While the scale of the humanitarian tragedy arising from Israel's war on Gaza is obvious, it is the political repercussions that need to be carefully observed. It is important to be clear that the aim of Operation Cast Iron waged by the Israeli army was not simply to stop Hamas firing rockets into Israel. Indeed, Hamas and other Palestinian factions had observed a strict truce with Israel, brokered by Egypt, for six months from June to December 2008. This was despite the fact that Israel continued its assassinations and arrests of Palestinian militants, and refused to lift the blockade on Gaza imposed 18 months earlier. It was for this last reason in particular that Hamas and others resolved not to renew the truce. The tunnels under the border between Egypt and Gaza had become the only means the Gazans possessed of alleviating the strangulating effects of the siege imposed on them by land, sea and air.
That the real aim of the war was not just to stop the rockets of Hamas is clear from the fact, disclosed by Israeli sources, that the Israeli defence minister had planned the onslaught as early as June 2008 - at the very time the six-month truce began. The rationale behind Operation Cast Iron is similar to that behind Operation Defence Shield, when Israeli tanks rolled into the West Bank and put Arafat under house arrest in March 2002. Then it was because the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, had rejected the 'bantustan' state, with Palestinian areas surrounded by Israeli settlements and roads, offered by the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Bill Clinton - a state that excluded the Palestinian capital of Jerusalem and would have had hardly any real sovereignty, with no right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The war on Gaza is intended to remove from the Palestinian political field, or weaken to the point of ineffectiveness, the forces opposed to Israel's outline of a political settlement to the Palestinian question, as formulated by the Likud, Kadima and Labour parties. Israel sees the existing local, regional, and international balance of power as favouring the removal of the 'demographic threat' posed by the Palestinians by creating bantustans (or reserves) in the West Bank encircled by colonial settlements, bypass roads, checkpoints and the 'separation wall'. In this way Israel aims to safeguard the 'purity' of the Jewish state while colonising as much as it can of the land of Palestine.
In contrast to the time of Operation Defence Shield, the present conjuncture sees the Palestinians divided as never before. The Palestinian political field is polarised between Hamas and Fatah and split into two ideologically and politically distinct governments: one in the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority and dominated by Fatah, and the other in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas.
The Palestinian Authority government, appointed by president Mahmud Abbas, has committed itself to peaceful negotiations (referred to as the 'peace process') and the rejection of armed resistance, and hence has been welcomed by western governments and supported by Arab 'moderate' states. Hamas, which won the legislative elections in early 2006, has been labeled a terrorist organisation by Israel and subjected to a diplomatic and financial blockade.
The conditions imposed by the 'quartet' (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) for the recognition of Hamas and its entry to the peace process would mean Hamas disowning its political programme completely. These include (1) recognition of the state of Israel - but no specification within which borders and no reciprocal demand for Israel to recognise the national rights of Palestinians; (2) the rejection of violence (that is, armed resistance) - but before Israel itself ends its occupation of the Palestinian land it occupied in 1967; and (3) its acceptance of all the agreements (including Oslo) signed by the PLO, although Hamas is not part of that organisation.
The polarisation within Palestinian politics has provided Israel with a pretext to use the most developed and destructive war machine in the region against Gaza, while the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah acts as though the aggression is taking place thousands of miles away. The PA has in fact refrained, up to this moment, from declaring a complete cessation of negotiations and security co-ordination with the occupying power; and it has supported the Egyptian initiative favoured by the US and Israel, knowing full well its self-serving aims - it calls for a ceasefire but not an end to the Israeli occupation nor for a clear and equivocal end to the siege.
Neither Egypt nor the PA wants Hamas to come out victorious, or intact, from the Israeli war on Gaza. The PA hopes to regain control of or at least a strong foothold in Gaza after being disempowered there by Hamas in June 2007. Egypt would like to see Hamas weakened, discredited and no longer in control of Gaza, since a Hamas victory would strengthen and encourage Egypt's Islamists, the strongest opposition in Egypt.
Egypt is also wary of being forced to open the Rafah crossing while Israel maintains the siege on Gaza, thus leaving Egypt to carry the baby. The Egyptian regime, therefore, wants the Palestinian Authority to regain control of the crossing (which it lost to Hamas in June 2007) and therefore of Gaza. Saudi Arabia, in turn, does not want to see Hamas victorious because Hamas is allied with Syria and Iran.
Jordan, which belongs to the 'moderate' pro-American Arab camp is somewhat worried should the outcome of the war leave Hamas beaten and overpowered. With the chances of a viable and independent Palestinian state diminishing and the Palestinian national movement weakened further, Jordan would come under pressure to accept a federation with the heavily populated parts of Palestine that are not annexed by Israel - with all the demographic, political and economic burdens this would entail. On the other hand, Jordan also fears a Hamas victory since that would enliven and provide additional strength to the already-strong Islamist movement in the kingdom.
In short, the regional political order is going to face further polarisation and tensions once the war is over, with all that has been going on and will continue to go on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and now Palestine. But tensions are more likely to rise against the so-called 'moderate' Arab regimes that stood watching while Palestinians were slaughtered by the most powerful army in the region.
But it is the Palestinian political movement that needs more than any other party in the region to get its act together, whatever the military outcome of the war on Gaza. The first necessary condition is for all the factions of the movement, the Islamist as well as the secular, and in particular the two main organizations, Fatah and Hamas, to initiate dialogue to reunify Palestinian national politics. Neither Hamas nor Fatah can lead the movement alone; both are needed, as well as the other political factions. They need to envision a new unifying political programme, to revive and recreate the national institutions that have been paralysed and dysfunctional for some time now.
It has become clear, for all who want to see, that Israel is not, has never, and is not likely, without real pressure from the US and Europe, to accept a viable, contiguous and sovereign Palestinian state that takes into consideration the injustice done to the Palestinians in 1948 and not just in 1967.
The Palestinian political movement has to take into consideration the fact that the PA has, in reality, become a burden on the Palestinian cause - and the war on Gaza has shown it to be estranged from its people and their suffering. It should also come under review and ascertain what functions, if any, it should limit itself to. More important, perhaps, is the need to initiate immediate steps (much talked about) to reform, democratise and renew the PLO as a Palestinian national institution, uniting, representing and mobilising Palestinians inside Palestine and in the diaspora.
The Palestinian political movement is at a crossroads. It must create a new dynamic and unified national politics, building on the wide support revealed by the war on Gaza, and re-assert its identity as a movement for liberation and freedom. It should draw on the lessons of the Oslo accords to formulate a new vision that looks at the balance of power as something changing that can be changed by well-thought action, whether one chooses to stick to the two-state solution as the final settlement, or see it as a step to a unified democratic state in historic Palestine, or opt from the start for a unified democratic state.
Jamil Hilal is a Palestinian sociologist and writer who lives in the West Bank. He is the author of many books and articles on Palestinian society and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the editor of Where Now for Palestine: The Demise of the Two-State Solution, Zed Books, 2007