NEW YORK (JTA) – The internecine violence between Hamas and Fatah has escalated into what some are calling a civil war. It’s a battle not only for control of the Palestinian Authority, but more significantly over ideology and the future disposition of a Palestinian state.Will it be secular and pragmatic, or rigidly Islamist in the vein of the Taliban?Though Hamas won elections in January 2006, its efforts to govern have been compromised by international sanctions against the Palestinian government. These sanctions resulted from Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel and abide by previous agreements. That has led to mounting frustration, exacerbated by outsiders like Iran, whose meddling in Gaza is said to be on the rise. “Hamas was frustrated because it was denied its victory,” said Gidi Grinstein of the Re’ut Institute. “It won in the elections. It won in the ballot. But it wasn’t allowed to govern.”With Hamas virtually taking over the Gaza Strip after a week of bloody violence between the P.A. partners, here are some questions and answers about what may lie ahead for the Palestinian groups, Israel and the region.What’s at stake?Middle East experts are broadly in agreement that the stakes are significant. If Hamas’ victory in Gaza turns out to be total, it will signify the end of efforts to bring about a genuine and comprehensive settlement with Israel.For all the faults of the Fatah leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas, some sort of accommodation with Israel remained a possibility. But with Hamas, whose charter remains committed to the destruction of Israel, most experts say no long-term accord is possible. “Hamas’ charter remains all of Palestine, from Jordan to the Mediterranean, an end state that precludes the existence of Israel,” said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. “There is no discussion about changing the Hamas charter.”What can be done?The short answer: not much. If the Palestinians drift further toward the total Islamization of their society and their cause, Jerusalem and Washington will be tempted to cordon off the Palestinian areas and contain the problem – a solution likely to be only marginally effective at best, given the interdependence of Israeli and Palestinian societies.Grinstein suggests that if Fatah can consolidate its control over the West Bank, leaving Gaza to Hamas, it could create the possibility for a dialogue and, in the best-case scenario, establish a stable and reasonably prosperous West Bank as an alternative to the chaos and desperation of Gaza.It is in Israeli and American interests to effect such a scenario, either by pouring resources into protecting the West Bank or pressuring Egypt to finally secure the flow of weapons into Gaza. Several analysts note that Egyptian and Israeli interests may be converging here, as neither country wants to see an extremist entity supported by Iran and allied with the Islamist opposition in Egypt strenghtening its hold in Gaza. Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, suggests Washington should go one step further and announce it is no longer working to set up the conditions for Palestinian independence.”The conditions don’t exist,” Bryen said. “This is a huge emergency.”What are the regional implications? Coupled with the seemingly interminable violence in Iraq and the war rumblings coming from Syria, it’s hard to see the Hamas takeover of Gaza as evidence of anything other than the region’s further descent into violence and radicalism. But it may be that Hamas’ rise will force the hands of the Arab states.Some speculate – or perhaps hope – that surrounding states, concerned by the rise of an Islamist Palestinian Authority and the spread of Iranian influence, may be moved to contemplate measures they have resisted until now.Besides the prospect of a greater Egyptian effort on weapons smuggling, a more prominent political or security role for Jordan in the West Bank may become a real possibility. Arab states that historically have claimed Israel to be the principal cause of regional instability may move more toward embracing the view that the spread of Islamic radicalism, sponsored by Iran, is a greater danger and will be more amenable to steps to contain it.
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Ben Harris is JTA's former associate editor.