Most concerns surrounded conflict between the two largest Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), under constant pressure to carry out its commitments under the Oslo accords, hounded Hamas, citing the need to "safeguard paramount national interests".

In some instances, the persecution took the form of tacit, even flagrant, collaboration with Israel, which complicated and seriously exacerbated relations between Hamas and Fatah.

Moreover, Israel encouraged inter-Palestinian fighting by blackmailing the weak PA leadership by setting as a condition for progress in the peace process the destruction of Hamas.

The incendiary situation could have caused Palestinian society to implode. This is, at least, what Israel had worked towards. However, the outbreak of the Intifada guaranteed that implosion morphed into an explosion.

Changing fortunes

Things have changed considerably since September 2000. The PA has nearly ceased to exist as a result of sustained attacks by Israel on its security infrastructure.

"The enemy is spilling our blood and destroying our homes and placing
all of us in detention camps - isn’t that sufficient reason to
make us unify?"

Nayif Rajub, former Hamas spokesman in Hebron

With the collapse of the peace process, a new positive chemistry has replaced the chronic mistrust between the various Palestinian factions, mainly Hamas and Fatah.

Nayif Rajub, a former Hamas spokesman in the Hebron region, believes there are two reasons for the growing harmony.

First, he cites the sustained Israeli onslaught, which he describes as "unprecedented in its scope and severity" and as having "genocidal proportions".

"The Israeli machine of death and destruction has not made any distinction between Fatah and Hamas, Jihad and other groups," says Rajub. "It would be utter nonsense to promote discord and disunity under these circumstances.

Peace failure

"The enemy is spilling our blood and destroying our homes and placing all of us in detention camps - isn’t that sufficient reason to make us unify?"

The other reason, according to Rajub, is the "clarion failure of the so-called peace process".

Palestinian youth throw stones
at an Israeli armoured carrier

"During the Oslo years, our brothers in Fatah thought the peace process would give them a genuine state. Now, almost everybody has discovered that the peace process was a mirage."

Amin Maqbul, secretary-general of the Fatah movement in the Nablus region, agrees.

He says that inter-factional contention during the Oslo era stemmed from conflicting political perceptions.

"We thought the peace process would give us freedom and enable us to liberate our homeland from Israeli colonisation," he says. "But we were obviously wrong. And now we have no choice but to be united in the trench of resistance."

Asked if Fatah would once again confront Hamas under pressure from the US and Israel, Maqbul says Palestinians have learned their lesson.

"I know there are certain figures who would do anything to obtain American acceptance and backing. But the vast bulk of our people will not sell their national honour for a few American dollars."

Camaraderie

The camaraderie of the struggle, coupled with the weakness of the PA, has greatly helped unity.

During the Oslo years, the PA relied on Fatah to repulse and contain Hamas.

Masked Fatah fighters of al-Aqsa
Martyrs' Brigades

However, with the outbreak of the Intifada and the full participation of Fatah in the resistance against Israel, mainly through al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a real camaraderie evolved between the fighters.

Eventually, this led to a significant amount of operational coordination between Hamas and Fatah, especially the groups' armed wings.

This cooperation, which occurred despite the PA's wishes, took the form of joint armed attacks against Israeli targets.

Trust

Furtheron, the partnership bred mutual trust.

"There never were real strategic differences between us and Hamas," says Maqbul. "We only differed on tactics. Now, even the tactics are not a subject of disagreement."

This is generally true. However, it is also true that there have always been two camps within the PA on how to deal with Hamas.

The first emphasises inclusion, cooperation and adoption of democratic methods. The other advocates exclusion and an iron-fist policy, even if it leads to a limited civil war.

Middle road

But Yasir Arafat chose the middle road, applying a bit of both approaches to Hamas.

The anti-Hamas camp within the PA has been weakened, with some of its symbols, such as Arafat’s economic advisor Muhammad Rashid, also known as Khalid Salam, leaving the occupied territories, apparently for his own safety.

Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is
confined in his Ram Allah office 

Other anti-Hamas figures within Fatah, such as Secretary-General of the Presidency al-Tayib Abd al-Rahim, has by and large been silent since the outbreak of the Intifada, seeing that things have changed drastically since the 1990s.

There is another important element in the cooperation between Fatah and Hamas.

Since the start of the Intifada, ideological differences between the two have died down and been replaced by a growing political maturity and mutual acceptance.

"We have become more mature politically," says Nizar Ramadan, an Islamist journalist based in the West Bank town of Hebron. "This is true with Fatah, Hamas and the left."

He attributes this to the "common calamities befalling all of us".

"I think Fatah has reached the conclusion that Hamas is a reality that no amount of vilification can obliterate. We in the Islamist camp have come to appreciate differences of opinion because you can't expect others to respect your views if you don't respect theirs."

Obstacles

Despite the rosy picture, some factional leaders are worried that the good chemistry between the factions may not last.

This is the view of Jamil Majdalawi, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

He says that authentic national unity depends on Fatah's willingness to abandon its "hegemony and monopoly of power".

"There is a tiny but influential layer of cronies and hangers-on within Fatah who amassed a lot of wealth during the Oslo years. These people care first and foremost about their own selfish interests. National unity is not in their interests, and they will resist it."

Rajub agrees.

"The main obstacle to unity is the PA. National unity enhances in proportion to PA weakness, and vice versa."