All eyes on Abbas in West Bank
The Fatah leader has popular support, but faces lawlessness and other challenges.
Tel Aviv and Nablus, West Bank — Even though Hamas's takeover of Gaza limited the rule of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the West Bank and left his Fatah Party reeling, polls suggest that the leader's standing has been bolstered by the crisis.
Not only has the West resumed sending hundreds of millions in aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), but Mr. Abbas will appear at a summit next week to build regional support for his new government.
As the West Bank and Gaza fall under rival regimes, Mr. Abbas, and his Fatah Party are being held up by Israel and the US as the only hope for stability in the West Bank – and as partners with whom they can negotiate. But, analysts warn, it's risky to expect so much from a tentative leader who faces lawlessness in the West Bank and the need to unite a fractured party.
"This is a honeymoon period, but he has to prove himself," says Hanna Siniora, the codirector of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem. "He understands that he has to be tough and serious. This goes against his streak. But this is what people want from a leader."
In a televised address Wednesday, Abbas tried to demonstrate some of that resoluteness, referring to Hamas's military wing as "murderous terrorists" and Islamist rule in Gaza as "a project of darkness" – a departure from his usually measured speech.
Abbas listed several conditions for renewing dialogue with Hamas: relinquishing captured sites in Gaza, a public apology, and the arrest and trial of Hamas operatives accused of executing Fatah officers. But neither the Palestinians, the US, nor Israel will be satisfied if there is no change on the ground.
"Speeches are not enough," adds Mr. Siniora. "People want actions. So we are waiting for actions."
But Abbas is starting from shaky ground. His establishment of an emergency government and suspension of the Hamas-run legislature leaves the PA on thin constitutional ground, stirring expectations for new elections.
Observers say his top priority will be getting control of gunmen – many from his own party – who have undermined law and order in the West Bank. At the same time, Abbas must confront top security officers in order to push through a badly needed overhaul of a PA paramilitary force that crumbled last week in clashes with Hamas.
"He needs to fire officers who misled him, and misinformed him," says Kadoura Fares, a former minister under Abbas and a Fatah activist. "If in Gaza they were weak, that means in the West Bank they will also be weak."
A recent public opinion survey by the Ramallah-based research group Near East Consulting suggested that Abbas has the support to take far-reaching steps. When asked which leader, Abbas or Haniyeh, they trusted more, Palestinians boosted Abbas's ratings by 3 percentage points, to 62 percent. In the West Bank alone, that rating was 73 percent. Haniyeh's rating was 38 percent among all Palestinians.
That's not to say Abbas emerged unscathed from the fighting. There is almost universal agreement among Fatah loyalists that Yasser Arafat, his predecessor, would have prevented the Hamas takeover. At the same time, the fighting revealed Abbas's sprawling party – which dominated the Palestinian national movement from the 1960s – to be in utter disarray.
"Fatah is in very bad shape. It is almost nonexistent. It is unable to determine its course of action," says Bassem Ezbeidi, a political science professor at Birzeit University. On the other hand, Hamas members are "not talkers, they are doers. They are movers and they are shakers."
But reports of brutality by Hamas has hurt the Islamists' image, and some credit Abbas with avoiding a civil war by keeping Palestinian security services largely out of the fighting.
In Nablus, young militants, associated with Fatah, who are known as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, reacted to events in Gaza last week by making reprisal attacks against symbols of Hamas and kidnapping some its members. Whether Abbas will now manage to rein in these renegade factions is unclear. So far, the leaders of the brigades, while loyal to the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), say they are not terribly impressed with Abbas's handling of the crisis in Gaza.
"Had [Abbas] given the order to fight and defend their positions in Gaza, then the outcome of the situation would have been different," says Sari Hussein, a founder and leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus. "His only objective was to stop the bloodshed."
But Abbas's decision to dismiss the unity government suggests a potential turnaround in his image. "When he dissolved the government, that was a very strong message," Mr. Hussein adds. "He's starting to realize that he has to target Hamas. They were taking over here, and we prepared the way for the PA to come back in."
Abbas must try to unify a fractious network of Al Aqsa militia groups that lack a centralized leadership and do not necessarily take orders from anyone but their own individual group leaders.
Formed at the start of the second intifada in September 2000, these mini-militias have tended to be more powerful than any of the PA's security forces.
Hussein, a tall and burly man who dresses in black, is concerned that Abbas, as part of the security reform and consolidation he is pushing for, will demand that militants like him give up their arms. In a speech on Wednesday, the new Palestinian prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, said the PA would no longer tolerate armed militias roving the streets of Palestinian cities.
"Why should put down my weapon?" Hussein asks. "Am I safe? Are the Israelis gone?"