Gaza Assault Worsens Rift Between Palestinian Factions

Assault on Gaza Strip continues as rockets fall on southern Israel.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 1, 2009

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Dec. 31 -- Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip has exacerbated the deep divisions between Palestinians who want to make peace with Israel and those who support Hamas's militant struggle against the Jewish state.

The fractures are stark in the West Bank, where sympathy for Hamas appears to be rising in the streets even as the territory's leaders suppress pro-Hamas demonstrations and blame the Islamist movement for the breakdown of a six-month truce with Israel.

Hamas shot back Wednesday, accusing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, from the rival Fatah party, of being an Israeli collaborator -- one of the worst slurs imaginable for a Palestinian.

Fatah and Hamas have a basic disagreement over how to engage with Israel: Fatah supports negotiations leading to two states that exist side by side, while Hamas has never recognized Israel and advocates armed resistance.

The continued infighting has been nearly as dispiriting for Palestinians as the Israeli offensive itself. The goal of a Palestinian state -- an elusive dream for decades -- feels even more distant as Israeli bombs fall on Gaza, Palestinians say.

"The fragmentation has really frustrated the population," said Qais Abdul Karim, a Palestinian Legislative Council member who belongs to neither Fatah nor Hamas. "There is no unity in the national movement and no unity in the street. These attacks have increased the divisions. They should have done the opposite."

That dynamic may explain, at least in part, why public reaction to the Gaza strikes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has been milder than many analysts predicted.

On Sunday, hundreds of people rallied in Ramallah's central square, denouncing Israel and chanting slogans calling for Palestinian unity. But when a group of young Hamas supporters attempted to unfurl the movement's green-and-white banners, security forces loyal to Abbas quickly seized the men and hustled them away.

Since then, there have been few significant protests in the territory, despite widespread hostility toward Israel over the death toll. Gaza medical officials say the assault has left at least 390 Palestinians dead, including dozens of civilians, and wounded 1,600. By keeping public discontent bottled up, analysts say, Abbas risks getting caught in the backlash.

"The Palestinian Authority doesn't want to see demonstrations because it doesn't want to see the situation spin out of control," said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. "There is a great deal of anger, and there is a great deal of frustration. That anger will eventually be turned against the Palestinian Authority, and that will be the start of the process of destabilization in the West Bank."

Hamas stoked that anger Wednesday when spokesman Fawzi Barhoum released a statement accusing Abbas of having formed a secret cell of Fatah supporters in Gaza to collect information on the whereabouts of Hamas leaders, who have gone into hiding for fear of assassination. Barhoum said Abbas planned to turn the information over to the Israeli military.

Fatah officials rejected the charge. But the accusation played on Palestinian fears that Abbas is too close to the Israelis and secretly supports the bombing campaign, even though he has condemned it.

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