On Wednesday, five gunmen entered a brand new Mediterranean beach resort in the Gaza Strip. After handcuffing security guards, they burned down the building. Though it was a raid without casualties, Hamas took the attack as a special insult: The group's security force is headquartered nearby. Hamas, which has run Gaza since 2007, declared that the gunmen were sent by Fatah, the other major Palestinian political force. Fatah admitted nothing.
This was not an unusual day in Gaza. During the last week in July, in particular, fraternal violence among the Palestinians rose to an exceptional level. A car bomb in Gaza City killed six people, one of them a Hamas leader and one a young girl, and injured 20 passers-by. Hamas immediately arrested 200 Fatah supporters. In one case, the Hamas fighters fired four rocket-propelled grenades at the home of a Fatah leader, exchanged gunfire with his guards, then discovered he wasn't home. The Hamas supporters put it about that Fatah-controlled TV in the West Bank had broadcast pictures of the car-bomb attack with joyful music in the background. True or not, the story suggested that Hamas and Fatah hate each other as much as they hate the Israelis.
The appalling fact, only fitfully reported in North America, is that the two major Palestinian factions are committed to an often murderous conflict. They have even developed their own miniature peace process, which at the moment looks to be about as successful as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Egyptian government has relaunched, or is set to relaunch, or hopes to relaunch, reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas. At the same time, Hamas security forces have fought recently with another well-armed force in Gaza, the Army of Islam, an al-Qaeda-inspired militia. Nobody claims the Army of Islam is part of Fatah, but it's another threat to the stability that Hamas hopes to establish among the Gaza Strip's population of 1.5 million.
This week, the third anniversary of Israel's wildly optimistic and ill-advised withdrawal from the Strip, the situation is much as Steven Erlanger described in the New York Times at the second anniversary last summer: "Rather than a model for a future Palestinian state, Gaza looks like Somalia: broken and ravenous."
Despite persistent evidence of Palestinian vs. Palestinian warfare, and despite the fact that Israel's lame-duck Prime Minister lacks the credibility to commit the nation to anything, diplomats and politicians continue to dream of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians sometime soon. This diplomatic project has acquired the quality of a dying cult: It runs on an ideology that few believe in but everyone feels obliged to endorse. One of its most ludicrous documents is the Annapolis Declaration, produced under George W. Bush's auspices last November, in which leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority promised "vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations" aimed at an agreement before the end of 2008.
Barack Obama recently joined the cult during his tour of the Middle East, arguing that America supports Israel unequivocally and believes profoundly in a better deal for the Palestinians. Not yet officially nominated, much less elected, he nevertheless promised to start work on the peace promise "from the minute I'm sworn into office."
He knows, of course, that others have been there before. Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak worked long and hard on a peace treaty and believed they had one nailed down until Yasser Arafat, at the last moment, decided it didn't please him. He chose war over peace and the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, with many dead on both sides.
War is often called a form of madness. But there's also something crazy in basing diplomacy and politics on a peace that won't happen anytime in the foreseeable future. Speaking the language of peace in these circumstances amounts to mass hypocrisy. For those innocent citizens who believe their leaders and take their words seriously, it's also a cruel delusion.
Why pursue a purely fictitious peace? It makes the would-be peacemakers feel righteous, it allows them to believe others admire them and it gives an air of busyness to professionals who may have little else to do. They have attempted it so often, way back into the last century, that they would be ashamed of themselves if they did not talk constantly about peace.
Peace is the desire of the world, but idle and bad-faith talk of peace is the opiate of the diplomatic classes.