Assaults underline Palestinian divisions

Analysts are split over whether factions are closer together or farther apart because of the conflict, but agree national reconciliation seems far away.

Palestinian Hamas supporters chant slogans during a protest against Israel's military operation in Gaza, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Friday, Jan. 2, 2009. Israel showed no sign of slowing a blistering seven-day offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers, destroying homes of more than a dozen of the group's operatives Friday and bombing one of its mosques a day after a deadly strike killed a prominent Hamas figure. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi) *** Local Caption ***  JRL173_MIDEAST_ISRAEL_PALESTINIANS.jpg
Powered by automated translation

RAMALLAH, West Bank // In clusters of four, balloons adorn the ceiling of a fashionable coffee shop in Ramallah. A waiter hastens to explain that the balloons, arranged in the colours of the Palestinian flag - red, white, black and green - are an expression of sympathy with Gaza. The effect, however unintentional, is of a party in progress, an impression underscored by a rare full house for lunch and the muzak playing over the speakers. But the customers are the first in a week, said the waiter.

"No one really feels like going out," he said, asking not to be identified. "But what can we do? We need to make a living." The contradiction illustrates the ambivalent attitude of Palestinians in Ramallah to what is happening in Gaza and why. A sense of uneasy normality pervades the city, the administrative centre of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. Along the main shopping street, people throng the shops and restaurants. Inside, TVs are tuned to news channels, and people keep one eye on the news from Gaza, another on the bargains.

Palestinians here are of course sympathetic with ordinary Gazans, but differ vastly in their attitude toward Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza alone ever since ousting PA security forces in June 2007. Said one local restaurant owner, who declined to be named: "If my choice is between the fanatics [Hamas] and the thieves [the PA], I choose the thieves. Hamas's strategy of armed resistance and nothing else only brings us death. The strategy of negotiations is not bringing us freedom, but at least it brings us quiet."

Analysts differ over whether the Israeli offensive in Gaza is deepening Palestinian divisions or bringing people closer, but agree that the lack of a unified Palestinian polity is weakening any effective Palestinian response. There have been demonstrations in Ramallah, as in other West Bank cities, in solidarity with Gazans. But they have been more tranquil than might have been expected and the Palestinian security forces have been careful to keep them under control.

Too careful for some. "I knew there were divisions between the PA and the people and it has been played out more and more recently," said Basil Ayyish, 49, a non-affiliated IT professional, who has attended a couple of demonstrations in Ramallah. "Now the police are basically barring any show of partisanship or threat to the authority of the PA very forcefully." On Friday, about 2,000 protesters massed in the centre of Ramallah in the largest demonstration against the violence in Gaza. Although the demonstration was mostly peaceful, it was marred by an argument between some protesters carrying Hamas flags and some carrying Fatah flags, with the former calling the latter "collaborators" with Israel.

Police had to break up the demonstration, confiscating flags from both sides. That too was the case in Nablus, where a smaller protest of mostly Hamas supporters was also broken up by a large contingent of Palestinian police, and in Hebron, where according to some eyewitnesses, the local police commander had to be separated from demonstrators who threatened to beat him up. "The PA does not want to lose control," said Walid Salem, a political analyst. "The authority does not want to be accused of not adhering to its agreements with Israel. If demonstrations against Israel gained momentum, it might spark violence and this would lead to the expansion of Hamas and the retreat of the PA."

Certainly, PA officials are being very careful about their statements after some senior officials had initially appeared to blame Hamas for the violence by firing rockets. Moreover, there is a growing movement within Fatah expressing sympathy with Hamas. And in his first public comments since the outbreak of fighting, Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, was on Friday also careful to stress the need for Palestinian unity.

Nevertheless, Mr Salem said, there will be no national reconciliation in the near future. "The issues dividing the factions remain the same," he said. That view was shared by another analyst, Ali Jarbawi, who said that although the outcome of the Israeli offensive - barring a full-scale invasion - might be a limited role for PA security forces in Gaza, Hamas would not cease being in charge of the coastal territory.

"The PA hopes that a weakened Hamas will be easier to bring under its overall political programme," Mr Jarbawi said. "And Hamas may well have to agree to some kind of power sharing or independent administration if it is going to ensure a ceasefire with Egyptian backing. But there will still be sharp differences." Mr Jarbawi said he expected Israel and Hamas would eventually agree to a ceasefire that both could cite as a victory. Once the dust settled, he said, Palestinians would have time to reflect on the events and might come to punish Hamas in any elections, whether this year or early 2010.

Mr Salem, however, said if Israel failed to deliver a fatal blow to Hamas, the movement's popularity would only grow at the expense of the PA. "I think by preventing people from expressing their feelings [in West Bank demonstrations] the PA is acting like any Arab state. This will make them lose ground, especially if the casualties in Gaza continue to mount. If Hamas is still in control of Gaza when the fighting is over, I think Hamas will also triumph in any elections."

Back at the coffee shop, customers seemed intent on enjoying a quiet lunch, even if much of the talk was about Gaza. Ominously, perhaps, the speakers around them were playing a schmaltzy version of the theme tune to Titanic.