Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 7 Table of Contents
MEIB Main Page

July 2001 

A Gaza-West Bank Split?
Why the Palestinian Territories Might Become Two Separate States
by Jonathan Schanzer

Jonathan Schanzer is a research associate for the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.

Yasser Arafat
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been disintegrating for months. This spring, US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk reported that a state of semi-anarchy and gang rule was engulfing the West Bank and Gaza.1 Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein concurred, stating that the breakdown of the Palestinian administration has been evident in every area.2

To make matters worse, internal breakdown has spawned internal opposition. As the PA attempts to enforce its current cease-fire with Israel, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Hezbollah, Fatah and the Tanzim continue to challenge the PA's authority. In fact, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat is now said to be facing opposition from a number of important aides and advisors.

One outcome of this disintegration could be the breakup of the Palestinian self rule areas into two geographically distinct entities. This would not be all that surprising. Palestinian society, after all, has always been strongly characterized by tribalism, as well as strong regional differences that set apart hill dwellers from plainsmen, nomads from settled population, urbanites from villagers, and Easterners from Westerners. While the West Bank is only about thirty miles from Gaza, there is more separating the two territories than an expanse of the Negev Desert.

For one, the different regional patriarchal clans have always dominated local politics in the two territories. Gaza's stronger local families include the Shawwa, Shafei and Middein families. In the West Bank, the Nashishibi, Huseini, Ja'abari and Masri families are among the dominant political elite. By nature, these clans are regional, and are often at odds, since they compete for economic, political and social stature.

The notion of Palestinian regionalism is further reinforced by the varied Arabic dialects spoken throughout the territories. West Bank dialects are similar to the Jordanian dialect, while influences of Egyptian dialect are heard throughout Gaza. Speakers of the Gaza dialect, for example, tend to pronounce the Arabic word for "fish" as samag, while West Bankers typically pronounce the word as it is written in standard Arabic - samak. According to a study done at Birzeit University in Ramallah, other differences can be found in intonation and even lexicon.3 Indeed, language is often a clear indication of a Palestinian's precise origin.

The absence of intermarriage between the territories is another dividing line. While traditional marriages arranged between tribal chiefs are no longer popular among Palestinians, one study notes that "kinship-based marriage arrangements now exist as a way to preserve the continued identity of dispersed communities."4 These communities derive from specific, smaller areas of the former Palestine and, by nature, do not cross the West Bank-Gaza divide.

Geopolitics have also exacerbated Palestinian tribalism and limited ties between the West Bank and Gaza. After the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan occupied the West Bank. With Gaza under Gamal abd al-Nasser, and the West Bank under King Hussein, who was often wary of Nasser's influence in Jordan, the two territories had minimal contact during the next two decades. As a result, a pro-Egypt, pan-Arabist movement developed in Gaza, while many Palestinians in the West Bank developed an allegiance to the Hashemite Kingdom.

The West Bank under Jordanian rule also enjoyed a growing economic infrastructure that Gaza did not. While Gaza was largely neglected under Egyptian occupation, Jordan invested heavily in West Bank civil society through 1967. With an eye towards recovering the West Bank as Jordanian land, King Hussein continued to invest in the area until 1988, even while it was under Israeli rule. Thus, over time, the West Bank has emerged as a developing mini-state, while Gaza has wallowed in neglect.

When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza during the June 1967 War, the gap increased. Israel placed tight travel restrictions on the territories for security reasons. The West Bank, which buttresses Jordan, sustained interaction with Arab countries, but Gaza, which borders the barren Sinai peninsula, had significantly less access to the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. Even during the best days of the Oslo process, Israeli security measures prohibited free travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

Today, security measures are so tight that Gazans and West Bankers are often restricted from seeing one another. In fact, many Gazans complain of how they must first travel to Egypt and then fly to Jordan in order to make it into the West Bank.

Palestinians who declared refugee status after the Arab defeats in 1948 and 1967 also contribute to the West Bank-Gaza division. In the West Bank, only 27 percent of the population are refugees, as opposed to the 64 percent that inhabit the Gaza Strip. Rather than living in hovels and tents, many West Bankers have invested in homes or businesses.

The poverty associated with refugees directly contributes to two distinct economies. In 1997, more than 40 percent of Gazans were living below the poverty line ($650 year). That was four times the poverty rate in the West Bank, which hovered at only 11 percent. Unemployment figures before the al-Aqsa Intifada showed that 22 percent of all Gazans were unemployed, whereas only 9 percent of West Bankers were not working. And though the uprising has since taken its toll on both territories since October, Gaza is expected to be the hardest hit, with unemployment reaching 50 percent or more.

Due to these different circumstances, residents of the two areas have developed a quiet animosity toward each other. Khalil Shiqaqi, a prominent Palestinian sociologist, after conducting hundreds of interviews, notes the presence of "a psychological barrier between the inhabitants of the two territories and . . . mutual suspicion" that cannot be "disregarded or ignored."5

Shiqaqi's study, entitled The West Bank and Gaza Strip: Future Political and Administrative Relations, shows the existence of a prevalent West Bank belief that the Gaza Strip is "nothing but a big refugee camp."6 Further, West Bankers see the Gaza Strip as a backward society with "increased crime . . . and inclined to roughness, extremism, grimness, fanaticism and instability."7

Gazans, for their part, expressed their misgivings over the patronizing and discriminating West Bankers, who show them little respect.8 They also note that while Gazans are typically willing to accept the consequences of insurrection against Israel, "workers from the West Bank fill the work spots left vacant from when [Israel] prevents Gaza workers from coming to their jobs in Israel."9

Of particular interest is Shiqaqi's mention of the period between 1967 and 1971, when approximately 20,000 Gazans emigrated to the West Bank towns of Qalqiliya and Tulqarem. Extensive interviews revealed that during this first attempt at integration between the territories, tensions ran high. West Bankers saw their guests as messy, dishonest, less cultured, less educated and predisposed to poverty.10 Gazans felt that the local inhabitants were "racist," and treated them as "third class" citizens.11

According to an Israeli internal security (Shin-Bet) report before the outbreak of the Intifada, those sentiments have generally gone unchanged. The report noted "mounting hostility and a growing rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip," to the point that "senior officials in the West Bank are against opening the 'safe passage' route [between the West Bank and Gaza Strip], as the result could be to flood Judea and Samaria with Gazans."12

What are the implications? As chaos reigns in the territories, as the West Bank-Gaza rift widens, and as Yasser Arafat enters the twilight of his career, the world must prepare for a new Palestinian landscape, which could mean two states.

In 1998, Arafat reportedly told US president Bill Clinton that his successor would be Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the deputy head of the PLO.13 But, like the rest of the Arab world, a power struggle in the Palestinian territories is more likely to be won by a strongman of unquestioned military influence, and not necessarily the heir designate. Or, in this case, two strongmen might emerge.

Muhammad Dahlan
In the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, a pragmatic security official with strong influence in Palestinian paramilitary circles is one candidate. According to Palestinian analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi, however, Israel's sealing of West Bank towns since September 29, 2000 has created a "new, unknown, faceless generation of leaders, and nobody knows where they are going."14 Among them, the most prominent is the Secretary-General of the Fatah movement's Tanzim militia, Marwan Barghouti, considered by many analysts to be the main leader of the al-Aqsa Intifada. Young and charismatic, Barghouti could likely pose a challenge to the traditional PA elite.15

One Gazan who could vie for authority is Muhammad Dahlan. Dahlan is head of Gaza's Preventive Security Force and, as such, has been in continual contact with the PA's ruling elite, the Israeli government and US intelligence. With a significant military force at his disposal and important political connections, Dahlan is an undisputed power broker in Gaza.

Dahlan, however, would not go unchallenged. Given its homogenous Islamic population (99 percent), poverty, and history of political violence, the conditions are prime for the appeal of Islamism in Gaza. For now, however, fundamentalist Islam lacks a strong and healthy leader in Gaza (Hamas's Sheikh Ahmad Yassin is old and frail). If a strong leader were to emerge, however, the movement's mosques, community centers, medical clinics and other social infrastructure would make Gaza particularly susceptible to an Islamist polity.

But no matter who takes the reigns, the chance of a West Bank-Gaza Strip split is very real. Despite a recent flood of books and articles attesting to long-standing patriotism, the Palestinian Arab community has a longer tradition of factionalism and disunity. Indeed, it was tribalism and clan rivalries that rendered the Palestinian nationalist movement ineffectual against the Zionist movement during the first half of the 20th century.

Incidentally, this notion of separation is not without precedent. In 1948, after the withdrawal of the British, Bangladesh and Pakistan became two separate, culturally distinct territories under a single rule. For more than two decades, Bangladeshis grumbled about their role as junior partner in this unlikely marriage. Then, in 1971, with a deepened sense of nationalism that could no longer be denied, Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan after 23 years.

With the existence of differing dialects, differing economies, almost no intermarriage, and a growing animosity, the Palestinian territories may take less time than that.


  1 Reuters, 2 March 2001.
  2 Ha'aretz, 16 February 2001.
  3 Kimary Shahin, "Notes on Palestinian Arabic with Speech Samples," Birzeit University, October 1999.
  4 Marianne Heiberg and Geir Ovensen, "Palestinian Society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions," FAFO Report 151.
  5 Khalil Shiqaqi, The West Bank and Gaza Strip: Future Political and Administrative Relations. (Arabic) (Jerusalem, PASSIA, 1994) pp. 83, 78.
  6 Shiqaqi, p. 79.
  7 Shiqaqi, p. 80.
  8 Shiqaqi, pp. 83-84.
  9 Shiqaqi, p. 84.
  10 Shiqaqi, p. 89.
  11 Shiqaqi, p. 88.
  12 Ha'aretz, 16 February 2001.
  13 Arabicnews.com, 13 February 1998.
  14 Isabel Kershner, "One Step Away from Chaos," Jerusalem Report, 25 April 2001.
  15 For more, see: Khaled Abu Toameh, "Militia King," Jerusalem Report, 25 April 2001.

2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

MEIB Main Page