Across Palestinian territories, support for Hamas erodes

The militant group that swept the polls in January may form a coalition government with the opposition Fatah Party.

On the first day of the Palestinian school year Saturday, Ali Abu Dayeh had abandoned his high school classroom for a falafel stand in central Ramallah.

Eight months ago, the Arabic teacher helped the militant Islamist group Hamas win a majority in the Palestinian parliament, but this weekend Abu Dayeh joined tens of thousands of Palestinian teachers in a civil servant strike to protest the government's failure to pay salaries for the last half year.

"Hamas started with an agenda of reform and change. This program clashed with reality," he says. "Every government needs a political program, but this government has thrown its hands up and said, 'Be patient.' No government should say that."

At a time when Hizbullah has enjoyed a surge in popularity throughout the Arab world from its month-long war with Israel, Islamic militants in the Palestinian territories are coming under domestic pressure to resolve a financial crisis or share power.

Though the strike is a political play by union chiefs from the rival Fatah Party, remarks like Abu Dayeh's are a sign that a US and European aid boycott of the Islamic militant-led government is sowing widespread disillusionment with Hamas. The walkout will give moderate President Mahmoud Abbas more leverage to convince Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh into relenting on his rejection of peace talks with Israel.

To be sure, Hamas knows that its majority rule in parliament is safe for now because Fatah hasn't recovered from the January election landslide. So instead of the Islamic-led government falling, it may strike a compromise to invite Mr. Abbas's Fatah party in a unity coalition.

"When the Palestinian government becomes incapable of delivering, it will be frank with the people," says Mohammed Barghouti, the Hamas-appointed Palestinian Social Welfare Minister. "The solution is unity and a domestic agreement that respects both parties."

Over the past few weeks, representatives from Hamas and Fatah have been negotiating over the makeup of a unity cabinet and what the policy of the new government would be toward Israel.

The first Hamas-led Palestinian administration has had a shaky first six months. The Israeli army has ordered its soldiers back into Gaza in retaliation for the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. And government employees have racked up steep debts because donors in Europe and the US have refused to bankroll an administration that will not recognize peace agreements with Israel.

Hamas officials like Mr. Barghouti have argued that the crisis is the doing of Israel and the US, which refused to accept the Islamists' landslide victory at the polls. But the public sector strike that began over the weekend is shifting blame for the paralysis – and strengthening Fatah's hand in negotiations.

"The crisis has reached the peak. People can't wait any longer without income," said Samir Barghouti, the director of the Arab Center for Economic Development. "The Arab pressure, the international pressure, and the Israeli pressure has worked. Regular people are saying, 'We elected Hamas and we trust Hamas, but Hamas is not able to bring results.' "

As they ticked off strike participation rates for cities around the West Bank and Gaza for reporters, union leaders and legislators from Fatah sought to put the government militants on the defensive. Officials said that the civil servants timed the strike at the beginning of the school year because the families would be feeling the economic pinch most acutely as they prepare children for school.

"The Palestinian people are living in an economic and social crisis, regardless of the Americans and Israelis," says Basem Hadaydel, a spokesman for the teachers' union. "I hope Hamas understands the dangerous situation that we are in."

Hamas has sustained a good deal of its popularity despite months of deepening economic blight, says Hani el-Masri, a columnist for the El Ayyam newspaper. But political leaders blundered when they initially declared the strike an attack on the government rather than spinning it as a call to the international community to lift economic sanctions. "If they insist on keeping control over the government, it will give Abbas a push to dissolve it."

Palestinians hope that a power-sharing arrangement between Hamas and Fatah would end the aid boycott, and restore public sector salaries. Analysts say that a power-sharing arrangement would allow Abbas to participate in peace talks with Israel, while leaving veto power with Hamas legislators. The sides are also reportedly discussing whether the ministers in the unity government – including the prime minister – should be technocrats rather than politicians.

At the Ramallah secondary boys school, the schoolyard was empty save for Ismail Abu Ayham. The janitor, who said he supported neither Hamas nor Fatah, was quick to insist that he, too, was on strike even though he had come into work. "The children came into school this morning and then left," he says. "The pressure is not only from the employees, it will be from the students and the parents of the students. This is just the beginning."

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