza Strip, and Fatah has clung to power in the West Bank.
While the intense fighting ended in 2007, the conflict is far from over. Last May, Fatah killed two Hamas fighters at a hideout in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya. The following month, Fatah forces arrested a Hamas cell that planned to assassinate top Fatah leaders. This year, the sporadic violence continues. Rival faction members have been arrested and beaten in both territories. In March, Hamas seized $400,000 from a bank where Fatah had put a freeze on the funds. The two sides continue to exchange public barbs and repeated Arab efforts to reconcile the two factions have failed.
Currently, U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East foreign policy pays no mind to this conflict. The President has not mentioned it once in his many public statements about the tumult in the Middle East. Instead, Mr. Obama has declared that he is determined to solve the age-old conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis.
To this end, Obama has launched proximity talks with Fatah figures in the West Bank. In what can only be described as a tacit recognition of the ongoing Palestinian civil war, Obama has isolated the Hamas leaders in Gaza from the process.
While it certainly makes sense to exclude Hamas, which is best known for staging suicide bombings and firing rockets at Israeli civilians, Obama's strategy is flawed. If his efforts yield peace, it will not be a peace that all Palestinians will accept. Indeed, the Hamas versus Fatah rivalry has created a situation whereby an agreement would exclude roughly half of the population. This is the case because the Palestinians currently lack an interlocutor who can represent both Palestinian factions at the negotiating table.
The White House also is reportedly receptive to Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's plan to declare an independent Palestinian state by August 2011. This plan lacks specificity about the fate of Gaza or how to reconcile the two warring Palestinian factions. The plan also ignores the fact that there is currently no Palestinian leader capable of ruling both territories. Is Obama prepared to allow the Palestinians to split in two?
These are questions that the leadership in Washington appears unable or unwilling to answer. Indeed, the Obama administration is probably too invested to step back and see the big picture.
In the same way that Canada took the lead on UNRWA, it can now play an important role in alerting the international community to the dangers that lie ahead.
The Palestinian civil war is not going away; it has now expanded to become a bigger problem than previously imagined. In fact, a good argument can be made that the problem of the internecine Palestinian war must be solved first if the international community is to successfully broker a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, and finally bring peace to the region.
-Jonathan Schanzer is vice-president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave 2008).