Joel Greenberg
The Chicago Tribune (Analysis)
January 20, 2009 - 1:00am

The Gaza Strip has been devastated by Israel's punishing offensive against Hamas, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be the war's most serious political casualty.

Sidelined during the fighting and now struggling to play a role in Gaza's reconstruction, Abbas' Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, is battling to stay relevant.

"Marginalized is a very good choice of words," Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian government in the West Bank, told journalists on Monday.

Abbas, a moderate who has pursued negotiations with Israel for more than a year, is certain to be part of any renewed peace efforts by the Obama administration.

Yet Abbas appeared to many Palestinians as ineffective during the Gaza war, unable to press Israel to halt its onslaught while sending his police to break up pro-Hamas demonstrations in the West Bank with tear gas, clubs and even gunfire.

"He was afraid of angering Israel and of an uprising against the Palestinian Authority," said Ashraf Kiblawi at his shop in Ramallah's market. Kiblawi said that although he was a member of Abbas' Fatah faction, he would vote for Hamas if there were an election now.

Hamas routed Fatah in a brief factional war in 2007 when it seized control of the Gaza Strip, and the militant group has won respect among many in the West Bank for absorbing the Israeli assault.

"Gaza, symbol of resistance," said a green armband worn by a woman at a pro-Hamas protest in Ramallah on Friday, expressing a widely held view.

The deepening division between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Fatah, which is dominant in the West Bank, is likely to hobble any effort to rebuild the Gaza Strip. With Western nations boycotting Hamas, it is unclear how foreign aid for rebuilding will reach the territory.

Fayyad said the Palestinian Authority was the proper address for aid, and he urged the formation of a unity government with Hamas to deal with the Gaza emergency, setting aside ideological differences.

Abbas called for a unity government Monday at an Arab economic summit in Kuwait.

But Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy Hamas leader in exile, rejected funneling funds through the Palestinian Authority.

Regardless of how the funding wrangle is resolved, Abbas' standing seems to have been diminished by the Gaza war.

"He is widely seen, even within Fatah, as unable to represent or protect his own people," said Robert Blecher, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank.

But even before the war Abbas was losing ground, as negotiations with Israel failed to make significant headway.

Ghassan al-Khatib, a political analyst, said that the peace process was Abbas' "only card," but "Israeli settlement expansion [in the West Bank] and other forms of consolidating the occupation during the period of negotiations greatly affected his popularity."

Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a prominent pollster in the West Bank, said that widespread anger over Israel's campaign in Gaza has been taken out on Abbas because of his association with the Israelis in peace talks, and his future may well depend on the outcome of Israeli elections in February.

A right-leaning government in Israel that is uninterested in making territorial concessions for peace would bode ill for the Palestinian leader, Shikaki said.

"If as a negotiator he is unable to deliver an end to occupation, then sooner or later he will be challenged, from within Fatah or by Hamas," Shikaki said.


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