Drifting Apart

Rather than coalescing into a homogeneous entity in preparation for future statehood, the geographically separated Palestinians are drifting apart like tectonic plates.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on July 12, 2010.)

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu seem to share a common dream of Palestinian statehood. In this dream they are joined by many millions throughout the world – Palestinians, Israelis and well-meaning believers in peace from everywhere.

They visualize the creation of a Palestinian state – a second Palestinian state in addition to Jordan – on territory in Judea and Samaria, as well as parts of Jerusalem, to be ceded by Israel, and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The establishment of this state will presumably bring with it a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, peace will reign and U.S. interests in the entire Middle East will be considerably advanced.

There is no mathematical proof to show that this is a pipe dream, and it may yet come about. But at the moment it certainly does not seem likely. There is an undercurrent, seemingly unnoticed by the thousands of politicians, Middle East observers and analysts incessantly writing about developments in the area that may very well throw the whole scheme into disarray.

The Palestinians are drifting apart. Rather than coalescing into a homogeneous entity in preparation for future statehood, the geographically separated Palestinians are drifting apart like tectonic plates.

That Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, officiating from Ramallah, and the Hamas leadership in Gaza have for a number of years been functioning as separate, and even mutually hostile, political entities is obvious to all. But the general belief is that their differences will be patched up.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has invested considerable effort pursuing this goal. Israel has on occasion been urged to negotiate with Hamas as if that might produce the desired result. Large sums of money have been thrown at both camps toward achieving this goal.

But at the moment it looks like we are dealing with two Palestinian political entities which don’t seem to be getting any closer. The differences are personal, cultural and political.

But it is ceasing to be mainly a political divide. A significant economic phenomenon is taking place. The Palestinian economy in Judea and Samaria has been growing at a record pace in recent years, far outdistancing the Gaza Strip. Ramallah at night does not look like Gaza at night. While Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin progress, the towns of the Gaza Strip are deteriorating.

Is it likely that they will all fall into one state? Will the Palestinians in Ramallah want to shoulder the economic burden of the Palestinians in Gaza? Will they welcome hundreds of thousands of Gazans into their towns? Economic considerations may determine the result in the end.

And what about the millions of Palestinian refugees languishing in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan for the past 62 years, and the others who have found temporary asylum in other countries? Will a Palestinian state be capable of absorbing these masses into its already densely populated territory? Will its economy be able to sustain this burden? Will its population be prepared to shoulder this challenge?

By the looks of it the Palestinians are drifting apart. Centrifugal economic, cultural and demographic forces seem to be at play, driving a wedge between Ramallah and Gaza, between the Palestinian diaspora and their brethren in Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

It may be that individual solutions will sooner or later have to be found for the three separate Palestinian elements. It will take a worldwide effort, in which the wealthy Arab countries will have to participate, in order to resolve the festering Palestinian refugee problem.

For the Gaza Strip, as well, only a concerted international effort will bring relief; no new-born Palestinian state can handle that problem. As for the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria, there are a number of options that should be considered.

The Palestinians have had a great fall. Led by an incompetent and corrupt leadership over the years they have gone from one disaster to another. They were never a homogeneous nation in the Western sense. In recent years great sums of money, vast effort and a giant public relations campaign have been invested in Palestinian nation-building, with questionable results.

As so often happens in history economic factors may in this case as well determine the final outcome. The Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian refugees may end up going their separate ways. The two-state solution may never come to pass.

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