x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

PA struggles to stay relevant after Hamas ‘victory’

Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been overshadowed by the recent events in Gaza, but their woes extend to the stuttering UN statehood bid as well as a financial crisis at home.

RAMALLAH // The soaring popularity of Hamas in Gaza following its war with Israel appears to have compounded the woes of the Palestinian Authority and its president Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Abbas was in trouble even before being relegated to the role of spectator as Israel and Hamas fought for eight days, starting November 14, then negotiated a truce with the help of Egypt that could lead to a further easing of Israel's long-standing blockade of Gaza.

The PA leader's bid for a Palestinian state at the United Nations has stuttered and it is also hobbled by a financial crisis at home.

"No one likes violence. No one likes bloodshed. But we have no choice. Abbas has been working for a long time and he hasn't achieved anything," said Rami Ewas standing outside a Ramallah clothing store. "If you don't have your rights and you can't get them through political means, you have no choice but resistance."

Israel carried out about 1,500 air strikes against targets in Gaza during its military campaign, while militants fired about as many rockets into Israel. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said that 156 Palestinians were killed, including 33 children and minors under 18. Rockets from Gaza killed six Israelis.

The hostilities galvanised support around Hamas as new leaders from the Arab Spring states a visited the territory

In the West Bank, where Mr Abbas's PA has its headquarters, protesters carried Hamas flags, creating a sea of green uncommon in Ramallah.

"Congratulations to Hamas. They are perfect," said Kamel Shahin sitting in a car park where he works as an attendant.

He describes himself as a supporter of Mr Abbas but views the battle in Gaza as a Hamas's victory. "As Palestinians we got all the demands we asked for," he said.

While final details of the agreement have yet to be released, the truce promises more movement of people and goods from Gaza - one of their key grievances.

The view of Mr Abbas on the street is shared by Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former policy adviser at Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit, which provided technical help to the Palestinian representatives during peace talks.

"The Palestinian Authority has already been weakened from every angle," he said

"Financially, it is virtual broke, can't make payroll each month; its sort of running on fumes. So it was already teetering on the verge of collapse and then comes this war in Gaza and it completely sidelines Mahmoud Abbas. He has no role."

Since the ceasefire was announced, Israel has reported arresting 28 suspected West Bank militants - including five members of Hamas - in addition to a security sweep in which 55 "terror operatives" were detained. Israel decided yesterday on further precaution by barring Palestinians under the age of 40 from accessing the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem - Islam's third holiest site.

The wave of arrests is a reminder that nearly 20 years after signing the Oslo Accord, which provided for an Palestinian interim self-government, Israel remains in charge in the territory.

The PA "exists because Israel allows it to, and it remains at all times under the strict control of the occupying power", said Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al Haq, a Palestinian legal rights organisation. "Which, don't forget, controls every aspect of Palestinian life, from how much water is drank, to who goes where, and when."

While Mr Abbas condemned the operation and sent an envoy to Cairo and Gaza for talks, Mr Elgindy said it was unclear what role, if any, he played in reaching the ceasefire. There is a now five-year-old split between his Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas who rules the Gaza Strip, and little progress to towards reconciliation.

"We all need to unite together - all the factions. If there is a blockade in Gaza we need to rise up in the West Bank in force," said Anan El Redayat, a Hamas supporter from Hebron. "This victory was for our people, Hamas and freedom."

For Hamas, the conflict has strengthened its relationship with the Arab and Islamic world and garnered support at home.

If the Palestinian factions do again consider reconciliation, Fatah will be the weaker one in talks, predicts Dr Samir Awad, a professor of political science at Birzeit University near Ramallah.

"The additional strength in the opposition, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, will be used as bargaining power in relation to the Palestinian Authority," said Dr Awad. "It will be translated into political bargaining power in a new or emerging Palestinian political structure."

If Mr Abbas's bid to seek UN recognition of a state of Palestine next week is successful, it will provide a new legitimacy to the embattled PA. But many here have had enough of his diplomatic tactics.

"We need the resistance like Hamas. An intifada," said Aliyah Abu Mohammed, a shopper in Ramallah. "We need to free Palestinians from the Israelis and the non-believers. We need to liberate our lands through resistance."


foreign.desk@thenational.ae with additional reporting bye Associated Press