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Fatah, Hamas split widens amid Gaza war

Members of the secular Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian Authority, are divided over how the group should respond to the ongoing Israeli offensive against Hamas.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 2009

West Bank vigil: A pro-Palestinian protest.

Mohammed Muheisen/AP

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Ramallah, West Bank

As Israel's battering campaign in Hamas-run Gaza continues, pushing the Palestinian death toll toward 1,000, the Fatah-controlled West Bank has been largely quiescent.

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Fatah is keeping a lid on protests, not letting West Bankers draw it into Israel's war on Hamas. Senior voices in the secular party that runs the Palestinian Authority (PA) see restraint as key to its quest for statehood. Getting entangled in Gaza, they say, would only embolden Hamas.

Others say Fatah is making a fatal mistake. Its inaction will irreparably damage its standing in the eyes of Palestinians and erode support for the group that both America and Israel view as peace partners.

Worse, some say, Fatah is left looking like it supports Israel's military campaign. Some of the Arab media portray Fatah as sitting on the sidelines, hoping to regain control of the coastal enclave from which it was ousted in a violent June 2007 coup by Hamas.

A letter within Fatah, penned and signed by disaffected activists and sent to the office of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, shows the extent of frustration.

"We were used to the situation in which Fatah was the leader in any confrontation against the occupation, and for the first time, we find ourselves outside the standoff. This is going to cost us dearly, especially when it comes to public support, and it is going to harm our credibility in the eyes of the people," it reads.

Fatah appears to be looking at lessons from the past in how it chooses to deal with the Gaza crisis. Twenty-one years ago, an Israeli military jeep accidentally crashed into a crowd in occupied Gaza, killing four Palestinians. Rage and rioting spread to the West Bank and an intifada was born.

While Hamas leaders have called for a third intifada, those calls have not led to an uprising here. The PA has set strict guidelines about where protests are permitted. No rallies are allowed in proximity to Israeli military posts or settlements, virtually eliminating opportunities for angry activists to find themselves "a stone's throw" away from Israeli soldiers.

But Moheeb Awwad, a Fatah official, says many in the young ranks of his movement are losing patience. "At the least, they will leave Fatah and start their own splinter organization. This segment has to find a venue through which it can vent.

"There is social and popular support for our brothers in Gaza," Mr. Awwad says. "But the internal Palestinian conflict has cast its shadow on the response of people in the West Bank, which is lukewarm."