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Palestinian Authority sidelined in Hamas-Israel conflict

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has had no role in efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hamas, leading to questions about his relevance.

November 20, 2012|By Maher Abukhater and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, pictured last week in the West Bank city of Ramallah, is expected to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about the conflict in Gaza.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, pictured last week in… (Majdi Mohammed / Associated…)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The hostilities in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas have raised sympathy among many Palestinians for the Islamist militant group and elevated its status at the expense of the rival Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, observers say.

Abbas, who views himself as the leader of all Palestinians, has been sidelined as Hamas has taken center stage in the struggle against Israel and received a string of VIP visitors in Gaza, even as Israeli airstrikes continued to pound the Hamas-ruled strip.

Abbas has had no role in efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The violence, which has included rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, meantime, has overshadowed his efforts to gain nonmember observer state status for Palestinians at the United Nations.

TIMELINE: Israel-Gaza conflict

"The war on Gaza has left a big negative impact on the Palestinian Authority," said Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst.

The Gaza conflict "has marginalized [the Palestinian Authority's] role and made them appear much less important than Hamas," Khatib said. "There are big and critical things happening while the authority seems unable to do anything about it."

Abbas' Fatah movement — co-founded by the late Yasser Arafat — still has a level of international stature denied to Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections the year before. Israel, the United States and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.

PHOTOS: Israel-Gaza violence

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who arrived late Tuesday in Jerusalem, is expected to meet with Abbas on Wednesday.

But the conflict of the last week has seen Arab and Turkish ministers journeying to Gaza to speak with Hamas representatives. Even before the current conflict, the emir of Qatar, an influential figure in Arab politics, visited Gaza without stopping in the West Bank, sparking speculation about what the gesture signaled to Palestinians.

A key mediating role has fallen to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who rose up from the ranks of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' parent organization. After years of facing official repression, the Brotherhood is pushing to increase its clout throughout the region.

Solidarity with Hamas was evident Tuesday in Ramallah at a funeral for Rushdi Tamimi, 28, who died Monday of wounds incurred when Israeli soldiers opened fire Saturday on a group of rock-throwing protesters, Palestinian authorities say. Dozens of uniformed Palestinian police officers were among those paying their respects to Tamimi, who was a member of the Palestinian police.

Some mourners also took part in a daily gathering in the center of Ramallah supportive of Gaza and opposed to the Israeli strikes. Such protests have been occurring throughout the West Bank, sometimes resulting in confrontations between demonstrators and Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

"We are all in this together," said Faris Abdul Hameed, 23, of Ramallah, a new university graduate with a business degree who is still unemployed, a not-uncommon predicament in this marginalized community, where good job opportunities are scarce. "The Israeli strikes are targeting the entire Palestinian people and not just Hamas. This is a war against the Palestinian people and we should all stand together against it."

Nida Samaan, 44, a homemaker, said she came to the demonstration because "I want to show support for the people in Gaza. Today Gaza and tomorrow Ramallah. If we do not do anything now, we will all become victims of the Israeli war machine."

As they marched through the city streets, demonstrators called on Hamas to continue firing missiles at Israel, particularly Tel Aviv.

"Shoot, shoot, Qassam, your missiles on Tel Aviv," yelled the crowd, calling on the Hamas military wing, Izzidin al Qassam, to continue the missile attacks on Israel.

In Israel, some officials have seemed to gloat over the diminished stature of Abbas.

"This whole affair clearly demonstrates Abu Mazen's utter irrelevance," Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio on Monday, using Abbas' nickname.

Others, however, see a potentially disturbing trend should Hamas somehow eclipse the secular Palestinian Authority in the eyes of most Palestinians. While Hamas has pledged to work for Israel's destruction, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority back a two-state solution, though talks with Israel have been stalled for years.

"Israel must think carefully if it really wants to diplomatically eliminate Abu Mazen," Yossi Beilin, a lead architect of the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, said on Israeli television.

Retired Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna voiced a similar warning, saying that new negotiations with Abbas were essential.

"Abu Mazen is irrelevant? Soon we will become irrelevant," Mitzna told Israeli Radio. "If this move does not ultimately end with renewing the peace talks with Abu Mazen, we will yet find ourselves under attrition on several simultaneous fronts."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Abukhater reported from Ramallah and Times staff writer McDonnell from Jerusalem. Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.

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