Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gaza Operation Weakens Palestinian Authority

Los Angeles Times (reporting from Ramallah), January 20, 2009 - With Israel and Hamas both claiming victory in the Gaza Strip, there is one clear loser: the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority, which desperately wants a peace accord with Israel and a unified Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank.

Israel's 22-day assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza made the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority look ineffective and marginalized, unable to stop the carnage. Popular support for its peace talks with Israel, already declining, now seems weaker than ever....

At an Arab summit in Kuwait on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pleaded for a revival of the power-sharing arrangement that broke apart in 2007 when Hamas, an armed Islamist movement, ousted his secular Fatah forces from Gaza in a ruthless factional fight.

He called for immediate talks between the two factions to form a "unity government" to rebuild the war-devastated territory, organize elections and negotiate peace with Israel.

Salam Fayyad, Abbas' prime minister, echoed the appeal at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The urgency in both men's voices signaled a position of weakness, reflecting the frustration of Western-oriented Palestinians over the outcome in Gaza.

Fayyad said he worried that reconstruction aid, including $1 billion pledged Monday by Saudi Arabia, would strengthen Hamas and its message of violent confrontation with the Jewish state. He urged international donors to funnel aid through the Palestinian Authority, with the aim of forcing Hamas to agree to a reconciliation that might moderate its policies.

If the division of Palestine were to become "internationally acceptable," he warned, "this would endanger the Palestinian cause."

But the authority has no means to reassert its presence in Gaza without the consent of Hamas. And although Hamas said it was open to a new power-sharing deal, it seemed in no hurry to strike one with Abbas, whom one Hamas official dismissed as "a full partner" in the Israeli assault.

"Hamas will be much less powerful militarily against Israel but significantly stronger against Fatah," said Ghassan Khatib, an independent Palestinian analyst in Ramallah. "No one will challenge its control of Gaza. It is in much less need of a unity government." ....

But Israel's assault has undermined Palestinian support for Abbas and his peace agenda. Many West Bank residents, even those who oppose Hamas' violent ideology, considered the Gaza offensive an attack on all Palestinians and accused Abbas of not doing enough to stop the killing of more than 1,300 Gazans.

Abbas misread public opinion by declaring that Hamas was partly to blame. His own police forces used clubs and tear gas to put down West Bank street protests against Gaza bloodshed whenever participants chanted Hamas slogans or unfurled the Hamas flag.

"The people are going to hold accountable whoever failed to stand by our people in Gaza," said Izzeddin Ibrahim, a 25-year-old engineer in Ramallah. "There is no chance left to make peace with those who kill our people. We cannot accept anyone meeting with Israelis anymore."

Such criticism also comes from within Abbas' Fatah movement, which had led every major Palestinian battle against Israel since its founding by the late Yasser Arafat in the late 1950s. By sitting this one out, senior Fatah members acknowledge, the movement has lost respect.

"Those who fight the occupation gained popularity, and we who stood back and watched lost," said Kadura Fares, a member of Fatah's revolutionary council. "We are no longer in the vanguard."

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