YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Palestinians' factional split deepens over Gaza conflict

Palestinians, united in rage against Israel, are torn between Fatah's push for peace and Hamas' call to arms. Factional feuding is on display in the streets of the West Bank.

January 03, 2009|Richard Boudreaux and Ashraf Khalil

JERUSALEM AND RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Israel's week-old assault on the Gaza Strip has widened the rift between Palestinians who back the search by moderate leaders for a peace accord with the Jewish state and those drawn to Hamas' call for armed struggle.

The breach was on display Friday in the West Bank as the territory's U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority leadership, striving to contain rising anger over the death toll in Hamas-ruled Gaza, sent police to put down pro-Hamas demonstrations.

Thousands enraged by the bloodshed have joined protests in West Bank cities. One in Ramallah after Friday prayers turned into a shouting match between about 2,000 marchers with green Hamas flags and 500 others with the yellow banners of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.

Though condemning the assault as "criminal," Abbas has insisted that Hamas is responsible because it ended a truce with Israel two weeks ago. Hamas, in turn, has branded him an Israeli collaborator.

The two factions shared power, uneasily, in an elected government until the militant Islamic group ousted Fatah's secular forces from Gaza in June 2007. Their violent split left the Palestinian Authority in charge of only the West Bank, and the divide has deepened since.

Investment spurred by hopes for peace with Israel has trickled into the West Bank, lifting its economy. Gaza has slid deeper into poverty, punished for Hamas' belligerence by an Israeli blockade that severely restricts supplies of food, fuel and other essentials to the enclave's 1.5 million people.

As Hamas stepped up rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza in the last year, Abbas has pursued talks with Israeli leaders, brokered by the Bush administration, with the aim of establishing an independent Palestinian state. U.S. officials hoped the process would boost Abbas' stature and weaken Hamas' message of armed resistance.

But after 14 months, Israeli leaders and Abbas are no closer to an accord and Hamas remains entrenched in Gaza.

Each faction now views the Israeli offensive as an opportunity to gain at the other's expense. Fatah officials have sent messages of hope to their supporters in Gaza that Hamas will be driven from power.

Hamas' top political leader, Khaled Meshaal, has called for an uprising in the West Bank, "a peaceful one against the Palestinian Authority and a military one against Israel."

The potential for rebellion in the West Bank, however, is limited. The Israeli army patrols the territory heavily, and Abbas' security forces, built up with Israel's blessing, have arrested dozens of Hamas activists in recent months.

In addition, Palestinians say they are reluctant to rally behind any national cause not backed by all political factions.

"People are frustrated by this internal division," said Hani Masri, a political analyst in Ramallah. "They see each faction working alone, for itself, unable to bring about any improvement for the Palestinians as a whole."

That disillusionment, he said, helps explain why unrest over the violence in Gaza has been less intense in the West Bank than in some Arab capitals.

The bloodshed has nonetheless threatened to undermine Abbas' authority. As the elected president of all Palestinians, the 73-year-old Abbas has demanded a halt to the airstrikes, which have claimed more than 400 lives in Gaza since they began last Saturday.

He sees peace talks with Israel as the central mission of his presidency. Yet after hours of face-to-face negotiations with Israeli leaders, he has achieved no apparent influence over what they do in Gaza and delivered little in the way of concessions to help persuade Gazans to turn against Hamas.

"The Israelis claim they are attacking Gaza to weaken Hamas, but in fact they are strengthening Hamas," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament who led Friday's march in Ramallah. "Mr. Abbas is perceived now as incapable of protecting all the Palestinian people."

Both Israel and Abbas' government worry about Hamas' considerable popular support in the West Bank and its potential to challenge Fatah's supremacy in the territory.

Fatah officials were alarmed on the first two days of the airstrikes when protesters brought Hamas banners into the streets of Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah, provoking clashes with Israeli troops. Palestinian police intervened in all three cities, wounding three protesters with gunfire in Hebron.

Fatah security officials denied that their men were cooperating with Israel to suppress pro-Hamas protests.

But Mouin Rabbani, an independent Middle East analyst based in Amman, Jordan, said the police action reinforced an impression that Abbas is too close to Israel and secretly supports the bombing of Gaza.

"People are looking at Israel's campaign in the Gaza Strip and Abbas' campaign in the West Bank as two sides of the same coin," he said.

Los Angeles Times Articles