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February 1, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict


It’s no secret that several Palestinian Authority and Fatah officials in the West Bank would have liked to see Operation Cast Lead end with the removal of Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip.

Of course, these officials are still not prepared to go on the record to express their displeasure over the failure of the IDF offensive to get rid of the Hamas regime. However, in private conversations over the past few days, many of them voiced “deep disappointment” over the fact that Israel ended the war without having totally crushed Hamas.

One of these officials, a close associate of Mahmoud Abbas’s, went as far as saying in a closed meeting that Israel made a “big mistake” by not finishing the job and keeping Hamas in power.

While Operation Cast Lead may have caused heavy damage to Hamas’s military capabilities, it has also left the PA leadership in the West Bank in a state of bewilderment and insecurity. Alarmed by the increased sympathy for Hamas in the aftermath of the war, Abbas and his prime minister, Salaam Fayad, have instructed their various security forces to step up their crackdown on the Islamic movement in the West Bank.

In the past three weeks, more than 135 Hamas supporters and members have been rounded up. Among the detainees are journalists, university professors and students and preachers. In some cases, Hamas supporters who were released by the IDF were arrested hours later by the PA security forces.

The crackdown has also included intimidation of reporters and critics. Several Palestinian reporters have been “advised” by Abbas’s top aides not to report on the massive anti-Hamas crackdown. Samir Khawireh, a journalist from Nablus, found himself in a prison cell earlier this week for reporting about the torching of a car belonging to Prof. Abdel Sattar Kassam, a long-time outspoken critic of financial corruption in the PA.

Kassam has blamed Fatah militiamen of being behind the torching of his car. A Fatah leaflet distributed in the city later took credit for the attack. Kassam was recently arrested by PA policemen in Nablus on charges of “incitement” against the PA leadership.

Another reporter, Khaled Amayreh of Hebron, was arrested for 55 hours by PA security agents shortly after he appeared on a TV talk show where he allegedly expressed sympathy with Hamas.

In the past two weeks, the PA leadership organized two pro-Abbas rallies, one in Ramallah and the second in Jenin, in what was seen by many Palestinians as a desperate attempt to show the world that the PA continues to enjoy the backing of the “street.”

But journalists were quick to point out that most of the demonstrators were, in fact, civil servants or members of the security forces dressed in civilian clothes. As one journalist explained, “These organized demonstrations remind us of the rallies that were held by [former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein and other Arab dictators.”

ACCORDING TO a number of top Fatah operatives in the West Bank, the latest clampdown is the result of growing pressure from the United States and Israel on the PA leadership. Scenes of policemen beating demonstrators and journalists on the streets of Ramallah and Tulkarm are causing heavy damage to the PA leadership’s credibility, they argue.

“We are now being branded traitors in the Arab world,” a Fatah legislator complained this week. “The Americans and Israelis are pushing us to commit suicide.”

Indeed, many Arabs and Muslims appear to believe allegations by Hamas about the PA leadership’s purported involvement in the war. The Arab media is still full of reports suggesting that Israel launched the operation in coordination with Abbas’s men, who allegedly also chose targets that were attacked by the IDF.

ON THE streets of Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jenin, it was not hard this week to find “ordinary” Palestinians who felt that the sole purpose of the war was to bring Abbas and Fatah back to the Gaza Strip. But the majority of these people is afraid to express its views in public, so as not to be targeted by the much-feared Preventative Security Service or the General Intelligence Apparatus.

Such is the degree of this fear that a veteran Fatah operative has stopped talking to the media, since being threatened that his salary would be cut off. The operative, who works as an “adviser” to Fayad’s government, said he received “warnings” from PA security commanders and government officials that he would lose his salary if he continued to publicly demand reforms and democracy.

“Abbas and Fayad are very nervous,” the Fatah official said. “There is no doubt that they are the biggest losers of this war, because they have been discredited among their own people.”

IN A bid to contain, or at least minimize, the damage, the PA leadership has gone on the offensive by launching a propaganda campaign aimed at undermining Hamas. In a series of press conferences, PA ministers and Abbas aides have accused Hamas of stealing aid convoys that were sent to Gaza. Moreover, they have accused Hamas of waging a bloody, kneecapping campaign against Fatah members in the Strip.

As part of the media offensive, Abbas this week appointed top PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo as the man in charge of the Fatah-run media outlets, including TV and radio stations in the West Bank. Abed Rabbo’s main mission is to ensure that the media in general, and the Fatah-controlled news organizations in particular, are completely mobilized in favor of Abbas and Fatah.

BUT THE media campaign and tough security measures are unlikely to boost Abbas’s standing among the Palestinians. On the contrary, the harder Abbas presses, the more points Hamas scores among the Palestinians, especially those living in the West Bank. The main problem is that many Palestinians don’t see Abbas and Fatah as a better alternative to Hamas, largely because of their failure to reform and their open alliance with Israel and the US.