There was something both deeply sad and painfully predictable about last week's scenes of renewed internecine violence on the streets of Gaza. For Palestinians everywhere, there is nothing worse than the spectre of a civil war, not only because it is so reprehensible in itself, but also because the moral grounding of the Palestinian cause is thereby undermined: if Palestinians are so ready to kill each other the question is inevitably raised, why should anyone feel sympathy for them in their struggle with Israel?
But that was not all. In the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon, the Lebanese army was battling it out with the renegade Islamist faction Fatah al-Islam. After sustaining unexpected casualties in a surprise attack by the faction, the army retaliated with a largely indiscriminate bombardment of the camp, leaving many civilian casualties. The Lebanese army's actions echoed those of Israel in Gaza, posing yet another pernicious question: if an Arab army is allowed to assault Palestinian civilians in pursuit of "terrorists", who can blame the Israelis for doing the same?
The actions in Gaza and north Lebanon represent a new low for a cause that has become accustomed to setbacks, retreats and defeats. Just days before the 40th anniversary of the six-day war of June 1967, the sight of Palestinian civilians fleeing Nahr al-Bared, terrified children clinging to women with meagre belongings carried on their heads, evoked the very worst images of recent Palestinian history.
There is no doubt that Israel and its 40-year occupation are culpable beyond measure for what is happening today. Here are just a few facts: since 1967 Israel has annexed East Jerusalem (including the old city's holy sites), unilaterally expanded its boundaries dozens of kilometres into the West Bank, and settled it with some 250,000 Israeli Jews. Tens of thousands of housing units have been built for Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem; very few for the Palestinian Arabs on their own soil.
Another 250,000 Israeli Jews have been packed into dozens of Jewish-only settlements on the West Bank now serviced by Jewish-only roads. The West Bank is being laced by a 700km-long separation wall and fence that will effectively annex 12% of the West Bank. Another 60% of the West Bank along the Jordan Valley is inaccessible to the Palestinians on security grounds. Despite, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Gaza remains besieged and isolated, and there is virtually no normal movement of goods and people in and out of the strip, or between it and the West Bank.
Since 1967, between 650,000 and 700,000 Palestinians have been detained or jailed by Israel out of a current total occupied population of 3.8 million. Since the first intifada of 1987, 80,000 Palestinians have been killed or wounded, the vast majority unarmed civilians.
Yet despite the sustained brutal weight of the longest occupation of modern times, it is not enough to blame it all on Israel. There are other factors at play. What was once a dedicated and vibrant Palestinian national movement is today almost bereft of effective leadership. It negotiators appear incapable of rising to the vast national challenges ahead. The old nationalist-Marxist factions have become marginalised. Fatah, once the embodiment of broad national aspirations, is faction-ridden and incapable of reviving its lost glory in the absence of its founder, Yasser Arafat. Hamas is politically inexperienced and boycotted by the outside world. Its appeal is too narrow to replace Fatah or supplant the broad church of Palestinian nationalism with an Islamist discourse and goals.
Fatah and Hamas are also locked in a mortal struggle for power. Elements on both sides cannot forgo this struggle and will not contemplate the demands of cohabitation or political coexistence. But even if they did, the US and Israel - supported by Britain - seem bent on undermining the Palestinian national government by actively seeking to build up the PA's "Presidential Guard" to intimidate Hamas and eventually put it down, by force if necessary.
Despite such outside support, the PA remains paralysed and incapable. The Presidential Guard is likely to do no more than add to the proliferation of armed groups on the Palestinian scene, and will break apart if and when it is put to the test against its fellow Palestinians. Armed clans now hold sway in Gaza, as the PA's writ fades and becomes increasingly irrelevant. Meanwhile, the infestation of al-Qaida-type salafism has already reached Gaza and the US- and EU-sponsored embargo, support for continued occupation and promotion of internal Palestinian conflict can only feed such trends in the future.
There seems to be no immediate cure for the accumulated consequences of multiple Israeli and external pressures and the disastrous internal decline afflicting the Palestinians today. A rapid and genuine end to the occupation would help, but this is not on the cards. And the Palestinians' deteriorating conditions do not inspire confidence that they would be able effectively to control any areas that Israel might vacate. Meanwhile Israel's political system is suffering from deep flaws of its own, and its weak leadership is incapable of making decisions and seeing them through.
Today, the moment is not for grand peacemaking, despite the optimism generated by the Arab peace initiative and the pretence of movement offered by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The best that is likely to be achieved is a consolidated inter-Palestinian and Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire that will allow both sides to catch their breath and think again. In their own interests, the Israelis need to think hard about the corrosive long-term consequences of the occupation and its effect on their own future as a supposedly safe haven for the Jewish people. The Arabs cannot continue to claim sympathy for the Palestinians while subjecting the most defenceless of them to wanton violence.
The Palestinians have to think hard about their future prospects. The priority must be to revive their national political movement in the spirit of genuine partnership and achievable common goals. The alternative will not only allow for the perpetuation of the occupation but will feed the notion that the Palestinians, decades on, are somehow not "worthy" of the freedom they are rightfully due and so passionately desire.
Ahmad Samih Khalidi is a senior associate member of St Antony's College, Oxford, and a former Palestinian negotiator firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Guardian