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Palestinian statehood bid: Why Hamas has stayed on sidelines

Hamas has yet to officially declare its stance on the Palestinian statehood bid, to be launched at the UN this week. If the bid fails, the Islamist movement could expand its power in the West Bank.

By Ahmed AlDabbaContributor / September 20, 2011

Palestinians applaud in front of a symbolic chair supporting the Palestinian statehood bid in the West Bank city of Ramallah, unveiled Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead Tuesday with his diplomatic campaign to gain full UN membership, brushing aside heated Israeli objections and a promised US veto as the issue of Palestinian statehood takes center stage with world leaders gathering for the opening of the UN General Assembly session.

Majdi Mohammed/AP

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As the Palestinian bid for statehood comes to a head this week at the United Nations, Hamas remains split on whether to support the controversial move.

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The Islamist movement has long sought a Palestinian state, and its backing would be crucial for any such state to function. But amid a four-year rift with the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas appears to be hedging its bets. A failure for Mr. Abbas could pave the way for Hamas to expand its influence in the West Bank, where it has long been suppressed by Israeli and PA security forces.

"It is worth a wait," says Talal Okal, Gaza-based analyst and columnist. "[Hamas leaders] will congratulate Abbas if his efforts are crowned with success, and of course will rebuke him if he failed. It's a smart strategy."

Hamas loath to back Fayyad's project

The UN statehood bid comes on the heels of a two-year statebuilding initiative launched by PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, a former World Bank official. While Mr. Fayyad is widely trusted by the US and Europe, which have poured in foreign aid for his reform projects, he is viewed by Hamas as a traitor and a "Western tool" to implement America's strategies in the Palestinian territory.

But the disagreement goes beyond personalities; Hamas has been at odds with Fayyad's Fatah party four four years. After winning a majority in 2006 Palestinian elections, the Islamist movement violently ousted its secular rival from the Gaza Strip the following year, putting an indefinite end to the tenuous Hamas-Fatah unity government.

Hamas and Fatah have also failed so far to implement an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation process the two sides agreed to in April because Abbas wants to keep Fayyad as the head of the government, while Hamas wants to keep him away from Palestinian politics.

"It would be a victory for Fayyad and Abbas if Hamas joins the bid," says Atef Abu Saif, a professor of political science in Gaza. "If Hamas supports the attempt, it will have later to unwillingly accept Fayyad as a prime minister for the expected unity government."

Divisions ahead of Friday's bid

Hamas leaders are divided over whether to support PA President Mahmoud Abbas's plan to approach the UN to gain recognition of Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders.

The move goes against Hamas charter, which calls for having an independent state on all of the Palestinian soil, including Israel. It also calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

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