CAIRO, 21 August (IPS) - Ever since the takeover of Gaza two months ago by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, Washington and its allies have steadfastly supported the rival Fatah movement headed by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. But public support for Fatah, which has come to be seen by many as a stooge of Washington and Tel Aviv, has dropped off markedly.
“Popular support for Abbas and his Fatah party has fallen for several reasons,” Essam al-Arian, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement told IPS. “For one, Abbas seems prepared to give Israel all the concessions it wants without getting anything in return.”
In mid-June, Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the US-backed Abbas government, essentially splitting the Palestinian body politic into two distinct geographical entities. Since then, the US Bush Administration — along with most of the western media — has consistently portrayed the dispute as one between an “extremist” Hamas in the Gaza Strip and a “moderate” Fatah in the West Bank.
“The conflict in Gaza and the West Bank today is a struggle between extremists and moderates,” US President George W. Bush declared in the immediate wake of the upset.
Israel too rushed to embrace Abbas and his Fatah movement as a “moderate” counterweight to Hamas. In an effort to isolate the resistance faction, which Tel Aviv calls a “terrorist organization,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised to ease conditions in the West Bank while maintaining a crushing economic embargo on the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip.
“Abbas is hoping that economic improvements in the West Bank, in tandem with the difficulties suffered in Gaza, will boost his public support base,” Emad Gad, analyst at the semi-official al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and expert in Israeli affairs, told IPS.
In a further bid to strengthen Abbas’ hand vis-a-vis Hamas, Olmert announced the release of some 250 Fatah-affiliated prisoners from Israeli jails late last month.
Meanwhile, Washington’s “moderate” Arab allies in the region — led by Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States — have followed the US lead in expressing support for Abbas and his emergency government, headed by Salam Fayyad.
While in Washington last month to confer with senior US administration officials, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit again referred to Abbas as the only “legitimate” representative of the Palestinian people. He went on to reiterate the official mantra that the Hamas takeover of Gaza constituted an illegal “military coup.”
But while most Arab capitals have declared support for Abbas and his government, much of the wider Arab public has been disturbed by certain aspects of the PA president’s post-Gaza political trajectory.
For one, Israel’s obvious support for Abbas has served to reinforce his image as a de facto ally of the Jewish state against Hamas.
“Abbas now appears to move entirely according to the US and Israeli agenda,” Abdel-Halim Kandil, former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama told IPS. “The so-called PA has become little more than a security manager for the Israeli occupation.
“Israel may soon reoccupy the Gaza Strip with the aim of permanently removing Hamas from power,” Kandil added. “In this case, Abbas will be seen by many as little more than a soldier in the Israeli army.”
Further belying the Fatah camp’s designation as “moderate,” Abbas, following the lead of Washington and Tel Aviv, has staunchly refused to talk to Hamas since the Gaza takeover. “There will be no dialogue with the instigators of the coup,” Abbas has declared.
Hamas, by contrast, has consistently called for negotiations with its Fatah rivals. In a statement late last month, the resistance faction reiterated its call for dialogue, “despite the PA president’s repeated emphasis on his total refusal to hold talks.”
Abbas’ steadfast refusal to negotiate, however, has only reinforced the perception of Hamas as the more reasonable party to the conflict.
“It’s remarkable that Abbas will run to hold talks with Israeli officials, who demand impossible concessions of him, while simultaneously rejecting dialogue with Hamas,” said al-Arian.
According to Kandil, Abbas’ intransigence can be attributed directly to the PA president’s close relationship with his patrons in Washington. “Abbas can’t hold talks with Hamas because the US and Israel won’t let him,” he said.
Indeed, on 8 August, US house majority leader Steny Hoyer openly warned Abbas against making any contacts, overtly or covertly, with the resistance faction. “Dealing with Hamas … would be something which we would look on with opposition and suspicion,” Hoyer was quoted as saying in the Israeli press.
Fatah’s image has also been tarnished by revelations that emerged in the immediate wake of the Gaza upset regarding a failed plan to extirpate the Hamas leadership. According to Hamas officials, the “Datyton Plan” — named after US General Keith Dayton — had been scheduled to take place on 13 July.
The operation was to be led by Fatah-affiliated strongman Mohammad Dahlan with logistical support from the US Central Intelligence Agency, say Hamas officials.
“They were planning to carry out a bloody coup against Hamas, involving the murder of hundreds of people, including Hamas’ political and religious leaders,” leading Hamas member Yehia Moussa was quoted as saying in the state press on 21 June. “But we managed to thwart their plans before they could carry them out.”
Moussa went on to say that Dayton had supplied Dahlan and Fatah-affiliated security agencies with heavy weapons and ammunition with the aim of permanently eradicating the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
“The so-called Dayton Plan aimed to manipulate the Palestinians into waging war against each other,” said al-Arian.
Ibrahim Eissa, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent daily al-Dustour, said he believed that Hamas’ takeover of the territory on 14 June had been of a “pre-emptive” nature.
“The conflict isn’t between secularists and Islamists,” Eissa told IPS. “It’s between the corrupt agents of the US within Fatah and those who are looking out for the interests of the Palestinian people.”
Notably, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement with Fayyad in Ramallah on 3 August committing Washington to spend some 80 million dollars on the “development” of Fatah-controlled Palestinian security agencies. Instructors from the US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security will reportedly begin training units from Abbas’ presidential guard early next year.
“Rice didn’t come to help us establish a Palestinian state,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abuzahri was quoted as saying in flagship government daily al-Ahram. “She came to support one Palestinian faction at the expense of another.”
According to Kandil, the apparent erosion of Fatah’s popular standing hardly represents a recent phenomenon.
“The declining popularity of Abbas and Fatah on the Arab — and Palestinian — street is nothing new,” he said. “It has been entirely evident since January of last year, when Hamas surprised everyone by winning a wide majority in democratically-held parliamentary elections.”
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