GAZA,(Reuters) – When the Hamas-led Palestinian parliament is sworn in this Saturday in the West Bank, the most important new faces will be those joining in by video link from the sealed-off Gaza Strip.
The victory of Islamic militants from Hamas in last month’s elections has meant a significant shift in political power towards Gaza from the long-dominant West Bank, home to the main parliament building.
The shift will have big implications for both the way the Palestinian Authority is run and the quest for a state that includes conservative, Islamic Gaza and the more liberal cities of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Any deepening in division between the territories, which Palestinians cannot move freely between, could make it even harder to achieve an eventual state in the shape that Palestinians demand.
“The greatest weight of the Palestinian Authority will shift to Gaza because of the presence of senior leaders and most likely the Hamas prime minister,” said political commentator Talal Awkal in Gaza.
President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate from the secular former ruling party Fatah, is expected to keep spending most of his time in Ramallah in the West Bank, political centre since Palestinians gained a measure of self rule in the early 1990s.
Though united in the call for statehood, Gaza and the West Bank have long been rivals in much else.
Gaza is a densely-populated coastal strip of 1.4 million people with strong ties to Egypt, which ran the area until Israel captured it in the 1967 war. The hilly West Bank is home to 2.4 million Palestinians and was under Jordan’s rule until 1967.
Both Gaza and the West Bank voted solidly for Hamas to bring a change from Abbas’s Fatah, widely accused of corruption and incompetence.
But the fact Gaza is the main power base of Hamas means that the most important decisions of a new government to be formed after Saturday’s parliament opening are likely to be made by a Hamas prime minister and his top aides in Gaza.
Israeli restrictions on Hamas, formally committed to destroying the Jewish state and behind dozens of suicide bombings, mean officials and legislators are unlikely to be able to travel across Israel to the West Bank.
Gaza was growing in importance even before the election thanks to Israel’s withdrawal of troops and settlers last year.
The pullout for the first time gave the Palestinian Authority control of an entire territory with access to the outside world.
But both Hamas and Abbas will be trying to avoid any impression that the shift in influence is too decisive.
Hamas has made a point of choosing a West Banker as speaker of the new parliament, second only to Abbas in the constitutional hierarchy if not a position of great influence.
“Hamas is keen to make a balance of power between Gaza and the West Bank,” said spokesman Mushir al-Masri.
Palestinians stress that they see both Gaza and the West Bank as part of a single unit where they want statehood, with East Jerusalem as the capital, and say it would not be possible to have a state in one territory without the other.
“What we are looking at now seems to be much more of a divided entity and the whole concept of a Palestinian state is more difficult,” said Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg.
The Palestinian concern is that Israel might be happy to see a temporary state that would include impoverished Gaza plus isolated fragments of the West Bank.
While Gaza will be the focus for internal policy, Ramallah will remain more important for Abbas as a centre for diplomacy. He has vowed to pursue peacemaking with Israel whether Hamas likes it or not.
Meanwhile, the Israeli presence in the West Bank could make it very difficult for Hamas to avoid interaction with its enemy over issues like security, roads and water supplies.
“It is less embarrassing for Hamas to have the power centre in Gaza because this way they don’t have to deal with the daily issues that require contacting Israelis,” said Bassem Zubeidi of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.