Page last updated at 10:05 GMT, Friday, 15 February 2008

Hamas clinging on in West Bank

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Hebron

Zagher's funeral was described as a celebration by the family
The green flags of Hamas flew in the West Bank city of Hebron last week.

At the home of suicide bomber Shadi al-Zagher, 20, women from across the city crowded into family living room to pay their respects to his mother.

They sang songs, praised him as a martyr, sipped water and ate dates.

"He's a groom," said his mother, sitting surrounded by 70 or so women, a Hamas scarf round her neck. "We smile, we don't cry."

The 20-year-old had been one of two suicide bombers despatched by Hamas to the southern Israeli town of Dimona in attack that killed one Israeli.

The Islamic militant movement said that it was in response to continued Israeli aggression in the West Bank and Gaza. It was the first suicide bombing claimed by the movement in over three years.

Public displays in support of Hamas like this are rare today in the West Bank.


But the fact that the bombers came from here - and not Gaza - is one illustration of the continued support that Hamas continues to enjoy in the West Bank.

Ever since the Hamas takeover of Gaza last June, the movement's followers have faced a crackdown from their Fatah opponents in the West Bank.

According to a report by Amnesty International more than a 1,000 Hamas members or sympathisers have been arrested by the Palestinian Authority (PA). There were reports of torture.

If tomorrow checkpoints were lifted, the economy got better, the peace talks started making progress, then support for Fatah would increase
Ali Jarbawi
The PA also moved to shut down over 100 charities linked to Hamas - political offices, medical centres, kindergartens - since the Gaza takeover.

Last week, three senior Hamas officials gave a press conference in Nablus stressing the need for Palestinian unity.

At least one of the men had been imprisoned twice by the Palestinian Authority since June but he refused to criticise his imprisonment or his Fatah rivals.


The West Bank is considered the stronghold of the secular Fatah faction, led by the current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The movement is engaged with Israel in a new-round of talks aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international community has pledged billions of dollars of investment to the West Bank government.

Hamas demonstration
It is hard to gauge support for Hamas in the West Bank
In contrast, Hamas, and its stronghold of Gaza, is being shunned by the international community. Gaza has been subjected to an economic boycott, devastating the local economy.

One of the main ideological differences between the two main Palestinian political factions is that Fatah recognises Israel while Hamas does not.

It is difficult to gauge what support there is for Hamas in West Bank, particularly when the Islamic movement is off the streets and appears to have been silenced.

But just as Fatah commands support in Gaza, Hamas commands support in the West Bank, particularly cities such as Hebron and Nablus.


According to Jamil Rabah, director of Near East Consulting, an organisation that conducts public opinion polls based in Ramallah, Hamas would receive about 35% of the vote in the West Bank if a vote was held today.

Mr Rabah says one of the reasons Hamas attracts a lot of independent voters because of its strong Islamic and Palestinian identity.

Its rival Fatah is also still tainted by allegations of corruption.

Within some Fatah circles in the West Bank there is also an acknowledgement that the movement needs to change in the West Bank to tackle support for Hamas.

Some political analysts believe that if the status quo remains in the West Bank it increase support for Hamas.

The West has promised to invest heavily in the West Bank but Palestinians have yet to see the benefits, insists Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

"Palestinians here still see closures and Israeli military incursions," says Prof Jarbawi.

"Support fluctuates for Hamas and Fatah. If tomorrow checkpoints were lifted, the economy got better, the peace talks started making progress, then support for Fatah would increase."

Political leaders insist it will take time for the Palestinians in the West Bank to see tangible benefits.

Many must know that a failure to deliver will only play into Hamas' hands.

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