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.
"This whole ordeal is being coordinated between the Israelis and the Palestinians so that Abu Mazen can get back to Gaza," Rasem Hasoon, a 21-year-old shoe salesman, said, using Abbas's nickname.
Hasoon said that he is a member of Fatah but that Hamas has impressed him lately. "They are defending our land and our freedom," he said.
The rift between the two factions hit a critical point in June 2007, when Hamas ousted Fatah security forces from Gaza after bloody street battles. Since then, Hamas, which won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, has had sole control of Gaza. Fatah has continued to exercise power in the West Bank, where it has banned Hamas from political activity.
The fortunes of the two territories -- which together with East Jerusalem would make up a future Palestinian state -- have diverged sharply since the Hamas takeover of Gaza. While economic conditions for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank have improved as international development money poured in, Gaza's 1.5 million people have suffered under a strict Israeli embargo.
In Ramallah, seat of power for the Fatah-run administration and one of the wealthiest cities in the West Bank, businessmen sip lattes in European-style cafes and car dealerships showcase gleaming new Mercedes-Benzes. In Gaza City, the home base of Hamas, donkeys sometimes outnumber cars because of fuel shortages and residents fight over their daily allocation of bread.
Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in both territories -- which are separated by about 30 miles of Israeli land -- have deepened the sense of disconnection between Gaza and the West Bank.
Palestinians say that driving a wedge between the two territories is exactly what the Israelis have in mind.
Shikaki, the Palestinian political analyst, said he thinks Israel is trying to use the pressure of a military campaign to reorient Gaza toward Egypt and away from the rest of historic Palestine. "Ultimately, Gaza would become Egypt's problem, not Israel's," he said. "The goal of a single Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank would be fully undermined."
Israeli officials deny the charge but acknowledge that they are interested in highlighting the divisions between the two territories as a way of undermining Hamas's rule. Israel says the ongoing assault is intended to eliminate the ability of Hamas and other militant groups to fire rockets into southern Israel from Gaza.
"The people in Gaza know exactly what kind of life the people in the West Bank have. And it makes them unhappy," said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry. "They know that after Hamas took over, things got a lot worse."
Although there is no organized political opposition in Gaza, undercurrents of resentment toward Hamas were one reason the group signed a six-month cease-fire with Israel over the summer. With missiles now falling and Israel barring foreign journalists from visiting the narrow coastal strip, it is nearly impossible to ascertain whether the air assault has helped or hurt Hamas's reputation in Gaza.
Although taking care not to justify the Israeli campaign, Fatah officials say they hope the latter is the case.
"Hamas right now is making a big mistake," said Ziad Abu Ein, a deputy minister in the Palestinian Authority and a Fatah member. "The people are turning against them and want to get rid of them. Just not by the hand of the Israelis."
Special correspondent Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.