Page last updated at 22:00 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

Conflict fuels doubts over Abbas

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Ramallah

Mahmoud Abbas in Spain, 8 January 2009
Many say frustration with Mahmoud Abbas is rising in the West Bank

The long, green Hamas banner is only visible for a few minutes, amid the sea of Palestinian flags.

A quick scuffle, a blur of security uniforms, a flash of wooden batons, and one arrest is made. A few minutes later, another protester is led away.

Palestinian Authority (PA) security is high in Ramallah as Palestinians protest against the Israeli military operation in Gaza after Friday prayers.

Chants of "unity, unity" echo around the West Bank town's al-Manara Square - even as the PA heavies stamp out all signs of their rival faction.

The Middle East's latest war came amid a bitter feud between Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, and the PA in the West Bank, dominated by the Fatah faction of its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Balance shifted

Until Israel launched air strikes on Gaza two weeks ago, the likely date for expected fireworks in the region was 9 January, the day Hamas had long argued that Mr Abbas's term ended, and on which they vowed they would stop recognising him as PA president.

But what most of the impassioned crowd at the protest describe as a "massacre" in Gaza has shifted the balance slightly.

The message from Hamas is mixed. A spokesman in Lebanon said on Thursday that by the following day Mr Abbas would no longer be president - but several of the group's leaders in Gaza have said now is not the time to tackle the issue.

Meanwhile, many say frustration with Mr Abbas is rising in the West Bank.

Sari Sa'adi
Before, I was against Hamas, against their political and religious points of view, but after what happened - I'm supporting Hamas
Sari Sa'adi

In his first statement on the fighting, Mr Abbas angered many Palestinians by saying the Israeli attack could have been avoided if Hamas had renewed the ceasefire of the preceding six months - and by dubbing rocket attacks on southern Israel "acts of foolishness".

And, as many see it, his jetting around for talks with world leaders has, like his past year of peace talks and expanding co-operation with Israel, delivered little of substance.

"The Israeli onslaught on Gaza has further undermined the credibility of the PA," says political analyst George Giacaman of Birzeit University.

"Hamas and the Gaza population are perceived as the victim… and the PA in the West Bank is at a loss as to what to do," he says.

Shop owner Tariq Nakhly, 37, watching the protest from a distance, once supported Mr Abbas - but now agrees with Hamas's view that he should no longer be president.

"The PA police shouldn't hit the people. The PA should stand with the Gazans, not stand against them," he says.

And engineer Sari Sa'adi too says Mr Abbas "is standing with the wrong side."

"Before, I was against Hamas, against their political and religious points of view, but after what happened… I'm supporting Hamas."

New elections?

However, many at the protest still clearly back Mr Abbas.

Rania Ibragit, 40, works for the PA and left Gaza "because of Hamas" in the months after the militant group seized control of the Strip in June 2007 and continued to try to stamp out the remaining vestiges of the PA.

"Where is the resistance?" she asks, of Hamas. "This is a big slogan, it became a lie… There are kids who are bleeding in Gaza for this party or that party to be the leader. Why do the Palestinian people always have to pay the price?

"I believe in President Abbas, I have certain points against him… but I believe that he doesn't want his people to be killed."

In the debate over Mr Abbas's term, Hamas has maintained that Mr Abbas was elected for a four-year term, which expired on 9 January.

Rania Ibragit
I believe in President Abbas… I believe that he doesn't want his people to be killed
Rania Ibragit

Mr Abbas said the constitution called for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously, and wanted to stay in power until polls for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2010.

But the gulf between the two sides stretches far beyond electoral law, despite the slightly more conciliatory tone politicians have taken on since the fighting broke out.

"When this ends I hope it will unite us, and bring everybody back to their senses," says Rafiq Husseini, Mr Abbas's chief of staff.

But he denies suggestions that popular sentiment is swinging against Mr Abbas.

"The West Bank is of course with its people in Gaza. But it also wants to say to Hamas… stop giving a pretext to Israel [by firing rockets]. You never play into the hands of your enemy. People understand this, I am sure, in the West Bank and also in Gaza."

Mahmoud Mohsen, who was elected as a Hamas MP in 2006 and has been jailed by Israel for much of the time since, now describes himself as an independent.

"We should go back and sit together, talk, negotiate… nobody has the right to cancel out the others," he says.

But he maintains that Hamas won the 2006 elections and "everybody should give them the authority they are supposed to have".

He is convinced that, despite widespread PA arrests and attempts to quash Hamas activities in the West Bank, the population still backs the militant group.

"They can't say this in public, because they are afraid to be punished or arrested," he says.

Both men maintain the inevitable solution is elections. But talks aimed at resolving the dispute around when these should be held broke down in November.

Prof Giacaman suggests that Hamas's softer line may be linked to its realisation that an eventual truce with Israel will have to involve an element of PA control over the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

But even if the demands of brokering a truce do force the feuding factions back to the negotiating table, polls remain a distant prospect as the bombs fall in Gaza.

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