Muslims step up Israel protests

Israel's week-old assault on the Gaza Strip has widened the rift between Palestinians who back the search by moderate leaders for a peace accord with the Jewish state and those drawn to Hamas' call for armed struggle.

The breach was on display yesterday in the West Bank as the territory's U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority leadership, struggling to contain rising anger over the death toll in Hamas-ruled Gaza, sent police to put down pro-Hamas demonstrations.


Thousands enraged by the bloodshed have joined protests in West Bank cities. One in Ramallah after Friday prayers turned into a shouting match between about 2,000 marchers with green Hamas flags and 500 others with the yellow banners of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.

While condemning the assault as "criminal," Abbas has insisted that Hamas is responsible because it ended a truce with Israel two weeks ago.


Hamas, in turn, has branded him an Israeli collaborator.

The two factions shared power, uneasily, in an elected government until the militant Islamic group ousted Fatah's secular forces from Gaza in June 2007. Their violent split left the Palestinian Authority in charge of only the West Bank, and the rift has deepened since.

Investment spurred by hopes for peace with Israel has trickled into the West Bank, lifting its economy. Gaza has slid deeper into poverty, punished for Hamas' belligerence by an Israeli blockade that severely restricts supplies of food, fuel and other essential goods to the coastal enclave's 1.5 million people.

As Hamas stepped up rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza over the past year, Abbas has pursued talks with Israeli leaders, brokered by the Bush administration, with the goal of an independent Palestinian state.

U.S. officials hoped the process would boost Abbas' stature and weaken support for Hamas' message of armed resistance.

But after 14 months, Israeli leaders and Abbas are no closer to a statehood accord, and Hamas remains entrenched in Gaza.

Each faction now views the Israeli offensive as an opportunity to gain at the other's expense. Fatah officials have sent messages of hope to their supporters in Gaza that Hamas will be driven from power.

Defying Abbas, Hamas' top political leader, Khaled Mashaal, has called for an uprising in the West Bank, "a peaceful one against the Palestinian Authority and a military one against Israel."


The potential for rebellion in the West Bank, however, is limited. The Israeli army patrols the territory heavily, and Abbas' security forces, built up with Israel's blessing, have arrested dozens of Hamas activists in recent months.

In addition, Palestinians say they are unwilling to join massively in any cause not backed by all political factions.

"People are frustrated by this internal division," said Hani Masri, a political analyst in Ramallah. "They see each faction working alone, for itself, unable to bring about any improvement for the Palestinians as a whole."

The bloodshed has put Abbas in a delicate position and threatened to undermine his authority, just as Hamas is challenging his bid to delay elections and prolong his term by one year.

The 73-year-old leader does not want Hamas to prevail in the fight with Israel. But as the elected president of all Palestinians, he has demanded a halt to the airstrikes, which have claimed more than 400 lives in Gaza since last Saturday.

He sees the peace talks with Israel as the central mission of his presidency. Yet after hours of face-to-face negotiations with Israeli leaders, he has delivered little to help persuade Gazans to turn against Hamas.


"The Israelis claim they are attacking Gaza to weaken Hamas, but in fact they are strengthening Hamas," said Mustapha Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament who led yesterday's march in Ramallah. "Mr. Abbas is perceived now as incapable of protecting all the Palestinian people."

Many Palestinians interviewed across the West Bank this week tended to agree.

"Hamas is winning sympathy all over Palestine," said Walid Abdul Rahman, a 34-year-old government employee in Ramallah.

"Nobody blames Hamas for what's happening in Gaza."

Both Israel and Abbas' government worry about Hamas' considerable popular support in the West Bank and its potential to challenge Fatah's supremacy there.