GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip is now virtually complete.
Since the summer, the Islamic militants have silenced and disarmed their remaining opponents, filled the bureaucracy with their supporters, and kept Gaza's economy afloat, even if just barely, despite a 16-month-old international embargo and border blockades by Israel and Egypt.
With nothing in sight to weaken Hamas' grip, the political split between Gaza and the West Bank — the two territories meant to make up a future Palestinian state — looks increasingly irreversible.
That conclusion was also reached by the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, in a September report describing Hamas' ascendancy, and the split is one of the main obstacles to U.S. efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
It weakens moderate President Mahmoud Abbas in the negotiations because he isn't seen as speaking for Gaza. Israel, Abbas and the international community don't want a deal that leaves out the 140-square-mile Gaza Strip and its 1.4-million Palestinians. And it's unlikely Israel would give up the West Bank as long as Hamas is in charge in Gaza.
Undisputed rule has also improved Hamas' leverage ahead of power-sharing talks with Abbas' Fatah movement in Cairo this month.
Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas leader, said his movement is eager to reconcile with Abbas. "If there is no pressure from the United States and Israel (on Abbas), we can build a good national unity government," Yousef said.
However, in previous negotiations, the militants showed little willingness to give up any of their power and are unlikely to do so now.
Instead, the failure of this round of talks could set the stage for a new round in the Palestinian power struggle.
Compounding Abbas' troubles is a dispute with Hamas over whether Palestinian law allows him to remain in office after Jan. 8, when Hamas says his term officially ends. Abbas, relying on an amendment that was never fully ratified, claims he can stay on another year. Hamas, citing Palestinian law, is set to appoint its own man, Deputy Parliament Speaker Ahmed Bahar, as president in January.
Abbas would be hard put to portray the Islamists as usurpers of power when his own legal status is in question.
"Starting in January, no one is legitimate," said analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former Cabinet minister in the West Bank. "And when everyone is equal in being illegitimate, the advantaged party is the one that has the strength on the ground."
That party is Hamas, which defeated thousands of forces loyal to Abbas in a five-day blitz in June 2007.
"We believe that Hamas is going ahead with its plan to sever Gaza from the West Bank and to build its own regime," said former Deputy Prime Minister Azzam Ahmed of Fatah. "We believe they are succeeding."