Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
January 15, 2009 - 1:00am

Israel hoped that the war in Gaza would not only cripple Hamas, but eventually strengthen its secular rival, the Palestinian Authority, and even allow it to claw its way back into Gaza.

But with each day, the authority, its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and its leading party, Fatah, seem increasingly beleaguered and marginalized, even in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, which they control. Protesters accuse Mr. Abbas of not doing enough to stop the carnage in Gaza — indeed, his own police officers have used clubs and tear gas against those same protesters.

The more bombs in Gaza, the more Hamas’s support seems to be growing at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, already considered corrupt and distant from average Palestinians.

“The Palestinian Authority is one of the main losers in this war,” said Ghassan Khatib, an independent Palestinian analyst in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “How can it make gains in a war in which it is one of the casualties?”

Israel is proposing, with the tacit agreement of Egypt and the United States, to place the Palestinian Authority at the heart of an ambitious program to rebuild Gaza, administering reconstruction aid and securing Gaza’s borders. But that plan is already drawing skepticism. Mr. Khatib, for example, called the idea of any Palestinian Authority role in postwar Gaza “silly” and “naïve.”

Perhaps more dispiriting to the ever fewer who believe that any overall settlement is possible now — with peace negotiations suspended and Palestinians divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — is that Israel itself does not really hold out high hopes for a larger postwar role for Fatah. Israel’s proposals seem dutiful, an acknowledgment of a stalemate that not even so ferocious an assault on Hamas can undo.

“There are not too many realistic ideas around,” conceded Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The reason: Most ideas, he said, largely rely “on the good will of Hamas.” That may be in short supply, because Hamas, deeply embedded in Gazan society both as a fighting force and a provider of social services, seems highly likely to survive in some form after this war.

Ever since Hamas began its one-party rule of Gaza, in the summer of 2007, Israel and the West have tried to turn Gazans against Hamas through an economic embargo and diplomatic isolation. While there is certainly anger at Hamas among Gazans, it pales beside the anger at Israel, the West and what some see as Fatah’s collusion with those enemies.

Mr. Abbas and his loyalists have not entered Gaza since 2007, when they were ousted by Hamas, which took over the area after a brief but ruthless factional war. They are now hoping that the Egyptian cease-fire initiative will serve as a vehicle to regain a foothold there.

The Palestinian Authority hopes that a severely weakened Hamas would be forced by Egypt into a process of reconciliation with Fatah. That, in turn, would result in some kind of unified national leadership, with “all Palestinians sharing responsibility for administrating the country,” said Jamal Zakout, an adviser to the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad.

Talal Okal, a political analyst in Gaza and a member of the board of trustees of Al Azhar University, which is affiliated with Fatah, said Hamas wanted to preserve its own rule and would be likely to cooperate with Fatah only as a last resort.

Indeed, Hamas has shown only hostility to anyone perceived as cooperating with Israel. Yuval Diskin, chief of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, told the cabinet here on Sunday that Hamas had cold-bloodedly killed about 70 Fatah supporters in Gaza under the cover of the war.

Mr. Abbas also faces a constitutional crisis. Months ago, Hamas declared that it would no longer recognize him as president after his four-year term technically ended last Friday. Mr. Abbas has said he will call for new presidential and parliamentary elections, but that could be risky: Hamas won the last parliamentary vote in 2006.

Even if Israel succeeds in toppling Hamas, nobody here seems to believe that the Abbas-led authority would be in any position to fill the vacuum right now, especially because the authority would be perceived in Gaza as having ridden in on a proverbial Israeli tank.

Indeed, with their credibility on the line, Palestinian Authority officials are naturally cautious about being seen to want to benefit from the Israeli assault. “Our first priority is to stop the bloodshed,” Mr. Zakout said.

The 19 days of bombing, aimed at impeding Hamas’s ability to threaten southern Israel with its rocket fire, have killed more than 1,000 Gazans, according to Palestinian health officials, and have turned the Gaza Parliament, government ministry offices and countless other buildings and homes to rubble. Foreign donors are expected to give money for extensive reconstruction.

Israeli officials would rather see the authority vested with the responsibility and the budget for the reconstruction bonanza than the Iranian-backed Hamas.

At the same time, they believe that Hamas will try to obstruct any such move, seeking to foster its own popularity and legitimacy by overseeing the rebuilding effort itself. The Palestinian Authority has had a reputation for corruption, though that has been redressed in part by the efforts of Mr. Fayyad.

And even if Hamas were forced to agree to a Palestinian Authority presence at the border, there are questions about how effective it would be.

Israel and Egypt have said they are willing to resume operation of their border crossings with Gaza on the basis of the American-brokered Agreement on Movement and Access of 2005, which called for Palestinian Authority security forces — and, in the case of Rafah on the Egyptian border, European observers — to be stationed on the Palestinian side.

“Clearly, we want the Palestinian Authority to be at the crossings,” said an Israeli defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issues currently under discussion. “The question is, will they really be in charge?”

Mr. Khatib, who was involved in the negotiations for the 2005 border crossing agreement, suggested that there could be other solutions for the crossings, like setting up an independent, technocratic Palestinian border control agency led by a figure acceptable to both Fatah and Hamas.

Grappling with the complexities, the Israeli defense official said: “Hamas will not let the Palestinian Authority come out of this with an achievement. I don’t know what to say. We’re not there yet.”

Venezuela Breaks Off Ties

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela said Wednesday that it had broken off diplomatic relations with Israel to protest its military offensive in Gaza.

The decision by President Hugo Chávez’s government came more than a week after it expelled the Israeli ambassador.

Bolivia also broke off relations with Israel.


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