Palestinian Authority popularity at all-time low

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Yet another sign of the growing unpopularity of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) was evident on the streets of Ramallah last weekend.

Demonstrators ripped apart hundreds of posters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term officially expired in January, that were plastered on walls and buildings along the street leading to the heavily fortified compound known as the Muqata, the PA government headquarters.

All this was done within spitting distance of the heavily armed soldiers who patrol the sidewalks and roads leading to the Muqata.

The popularity of Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has plunged to an all-time low in the wake of allegations of corruption, and of collusion with Israel during its bloody January offensive in Gaza which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

PA security forces have carried out mass arrest campaigns against political opponents mostly from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Those arrested have included sympathizers not attached to the military wings of either organization. Human rights organizations have alleged widespread torture.

Recent polls have shown that the PA’s popularity has dropped to an all-time low.

Hamas emerged from the Gaza conflict politically strengthened for having withstood the onslaught and sticking to its principle of resistance against Israeli occupation.

However, many Palestinians have had a gutfull of both groups as once again Palestinian unity talks held in Cairo last week hit a deadlock. One major stumbling block is Abbas’s insistence that appointed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stay on, even though he tendered his resignation in March in a bid to help reconciliation attempts.

Hamas wants Fayyad, who it considers a US stooge, out of any future government. This includes the new interim government that Abbas is expected to form within the next 48 hours.

The interim government will step aside if a unity government is formed. But not much hope is held out for progress during further unity talks which resume mid-May. New presidential and legislative elections will be held early next year.

Between them, Hamas and Fatah could both be sabotaging a possible breakthrough in their relationship with the new US Administration.

Until recently the US had refused to give aid to, or conduct talks with, a Palestinian government that included Hamas members. The group is classified a “terrorist organization” by the US.

However, US President Barack Obama’s administration recently asked Congress to amend a US law to enable the Palestinians to receive federal aid if it forms a unity coalition with Hamas.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has argued that it is better to change Hamas’s attitude rather than breaking off any possibility of dealing with the Islamic resistance organization if it joined a unity government.

While Israel might be pleased at Palestinian disunity, the relationship between the PA and Israel is itself under significant strain.

The new ultra-right wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed the overly conciliatory Abbas to breaking point with his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before peace talks can commence.

The PA has already recognized Israel and its right to exist, but refuses to comment on the character of the state, fearing that this would jeopardize the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

“I do not accept it,” Abbas said. “It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic — it is none of my business.”

The PA argues that while Israel had recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate leadership of the Palestinians, it had never recognized the right of a Palestinian state to be established.

Tensions underlying the rift, between the Israelis and the Palestinians and among the Palestinians themselves, were further highlighted Monday with the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in the Holy Land.

The Papal envoy walked out of an interfaith meeting after the hard-line head of the Palestinian Sharia court, Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, accused the Pope of failing to denounce “the crimes of the Jewish state.”

Several extremist Jews, meanwhile, denounced the Pope for not apologizing sufficiently for alleged Vatican collusion with the Holocaust during a talk he gave at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

Hamas for its part wrote of the Papal visit as a public relations stunt to improve Israel’s negative image abroad.

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