PALESTINE`S first president and greatest leader, Yasser Arafat, died just four years ago on Nov 11, 2004. It was a terrible loss for the Palestinian people and, had Israelis but understood it, for their own future too.

For Arafat did what no other Palestinian leader was prepared to do sign a peace agreement with the very state that caused the Palestinian tragedy and engage in a peace process with it that endured until 2000.

Through the Oslo accords of 1993, Arafat delivered the agreement of the Palestinian people to a political coexistence with their arch-enemy. Had Israel left him free to act after Oslo, he would no doubt have reconciled the majority of Palestinians to accepting a settlement along the lines of the two-state solution that Israeli politicians claim to support.

If he could look down today onto Palestine from whatever celestial sphere he inhabits, what anguish he would feel. Arafat`s departure from the political scene is the real backdrop to the civil war now raging between Fatah and Hamas. During his lifetime, Arafat`s dominance over the Palestinian political scene was such as to preclude the current developments. His authority was unquestioned and his capacity for smoothing over internal divisions legendary. I met him several times, and was always struck by his political adroitness, charm and control of events. He was a remarkably unifying force in a Palestinian situation of fragm entation, geographical dispersal and political disharmony.

With the rise of Hamas after the first intifada of 1987-1991 Palestinian politics changed. As the 1990s drew to a close Hamas had become a significant player and a challenge to the previous status quo of Fatah dominance in the Palestinian Authority and in the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It was Arafat`s skill that kept the Palestinian ranks united, in spite of this imbalance. The split between Fatah and Hamas that strengthened after Hamas`s election as the major party in the new Palestinian Authority in 2006 would have been unthinkable had Arafat been alive. And the conflict between them would never have reached its current vituperative and vicious levels. How tragic that in this mini-war the real enemy, Israel, has been all but forgotten.

A meeting in Cairo to draw together the Palestinian factions was scheduled for this week. The idea, which stems from the Egyptian government, was to hold talks aimed at forming a `national consensus government` with a union between Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and ruling in the West Bank, and Hamas, led by Ismail Haniyyeh, the deposed prime minister, ruling in Gaza. The united factions would then reform the security services and set a date for presidential and legislative elections.

As things stand, the Palestinian president`s term expires in January 2009. The legislative council will also be up for election soon after. Hamas has said it will not recognise Abbas`s presidency after the January deadline, and there have been persistent rumours that Abbas is considering extending his term of office without elections.

It is clear to Palestine`s people and the rest of the Arab world that the dangerous breach between the two rival parties must be healed. Several Arab states threatened that, if the Cairo talks failed, they would boycott

all Palestinian governments and terminate financial and political support. Yet, it is hard to see how the talks could have succeeded, given the level of mistrust, mutual insults and attacks that have become the norm for Fatah-Hamas dealings.

Hamas had imposed conditions for its participation in the talks. It demanded the release of all Hamas prisoners, approximately 200, currently held in Fatah jails in the West Bank, and it wanted an agreement on principles prior to the talks. The Islamic Jihad insisted that President Abbas attend all the sessions in Cairo rather than just the opening ceremony as rumoured, and threatened that if the Hamas leader, Khaled Mishal, retaliated by not attending either they would withdraw. Fatah responded by refusing to release Hamas prisoners with criminal convictions, in an eerie echo of Israel`s dubbing of Palestinian prisoners `with blood on their hands`.

In this atmosphere of recriminations even before the start of the Cairo meeting, it was unlikely that anything would come of it. And indeed Hamas has now pulled out. Previous attempts at bringing Hamas and Fatah together, brokered by the Yemeni and Senegalese governments respectively, have also come to nothing. For the major cause of these failures is missing from the agenda. It is the malignant interference of Israel and its western backers in internal Palestinian affairs that has been the major factor in creating the current impasse.

When the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government was elected in 2006 through fair and democratic elections, Israel, the US and the European Union immediately placed it under sanctions. Within months, the new government could scarcely function, starved of funds and political contact. The Palestinian economic situation predictably deteriorated, and unemployment and poverty rose steeply.

At the same time, these external powers mounted a campaign to beef up the Fatah president`s position and his forces with funds and military training in a blatant attempt to defeat the elected government. This generous western support to Fatah has continued and increased, just as the boycott on Hamas has been maintained. In June 2007, the anti-Hamas plots reached new heights with an attempted Fatah coup in Gaza, aiming to overthrow the Hamas government altogether.

Pre-empted by Hamas, the coup came to nothing but led to vicious internecine fighting between the two sides. Today, we have the spectacle of a Fatah force, armed and trained by the West, attacking Hamas supporters in the West Bank, and Hamas forces retaliating against Fatah members in Gaza. The victims of this cynical western manipulation are, as always, the Palestinian people, and the only victor is Israel.

The truth, well known to Israel`s ex-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, at the time of Arafat`s death, was that Arafat was the only barrier that stood against Israel`s designs to fragment the Palestinians and destroy their cause, as they are now doing through this Fatah-Hamas split. And it was for that reason that he had to die.

The writer is a London based Palestinian activist and the author of Married to Another Man Israel`s Dilemma in Palestine.

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