In West Bank, there's anger at Hamas as well as at Israel

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2009 

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Since the war in Gaza began two weeks ago, Rami Hamdan has oscillated between two emotions: sadness at the deaths of Palestinian civilians and anger, not only at Israel but also at its Palestinian foe, the militant Islamist group Hamas.

"Of course I am unhappy about the killings," said Hamdan, a 30-year-old building inspector in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. "But Hamas is also responsible. They breached the truce. Israel is an aggressive entity at the end of the day, and Hamas knew this could happen."

Not many Palestinians will say that out loud in the West Bank these days. Most people voice outrage about Israel's offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which by Friday had killed nearly 800 people, two-fifths of them women and children.

Below the surface, however, many in the West Bank are conflicted. A violent rift between Hamas and the secular Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, has left many unsure of their political future and fearful that their own territory could be engulfed in yet another round of battles with Israel.

Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, the two Palestinian mini-states have been on very different tracks. While Israel and the United States have tried to isolate Gaza and bring Hamas to its knees, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, with U.S. backing, has consolidated its hold on the West Bank, building up its security forces and trying to make its administration more efficient.

Despite the bitter political rivalry, most Palestinians appear to view the onslaught in Gaza as an attack on them all. Any real hope of peace negotiations with Israel has been forestalled by the division between Fatah and Hamas, however, leaving many feeling helpless.

"This is the first face-off with the Israelis where we have not had a united front," said Sam Bahour, an Ohio-born Palestinian who returned to Ramallah 15 years ago and runs a leading consulting firm. "This is a bitter reality that we're facing, and it's affecting how people are mobilizing."

Hamas leaders have called for a third Intifada, or uprising, against Israel, but there's little sign of that in Ramallah.

This city saw fierce clashes with Israeli forces during the second Intifada, starting in 2000, including a grisly mob lynching of two Israeli soldiers whose bodies then were dragged through the town square. Up to Friday, however, when a well-organized rally drew thousands into the streets, anti-Israeli protests had been relatively small.

Many said that was because Fatah leaders had deployed security forces to intimidate protesters and had banned displays of the Hamas flag. Several Hamas leaders continue to be held behind bars.

Fatah leaders say they're trying to prevent the West Bank from slipping into chaos. Many people chafe at the security presence, however, and criticize Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for remaining silent through much of the conflict.

"Everybody feels a problem with the authority's response," said Ashraf Shahin, a 20-year-old working at a car wash. He said he was stunned when Palestinian riot police broke up a pro-Gaza demonstration at Birzeit University earlier this week, beating students with clubs and hauling away several protesters in police vans.

"Instead of using weapons to fight Israeli occupation, they are using them to fight our own people. That never happened under Abu Ammar," Shahin said, referring to Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian president and Fatah founder, who died in 2004.

There's no question that Palestinians are deeply disillusioned with Abbas, whose term as president officially expired Friday, although he shows no sign of stepping down. His critics say that Abbas has become little more than a client of Israel and the United States, undermining Hamas while pursuing peace negotiations that few think have any real chance of success.

Instead, with little to show for years of often violent political struggle, many Palestinians have opted for a quieter response. In homes, offices and restaurants across Ramallah, people are glued to television coverage of Gaza and are organizing charity drives via social organizations and Web sites such as Facebook.

"People are more analytical now," 24-year-old Nura Treish said. "If there was a viable peace process to cling to, it might be different. There is no such peace process. So this idea of a third intifada, people are thinking, well, really, what would we be fighting for?"

Many in Ramallah remain hopeful that the onslaught in Gaza could help unite the Palestinian factions. At Friday's rally, however, Jamil El Abed, a 27-year-old carpenter, said he was disheartened to hear so many people voicing support for one faction or the other.

For now, he said, the thought of Palestinian unity is farfetched.

"I've lost hope in everybody: Fatah, Hamas and the authority," El Abed said. "Their division makes it easy for Israel to swallow us."

(McClatchy special correspondent Khader Musleh contributed to this report from Ramallah.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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