RAMALLAH, West Bank—Stumbling toward the brink of civil war, Palestinian leaders are struggling to snuff out an internal feud before it extinguishes their flickering hopes of establishing an independent state.
Their efforts to keep their society from splitting into warring Islamic and secular camps were set back this week when Israeli missile and artillery strikes killed innocent Palestinians, the militant Islamic group Hamas resumed rocket attacks on Israel and a mob of Palestinian soldiers stormed their own parliament building and briefly abducted a lawmaker.
"These internal problems are very significant and dangerous," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority labor minister and a veteran peace negotiator.
After months of political stalemate and rising tensions, moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and leaders of the Hamas-led government will try once more to resolve their differences next week and set the stage for a new unity government.
"We will share the government after succeeding in this national debate," said Ahmed Yousef, a top adviser to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. "I think, after a while, everyone will understand that no one will win in this war. It's not a zero-sum game."
But even if Abbas, the leader of the once-dominant Fatah Party, and Haniyeh, a top Hamas figure, are able to agree on a unity government, some observers worry that events are spinning out of their control as the two factions duel and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians heats up again.
The nonpartisan International Crisis Group released a report this week that criticized Palestinians for undertaking "a march of folly." "Even as Hamas and Fatah leaders repeatedly profess their determination to avoid violent conflict, they are acting in ways that promote it," it said.
Hardly a day passes without some sort of Hamas-Fatah clash. Some are more serious than others. Earlier this week, hundreds of government soldiers aligned with Fatah stormed the parliament building in Ramallah, torched an office and briefly abducted a Hamas lawmaker to protest the political stalemate. Abbas sent his own soldiers to rescue the besieged Hamas leaders, but demonstrators returned to the parliament the next day to create more havoc.
Palestinians across the political spectrum contend that there's no chance of a civil war because there's a deep-rooted revulsion to the idea in their society. Most Palestinian families include members not just of Fatah and Hamas, but also of smaller political factions.
However, Rob Malley, a former peace negotiator for President Clinton who now heads the Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa division, said Palestinians' views might be changing.
"What we've seen over the last few days is enough to make you wonder if that taboo is enough to hold things back," he said.
Aides to Abbas and Haniyeh expressed optimism that their rival parties would reach an agreement early next week on a compromise set of principles on creating a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a move that some view as de facto recognition of Israel. Hamas hasn't accepted Israel's right to exist.
If a deal is reached, Abbas is expected to call off a July 26 referendum that would ask voters to embrace the statehood concept as part of a broader compromise platform.
That could clear the way for creating a unity government that would give Hamas control over domestic issues and authorize Abbas to handle relations with Israel and the international community.
Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians also are rising, however. After Israel killed a Hamas security official, a wanted militant leader and eight innocent Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Hamas ended its 16-month cease-fire and resumed launching rudimentary rockets into southern Israel.
Some Hamas leaders have tried to urge restraint, but Yousef said the group's militants also might resume sending suicide bombers into Israel.
"If the Israelis are not going to stop the cycle of killing and keep targeting our leaders and civilians, that's what I expect," he said. "Revenge might take a different shape. You might find some people who go back to the suicide-bombing policy in Tel Aviv and Haifa."
Israeli leaders have made it clear that if Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders have any role in staging a suicide bombing, they could be targets themselves, and such a resumption of open warfare probably would kill whatever chance remains of reviving peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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