By Helena Cobban
GAZA STRIP - Israelis and Palestinians - two peoples whose fates are entwined in a complex and often deadly embrace - are living through times of political turmoil. The Israelis, who went through several major political shocks over the past year, will hold landmark elections March 28. And the Palestinians are still adjusting to the upheaval of their Jan. 25 election, when the Islamist movement Hamas trounced President Mahmoud Abbas's long-ruling party, the secular Fatah.
Here in the Gaza Strip, almost every day brings the thud of incoming Israeli artillery shells or air-launched rockets, some of which have killed Palestinians, including children. There's also a tightening economic siege, with Israel blocking the entry of many necessary goods. Meanwhile, residents in southern Israel suffer the almost daily arrival of makeshift Palestinian rockets. Nearly all these rockets, like most of the artillery shells Israel has sent into Gaza, land in open fields. But Israeli commentators and politicians warn that if just one Palestinian rocket hits either a kindergarten or a strategic target such as a chemical plant, then the pressure for massive retaliation would be hard to resist.
There have been no direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians for many years. In November, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's shuttle diplomacy resulted in the "Rafah Agreement," which governed the access of goods and persons to Gaza in the wake of Israel's withdrawal. Secretary Rice said she hoped the agreement could bring a "normal life" to Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians. But Israel never came close to implementing it in full, and the disappointment this generated among Palestinians has had some important consequences.
First, the failure of this agreement - as of so many that Fatah had concluded before it - to lead to improved living conditions for Palestinians contributed significantly to the Hamas win. Beyond that, its failure has helped persuade many Palestinians that the whole post-Oslo approach of keeping Gaza inside a single "customs envelope" with Israel may well have been a mistake. I heard this sentiment expressed both by veteran Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahhar and by some Palestinian economists. Dr. Zahhar said that Gaza might now do better to cut all its economic ties to Israel and conduct its relations with the international economy through Egypt and by developing its own Mediterranean seaport. The unilateral approach that Ariel Sharon has used toward the Palestinians since late 2003 might now be meeting with a Palestinian response in kind.
There's no clear sign yet that Hamas has decided to try this path. If it does, this step would change the political dynamics of the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of the broader region. One big issue for Palestinians is the fact that their 2.3 million people in the West Bank will likely remain for a long time under Israeli control. But I've talked to several Hamas leaders and supporters in the past two weeks, and one theme they all stress is the need to concentrate on the Palestinians' "internal house" in the coming period, even if this means postponing resolving the conflict with Israel for some years to come. Moving away from the customs envelope would be quite consonant with this focus.
So is the picture of the coming years one of Israelis and Palestinians each moving unilaterally? It may be. On the Israeli side it looks as though Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party, whose main principle has been to continue Mr. Sharon's unilateralism, is emerging as the strongest party in the coming election.
On the Palestinian side, it's true that whoever rules here in Gaza faces huge internal challenges. Fatah has been plagued by growing corruption, inefficiency, and factionalism in recent years. Those failures compounded the debilitating effects of 38 years of Israeli occupation, and have left this tiny seaside strip impoverished and lawless. Hamas and nearly everyone else agrees that the first task is to restore public security. Militants associated with Fatah are using parts of northern Gaza as launching pads for their Israel-bound rockets - and the factionalized Fatah-dominated security forces are powerless to stop them or the common criminals who prey on several parts of the Strip.
But the biggest contrast between Gaza and Israel is not in the standard of lawlessness. It's in the standard of living. Here in Gaza, donkey-carts are a common conveyance for both people and goods, many roads are unpaved, and unemployment tops 40 percent. (Only around 3,000 Palestinian laborers currently work in Israel.) In Israel the per-capita income is 20 times higher. Many areas of North Tel Aviv look like the San Fernando Valley. High-tech entrepreneurs sip lattes in lavish shopping malls as conflict with the Palestinians seems comfortably distant.
So maybe parallel unilateralism might make sense? I'm not sure. But unless something changes, the trend in Gaza and the West Bank seems headed toward further explosion. For the Palestinians of these areas, the conflict with Israel is not distant at all: It's an ever-oppressive and deeply resented fact of daily life.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.