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Updated Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 05:59 AM

Gaza clash strengthens Hamas at Palestinian Authority's expense

By ETHAN BRONNER
The New York Times

RAMALLAH, West Bank — In the daily demonstrations here in solidarity with Gaza, there is a growing identification with the Islamist fighters of Hamas and derision for the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank and is considered by the U.S. to be the only viable partner for peace with Israel.

"Strike a blow on Tel Aviv!" proclaim the lyrics of a new hit song blasting from shops and speakers at Monday's demonstration, in a reference to Hamas rockets that made it nearly to Israel's economic and cultural capital. "Don't let the Zionists sleep! We don't want a truce or a solution! Oh Palestinians, you can be proud!"

Pop songs everywhere are filled with bravado and aggression. But this one reflects a widespread sentiment that does not bode well for President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, which is rapidly losing credibility and relevance.

The Gaza truce talks in Cairo, involving Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, offer a telling tableau. The Palestinian leader seen there is not Abbas, but Khaled Meshal, the leader of the militant group Hamas, who seeks to speak for all Palestinians as his ideological brothers in the Muslim Brotherhood rise to power around the region.

Israel is also threatening Abbas, even hinting it may give up on him, as he prepares to go to the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29 to try to upgrade the Palestinian status to that of a nonmember state. Israel considers this an act of aggression, and even some Palestinians say it is somewhat beside the point.

"His people are being killed in Gaza, and he is sitting on his comfortable chair in Ramallah," lamented Firas Katash, 20, a student who took part in the Ramallah demonstration.

For the United States, as for other countries hoping to promote a two-state solution to this century-old conflict, a more radicalized West Bank with a discredited Palestinian Authority would mean greater insecurity for Israel and increased opportunity for anti-Western forces to take root in a region where Islamism is on the rise.

Since Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, threw the Fatah-controlled authority out of Gaza a year later, Abbas has not set foot there. Yet he will ask the world to recognize the two increasingly distinct entities as a unified state.

Manar Wadi, who works in an office in Ramallah, said: "What is happening in Gaza makes the Palestinian Authority left behind and isolated. Now we see the other face of Hamas, and its popularity is rising. It makes us feel that the Palestinian Authority doesn't offer a path to the future."

In Cairo on Monday, Meshal seemed defiant and confident in his new role, daring the Israelis to invade Gaza as a sixth day of Israeli aerial assaults brought the death toll there to more than 100 people, many of them militants of Hamas and its affiliates. Rockets launched from Gaza hit southern Israel, causing some damage and panic, but no casualties, leaving the death toll there at three.

"Whoever started the war must end it," Meshal said at a news conference. "If Israel wants a cease-fire brokered through Egypt, then that is possible. Escalation is also possible."

Officials in the Palestinian Authority have been holding leadership meetings, staying in close touch with the talks in Cairo and issuing statements of solidarity. They have also sent a small medical delegation to Gaza and argue there is a new opportunity to forge unity between the two feuding movements. But they are acutely aware of their problem.

"The most dangerous thing is the fact that what we could not do in negotiations, Hamas did with one rocket," one official said.

Abbas, whose popularity has been on the decline as the Palestinian Authority faces economic difficulty and growing Israeli settlements, also ran into trouble not long before the Gaza fighting began when he seemed to give up on the Palestinian demand of a right of return to what is now Israel.

Many Palestinians believe Israel launched its latest Gaza operation to block the Palestinian Authority's U.N. plans by embarrassing it. Israeli officials say the operation's purpose is to stop the growing number of rockets fired at their communities.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly threatened to take severe steps against the Palestinian Authority, including cutting off badly needed tax receipts to Palestinian coffers, should Abbas go ahead at the U.N.

In a speech here Sunday night at a Palestinian leadership meeting, Abbas repeated his determination to go to New York and ask for a change in status to that of nonmember state. He has chosen the symbolically significant date of Nov. 29, when the General Assembly voted in 1947 to divide this land into two states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian Arab.

The United States has asked Abbas not to do so, but instead to resume direct negotiations with Israel. Talks have essentially been frozen since 2008.

Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are viewed in the West — and by some Israelis — as the most moderate and serious Palestinian partners to lead the Palestinian national movement. The Palestinian Authority has well-trained police and military forces that keep order in the West Bank, and it promotes economic growth within the confines of the occupation, leading to some business activity. These are functions Israel would otherwise have to carry out itself, and it has been widely argued that Israel will make every effort to keep the authority functioning.

But a senior Israeli official said that view is fading in the government. He said Netanyahu is not yet ready to call it quits with the authority but that some around him are.

Robert M. Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and a former senior State Department official, said Israel has contributed to Hamas' rise in stature by holding it responsible for rocket fire from more radical groups in Gaza.

"In calling upon Egypt to rein in the Gaza leaders, Hamas' centrality grows rather than diminishes," Danin said. There are Palestinians who say the Israeli operation in Gaza will strengthen unity efforts between the authority and Hamas because it shows how vulnerable all Palestinians are and how much they need shared strength. Officially, Hamas accepts Abbas' U.N. plan, but some in the West Bank suspect it will ultimately undermine it in a power struggle.

"The Palestinian Authority is making a last-ditch effort to save the political paradigm of two states by going to the U.N.," said Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian businessman. "It is the only alternative to violence. The problem is that people view the Palestinian Authority as being incompetent to do anything. And the Israelis are making it worse. Increasingly, the Hamas agenda and the Israeli one seem to be the same on this point — derailing the Palestinian leadership."


AHMED GOMAA / AP
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, shown at a news conference Monday in Cairo, seeks to speak for all Palestinians. Hamas has been gaining support on the West Bank.




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