Two Peoples, Divided

Unable to achieve peace, Israelis and Palestinians pull apart.

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With Hamas Takeover, Tough Calls for Israel

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 30, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Israel has faced an increasingly complex set of military options to stop attacks from the territory, and a debate over its humanitarian responsibilities for the strip's 1.4 million people.

The political split between the West Bank and Gaza has also strengthened calls in Israel to abandon the idea of a Palestinian state, which was at the core of the Oslo peace accords signed in 1993.

Gaza is now ruled by an ascendant Islamic movement that calls for Israel's destruction, and the West Bank by a disorganized secular party seeking immediate peace negotiations. That divide has cast doubts on whether the formula of a Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel is still viable.

"What is starting to emerge is a Palestinian Authority with two heads -- one that accepts the two-state solution of Oslo lock, stock and barrel, and the other that does not," said Ron Pundak, an Israeli architect of the Oslo agreement. "And there is concern the West Bank could become a new battleground between Fatah and Hamas. But is Oslo dead? No. Is it threatened? Yes."

Former generals say Israel now has a wider range of military options to contain rocket fire from the strip. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel, and the government it is running in Gaza has not been recognized internationally.

At the same time, former military officials warn, Hamas's forces are likely to grow stronger with complete control of weapons-smuggling routes into Gaza from Egypt. Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general who headed the assessment and evaluation branch of Israel's military intelligence, said Israeli forces could move into Gaza and occupy the rocket-launching areas, and deploy along the Egypt-Gaza border to deter smuggling.

"Is there a military solution to what has happened? Yes," Amidror said. "But it will be very costly in Palestinian and Israeli lives, very time consuming, and very expensive. And it will be very hard to stay."

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has called for immediate negotiations to determine the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of refugees and the future of Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has tepidly pledged to talk with Abbas about how to begin such negotiations.

But Israeli and Palestinian analysts say time is not on the leaders' side.

Before Israel withdrew from Gaza in the fall of 2005, Abbas warned then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that doing so without a political or security agreement would greatly strengthen the Islamic movement by making it appear as if Hamas had forced Israel to retreat.

Four months later, in January 2006, Hamas won a parliamentary majority, with many of its candidates saying that Israel's unilateral withdrawal vindicated their armed approach.

The Israeli government has not yet completed a 456-mile barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian population of the West Bank, where Abbas's branch of the Palestinian Authority holds tenuous sway. Advances by Hamas there -- the staging area for the vast majority of suicide bombings during the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000 -- would threaten Israel's security far more than the Hamas takeover of Gaza.


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