At the heart of the tensions is disagreement over a “peace process” which is controlled by Israel and its backers in the US. The trigger for armed conflict could be a referendum set for July on the terms for peace with Israel.
Now the so called Quartet – the US, European Union, Russia and the United Nations – have added fuel to the fire by releasing £65 million of aid that bypasses the Hamas-led government. The aid is a deliberate attempt to bolster Abbas.
The referendum is on a document setting out the framework for talks with Israel that was written by Palestinian prisoners of Israel.
The “prisoners’ document” – which sets out 18 point plan for negotiations – was signed by many senior resistance leaders in Israeli jails of all the different Palestinian groups, including Hamas.
The plan reaffirms many of the basic Palestinian demands, including the right of return for refugees and support for resistance.
Yet implicit in the document is the recognition of Israel according to the borders before the 1967 war when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Abbas, who heads the Fatah faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), seized on the prisoners’ document as an attempt to sideline the Hamas government.
The Islamic movement has since withdrawn its backing for the document.
Yet the Israelis have dismissed the prisoner’s document, with the current prime minster Ehud Olmert declaring it “unacceptable and not the basis for anything”.
The document misses what Israelis refer to as “facts on the ground” – that the 1967 borders no longer exist. Over the last few years Israel has seized huge swathes of the West Bank and it is building a wall that annexes land seized for illegal settlements. The wall effectively ghettoises Palestinian towns and villages.
Olmert has been threatening to unilaterally redraw Israel’s borders if the Palestinians refuse to accept his “disengagement plan”. This plan envisions Palestine as a patchwork of isolated areas criss-crossed by Israeli controlled roads and studded with over 70 checkpoints.
Central to Olmert’s strategy is subservient territories policed by Palestinians who would put down any resistance.
In return the Israelis promise to remove a few “illegal settlement outposts”, most of which are empty caravans parked on Palestinian hills.
In September 2005 the Israelis dismantled illegal settlements in the Gaza Strip. The withdrawal was touted as a peace gesture.
The Gaza disengagement has not brought any relief for the Palestinians. In the months since the withdrawal, the Gaza Strip has been under siege in a “starvation strategy” with the Israeli army firing over 2,000 shells a month into its teeming refugee camps.
The Israelis are hoping that a desperate and hungry Palestinian population will abandon support for Hamas and accept Abbas as the only alternative.
If Abbas wins the referendum the Palestinians would recognise an Israel which continues to seize their land and refuses to allow refugees the right of return. This means millions of Palestinian refugees will be abandoned.
Hamas rejects recognition of Israel and is unwilling to enter talks while Israeli soldiers occupy Palestinian territories. It won elections earlier this year.
That vote was a revolt against widescale corruption and mismanagement of the Palestinian Authority, and disillusionment with the Oslo peace process.
The Oslo agreement, made between Israel and the Palestinians in 1994, promised the Palestinians an independent state. But throughout the peace process the Israelis continued to expand settlements and ethnically cleanse Arab East Jerusalem.
Abbas, who became president after the death of Yasser Arafat, owes his position to the US-backed “roadmap to peace”. The roadmap, which promises an independent Palestinian state at some point in the future, has proved to be an illusion.
Nevertheless Abbas is locked into talks with Israel, and wants to keep all negotiations under his control. He has seized on the prisoners’ proposals to sideline Hamas.
Abbas’s referendum represents the final capitulation of Fatah. This movement was born out of the Palestinian struggle of the 1960s against Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinian people in 1948.
Its radical nationalist agenda and call for armed struggle galvanised Palestinians who had been betrayed and abandoned. Fatah’s strategy was to win the recognition and backing of Arab regimes, including key US allies like Saudi Arabia.
The strategy ended up weakening the Palestinian movement and since the Oslo agreement, Fatah has steadily abandoned the national struggle in favour of compromise.
Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood during the first Intifada, or uprising, in 1987. The movement was radicalised during the Intifada and gained credibility among an increasingly disenchanted population.
When the second intifada broke out in 2000, Hamas was able to displace Fatah as leaders of the national liberation movement.
Yet Hamas is hamstrung by the same strategy that compromised Fatah. Its response to the freezing of funds has been to tread the path to the doors of Arab dictators.
In return for their support, the Arab regimes have been pressurising Hamas to abandon the struggle for national liberation. Hamas has so far refused, but, with no means to pay wages, the pressure is building.
The Israelis have set a trap. Abbas is using the prisoners’ document as bait. The losers will be the Palestinian people, who have already suffered for almost 60 years under Israeli dominance.