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Fighting adds new dangers to tense region

RAMALLAH, West Bank – The deadly factional fighting in the Gaza Strip between the militant Hamas movement and Fatah could doom the long-held Palestinian vision of uniting Gaza and the West Bank into a single independent state.

The latest clashes highlight a growing schism between the two areas, raising the possibility that the power struggle will turn them into ministates, each ruled by its own faction: Hamas in the coastal strip and Fatah in the West Bank.

The violence has dimmed hopes that Palestinians and Israelis someday might reach an agreement for side-by-side nations and raised questions over how Israel responds to having Hamas, which calls for destroying the Jewish state, indisputably in charge in Gaza.

The severity of the latest internecine fighting is driving a growing number of Palestinians to consider drastic scenarios, including dissolving the Palestinian Authority or allowing Hamas to manage Gaza more or less on its own.

“Hamas is working toward that. They want Gaza,” Hafez Barghouti, a newspaper editor in Ramallah, said bitterly. “They are destroying the Palestinian national project.”

It is possible the two Palestinian factions can find a way to govern together after the fighting, which Hamas characterizes as an effort to weed out troublemakers intent on toppling the government it heads rather than as a bid to eradicate Fatah. A Hamas triumph could bring a halt to the chaos that has made Gazans miserable for months.

The crisis has forced Palestinians to face how far apart West Bank and Gaza really are, although they are separated by only 20 miles of Israeli territory at the narrowest point. Israeli restrictions prevent most Palestinians from traveling between the two areas. Palestinian legislators gather via video link because Hamas lawmakers are prevented from traveling across Israel.

“We already see the separation taking place on the ground,” said Samir Said, 55, a grocer in Ramallah. “This is really bad for the Palestinian cause. We can see the Palestinian state vanishing.”

The political crisis has propelled a debate among Palestinian intellectuals over whether Palestinians might be served better by dumping the trappings of the 1993 Oslo peace agreement, which created the enfeebled Palestinian Authority, and leaving themselves under Israeli occupation without their own government.

This, in effect, would swap the two-state solution for a one-state vision in which Arabs someday might achieve a demographic majority in the region that includes Israel, West Bank and Gaza.