Were it not for Israel’s presence between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Fatah and Hamas would most likely be dispatching suicide bombers and rockets at each other.

And they would perhaps still be throwing each other’s supporters from the fifteenth and sixteenth floors of tall buildings had not Israel, in the summer of 2007, helped Fatah members and their families run away from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank.

This is not a conflict over which side will bring democracy and good government to the Palestinians so much as it is a power struggle over money and power.

The fight between Hamas and Fatah is not a power struggle between good guys and bad guys: it is a rivalry between bad guys and bad guys.

Fatah leaders hate Hamas to a point where they are even prepared to ally themselves with the “Israeli enemy” to achieve their goal of overthrowing the Hamas government. During Israel’s last massive military operation in the Gaza Strip over a year ago, Fatah officials provided Israel with valuable intelligence that resulted in the killing of many Hamas operatives.

A state is not something that Palestinians should expect Binyamin Netanyahu or Ehud Olmert or Shimon Peres to give them on a silver platter. A state is something that the people earn by standing united and establishing good government and proper institutions and infrastructure, as well as democracy and a strong economy.

The only way to make progress towards peace is by insisting that the Palestinians first get their act together.

What is the point in signing any agreement with Mahmoud Abbas or Salam Fayyad when we all know that the two men have no control over the Gaza Strip?

And who said that Abbas or Fayyad, who are regarded by a large number of Palestinians as “puppets” in the hands of the Israelis and Americans, would ever be able to sell a peace deal with Israel to a majority of Arabs and Muslims?

While Fatah has been seeking the help of the Israelis, Americans and Europeans to get rid of Hamas, the Islamic movement continues to rely on Iran, Syria and Qatar to undermine and discredit its rivals in the West Bank.

The power struggle began almost immediately after Hamas came to power in January 2006. Backed by the US and some European countries, Fatah, which never came to terms with its humiliating defeat in the election, set as its main goal the task of overthrowing Hamas.

Instead of drawing the conclusions from its defeat and putting its house in order, Fatah chose to do its utmost to return to power by any means. Attempts at that time to topple the Hamas regime backfired and triggered a mini civil war that resulted in the entire collapse of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip.

When the war ended without the removal of Hamas from power, a number of senior Fatah officials expressed disappointment that Israel had not “finished the job.”

The biggest mistake the Americans and Europeans made back then was to allow Hamas to participate in the election unconditionally. Hamas should have been told that if it wished to contest the vote, it must accept three conditions: renounce violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist and honor all previous agreements signed between the Palestinians and Israel.

The international community finally did wake up and present Hamas with these three conditions. But then it was too late because the Islamic movement had already won in a free and democratic election that was even supervised by former US President Jimmy Carter.

Now, the two rival Palestinian parties, which have been at war with one another since the former US Administration and many European governments drove the Palestinians into a parliamentary election in 2006, seem determined to pursue the fight to the last Palestinian.

This dirty civil war has thus far claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 Palestinians, most of them innocent civilians, while thousands of others have been injured.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas is reported to have killed or imprisoned many Fatah loyalists over the past three years. Human rights organizations recently expressed concern over the Hamas government’s intention to start executing “collaborators” - many of whom are believed to be Fatah men.

In the West Bank, hundreds of Hamas members and supporters are being held in Fatah-run prisons without trial. Dozens of Hamas-affiliated charities and educational institutions have been closed. Thousands of civil servants suspected of being Hamas supporters have been fired by the Palestinian Authority government.

In this war, Hamas and Fatah have been using various “weapons.” This war is taking place not only on the ground, but also in the media. The two sides have established countless Web sites that are almost entirely dedicated to attacking one another.

It is hard to see how the “peace process” could ever move forward when the Palestinians are too busy fighting each other. The gap between the two Palestinian entities is so wide that they could not even reach agreement on weekend holidays. And last week hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were left in the dark for a few days because the government in the West Bank did not pay the bill for fuel that keeps the local electricity company operating.

The Hamas-Fatah dispute is an internal Palestinian affair that should be solved by the Palestinians and not the Saudis, Egyptians, Israelis or Americans.

Outside meddling in Palestinians affairs will only exacerbate the crisis.

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