Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

More Gazans Turn Away from Hamas as Fatah Heads toward Peace Talks

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

More Gazans Turn Away from Hamas as Fatah Heads toward Peace Talks

Article excerpt

Support for Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has controlled Gaza since June, has frayed as Israel keeps intense pressure on the thin, coastal strip and its chief Palestinian rival is embracing a language of peace. A vast majority of Gazans now favor Fatah's path to formal talks with Israel, according to the Ramallah-based Near East Consulting, an independent market research firm. Sixty-one percent of those Palestinians who responded to a November poll also said they see Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), as the legitimate government for the Palestinian people. While the numbers represent a dramatic drop in its popularity since its overwhelming win in Palestinian polls last year, Hamas remains steadfast in its opposition to new talks, as prescribed in the Annapolis, Md., summit of Arab and Israeli leaders last week. And yet, say analysts, this potent and still widely influential force must be reckoned with before any lasting agreement can be inked. The catch is, according to the logic of Annapolis, Hamas should be treated as "extremist" until it endorses negotiations with Israel and forswears violence, despite the fact that the group controls a part of the Palestinian territories where 1.4 million Palestinians live. But critics warn that as long as the US, Israel, and Mr. Abbas's PA shut out Hamas, the peace process will be flawed at best, or, at worst, could trigger intensified fighting. "There is no concept of how to deal with Hamas. That is part of the big problem with what is going on right now," says Gidi Grinstein, who was part of the Israeli peace team for the 2000 Camp David summit, and is the president of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute. Through aid, rebuilding PA institutions, and removing Israeli limits to Palestinian movement in the West Bank, peace-process advocates hope to improve the quality of life in such a way that Gazans will be compelled to turn out Hamas. That assumes, however, a best-case scenario at a time when Hamas still remains strong, despite a drop in opinion polls, and Fatah is fractured, says Mr. Grinstein. "Israel doesn't have a strategy, it is locked between a rock and a hard place. So is Fatah." Hamas denounced Annapolis, arguing that Abbas gained nothing from attending while Israel and the US improved their international standing. "The Israelis have tried to show themselves as peacemakers and victims, when, in fact they block all efforts" at a settlement, says Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. Advocates of the current peace process insist that Annapolis has left Hamas further isolated in the region. Sixteen Arab governments - including its Syrian patron - showed up at the conference. Even though many Palestinians support its attacks on Israel, including the use of suicide bombings, Hamas is still viewed as a diplomatic novice, an image reinforced by its inability to win many allies. …

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