The Palestinians are not on the verge of a civil war. They're already embroiled in one: Since the beginning of this week, two judges and the three children of a senior security officer were murdered in the Gaza Strip. Fatah blames Hamas and members of the Popular Resistance Committees loyal to Hamas. Yet the Fatah is also doing its part.
Armed security forces who are Fatah loyalists are running wild through Gaza's streets and firing in every direction as they demand to receive their salaries, while in the West Bank we see the occasional violent clashes between the two sides, not to mention the wholesale abductions. For the time being, the number of casualties is relatively low, yet the trend of escalation is clear and consistent.
What's going on today in the Palestinian street is very reminiscent of the process that took place in Iraq after it was taken over by the Americans in 2003. There too the civil war started with sporadic violence and terror acts against the Americans and between Shiites and Sunnis. These acts became more frequent until they spiraled out of control.
In the Palestinian Authority the process is slower, but if the violence continues to run wild in the Strip (and to a lesser extent in the West Bank too) we'll witness, within weeks, a full-blown civil war pitting everyone against each other in the Territories. Such war, inevitably, would also boil over to us.
Currently Hamas still has a clear interest in maintaining the partial calm in the fight against Israel. The boost in arms and ability to organize under the calm's cover serve the long term strategic intentions of the organization and its supporters in Tehran and Damascus. Yet once the civil war reaches its climax, Hamas will also lose the partial control it enjoys over armed groups and radical organizations.
Those will take advantage of the central government's collapse and loss of control to act against Israel with the encouragement of Iran, Hizbullah, and Syria, which fund them and offer military aid.
In fact, this is already happening. The five Qassam rockets fired earlier this week at the Negev are only one expression of such Palestinian civil war boiling over to our territory. In the West Bank, attempts to carry out terror attacks are on the rise daily. Yet in the West Bank this development is restrained and slow because of the IDF's control over the area and the arrests of dozens of gunmen almost every night.
We must not forget that a civil war is also a hotbed where global Jihad terror groups inspired and funded by al-Qaeda flourish. The experience accumulated in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq raises a reasonable concern that these organizations will infiltrate the Gaza Strip and West Bank, establish themselves there, and launch widespread, sophisticated terror activity against Israel.
A civil war would also thwart any attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis through negotiations and would almost certainly lead to the most radical and murderous elements taking over Palestinian society. Israel would not be the only one to pay the price. Egypt and Jordan may also be hit by unfriendly ricochets from this civil war, so they, just like Israel, have a clear interest in stopping this deterioration at this point before it completely spirals out of control.
Israel must not adopt a "sit and wait" attitude. If we allow the Palestinians to break each other's necks, at the end of the day we'll be suffering as well along with the Egyptians and Jordanians. The question is what can be done, if we can do something at all, in order to stop this process. The answer is positive – as long as we manage to address the main motives of the intra-Palestinian violent outbreak.
Economic distress rules
The main motive is the weakness of the Palestinian leadership and particularly Mahmoud Abbas. The PA chairman is hesitating and delaying and does not adopt even the few measures he is able to implement. His inaction created a vacuum that sucks into it radical elements and "foot soldiers" of all camps while taking the law into their own hands.
Even Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is to a large extent helpless and unable to govern since he is forced to comply with the dictates coming from Khaled Mashal in Damascus and Hamas' military wing and its associates.
The shift from a situation of "armed anarchy" to a genuine "fitna" (civil war) started last week in fact, after attempts to establish a unity government failed and Abbas started hinting that he is about to disperse the Hamas-led parliament and declare new general elections.
Hamas, whose government's popularity in the Palestinian street is not at its peak at this time, is justly concerned that Abbas intends to undertake a government revolution through which Fatah would be able to regain power. Therefore, last week Hamas organized mass demonstrations by its supporters. The Fatah did not sit idly by, and this is how the deterioration started.
The second reason to the worsening violence is the economic distress in the Strip as a result of the sanctions imposed on the Hamas government, which continues to refuse to accept the Quartet's conditions, that is, recognizing Israel, renouncing the armed struggle against it, and honoring agreements signed with is.
The economic distress creates popular anger that is manifested mostly through various types of violence. The third reason is Fatah members' anger at Hamas, which receives financial aid from Iran and distributes it among its people while Fatah, and particularly the PA's security forces, remain hungry.
Therefore, in order to curb this escalation in the Palestinian civil war and maintain what is left of the clam, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the international community must join forces quickly in order to mitigate the economic distress on the Palestinian street.
Yet this has to be done without strengthening the Hamas government. Funds to the Gaza Strip, and plenty of them, must be transferred through Abbas. A trickle won't help. Yet at the same time, demands should be made that the chairman act quickly and decisively to clear the uncertainly and political fog in the PA.
Indeed, there is danger that should Abbas decide to disperse parliament he would be met with incompliance that would lead to serious violent clashes. Yet if he acts decisively and simultaneously is able to bring about quick improvement in the Palestinian street's economic state, he has a good chance to regain control over the situation.
Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar can and must help Abbas by quickly engaging in dialogue with Mashal and Syria in an effort to enlist their support as well for the prevention of a civil war, which Hamas does not want either at this time.
Another thing that may stop the Palestinian civil war or at least put a freeze on it for the time being is a large-scale IDF operation in Gaza. Such move would reunite the Palestinians but it is not recommended due to the price to be paid by Israel in casualties and in terms of international public opinion. A broad military operation in the Strip should be undertaken only in order to protect Israel citizens, and only when there's no other choice.
It's easy to see that all the moves that may prevent a full-blown all-out civil war in the Palestinian arena are equally bad, and it's doubtful whether they will indeed solve the problem. Yet if they're undertaken rapidly and decisively, at least they have a chance.