Palestinians try to find unity in the chaos

jerusalem | The assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, combined with President Bush’s backing of Israel’s disengagement plan from the Palestinians, has dealt a double blow to Palestinian hopes for strategic leverage in the Middle East.

Palestinians now are looking to the Gaza Strip as the next opportunity to reorganize a political community in disarray.

It remains unclear who will take over in Gaza after the Israelis pull out, but sources say Israel and the Palestinians increasingly are eyeing Mohammed Dahlan, the former Palestinian Authority minister of internal security, as a future strongman.

Dahlan has been one of the few Palestinian leaders who dared to speak out in favor of Israel’s disengagement plan — or, at least, the Gaza portion of it, praising it as vindication of the Palestinian terrorist strategy. But that was before Bush’s endorsement of the plan and the killing of Rantissi.

In a recent interview with Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Dahlan said that a reformed, liberated Gaza Strip could serve as a model for a future Palestinian administration. He dismissed suggestions that the Palestinian Authority is threatened by Hamas and said the Palestinian Authority would have no problem reasserting its control over a liberated Gaza Strip.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has been negotiating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad — another terrorist group — on understandings for the post-withdrawal period.

The Palestinians virtually have given up hope on the Bush administration, certainly during the current term. Thus, they will move in two directions: They will try to convince the European Union to push the Americans toward a more “balanced” policy, and they will try to enlist growing resentment toward Bush in the Arab world for their cause.

Within the Palestinian political community, Rantissi’s killing makes dialogue between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority easier in the short run.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s people in Gaza viewed Rantissi as a constant troublemaker. With Rantissi gone and Hamas weakened, the Palestinian Authority may find it easier reach an internal understanding with Hamas — provided that Hamas’ leadership in Damascus does not get in the way. With the Palestinian political establishment weak already, unity is key, but potentially difficult to achieve.