Palestinian split rattles region

President Mahmoud Abbas named a new Palestinian cabinet Sunday and banned Hamas militias.

If there is one issue that tends to unite the diverse and often divisive actors across the Arab world, it's the Palestinian plight.

But now, with the dramatic turn of events in the past week that has left the Islamic militant group Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, Arab support for that cause has become more complicated than ever.

Hamas's victory – first by the vote and then by force – has Arab governments face to face with the possibility that they, too, may find themselves unable to control Muslim militant movements that stand opposed to secular nationalism or pro-Western policies. In Lebanon Sunday, militants there fired two Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, raising concerns that attacks on Israel in support for Hamas could trigger a regional flare-up.

Indeed, the creation of a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist ministate in Gaza will have reverberations throughout the region that are just now being felt.

In the past, most Arab and Muslim countries could express full support for the drive for an independent Palestinian state and an end to Israeli occupation. Now, they may find themselves forced to make the difficult choice: support Hamas or Fatah's President Mahmoud Abbas.

At an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo over the weekend, the league issued a statement trying to stay on good terms with both: expressing support for Mr. Abbas, and also for the Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament In a sense, says Tariq Masarweh, a Jordanian analyst, many Arab governments want to appear to stand in support of both sides of the Palestinian divide.

But, he argues, they should think twice about trying to do so.

"What we've learned is that Hamas doesn't believe in democracy. They are using democracy to reach their goals," says Mr. Masarweh, a columnist with Al Rai newspaper in Amman.

"We shouldn't give them any sort of sympathy. They built up a majority in Palestine, or in a part of Palestine, and then they used this majority to stage a coup d'état, which is not democracy at all," he says. "And when they did so, they must know that they are telling the world they are not interested in being a part of Palestine anymore. They are an Islamic emirate, which Tehran is trying to create in the Arab world."

Indeed, the path to Hamas's complete control in Gaza has many pointing to Iran, a stated patron of the Islamic resistance group.

Others in the Arab world blame the US, the European Union, and the rest of the international community for backing Fatah and for refusing to accept the outcome of the January 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power.

And amid questions about whether rushing to the aid of Abbas will quell the uncertainty in the region or put even a temporary end to the Palestinian power struggle, regional Arab governments will be eyeing their own Islamic groups for the message that Hamas's ascendancy sends to them.

"It's a symbolic moment. It boosts the moral of the militants and it can be raised as an emblem of victory," says Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, also known as London's Chatham House.

"But in reality, some will see the obstacles that they would face if they tried to pursue the same path," says Dr. Azzam. She says they are aware that Hamas was stymied "until a situation developed where it was no longer possible to be part of the government."

Around the Arab world, the Hamas coup is being read in very different ways.

To pro-Western moderate Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt, Hamas's victory raises a sensitive question that has often created a standoff between the Arab world and Washington: Can Islamic militant groups be co-opted into the democratic arena?

Regional leaders have two recent examples in which turning gunmen into debaters has not worked. In Lebanon, some hoped that Hizbullah could be reshaped into political players, while in Gaza, Hamas insisted on being both a political party and a military group.

"The last thing the region's leaders wanted to see was a Hamas-led government, and that's the main concern for those countries that have moderate Islamist parties," Azzam adds.

"An Islamic political party has, through its militants, been able to set up an independent authority and that's always worrying to those neighboring states that want to quell their own Islamist factions and militants," she says.

The so-called Quartet, a four-party Middle East peacemaking group that includes the US, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, decided after the election of Hamas early last year that it would not deal with the Islamic organization unless it recognized previous agreements, forswore violence, and agreed to recognize Israel. The Hamas charter, which calls for Israel's destruction, made that unlikely.

The changing reality of the region is that people interested in voting for Islamic parties are motivated by a variety of reasons. But the region's longstanding regimes have not found a formula to cope with this fact, meet demands to democratize, and at the same time, ensure their stability and survival.

"These political parties have a constituency; they have support within their societies. They have chosen where they have chosen, and the choice was not respected," Azzam says. "If you make life as difficult for them as possible, it delegitimizes those who say, 'we can choose a democratic path.' What you're going to see is a radicalization because they'll say, the democratic route is being denied us," she says.

Yesterday in Ramallah, where Fatah still maintains control, Abbas swore in a new cabinet. He indicated that the new government, and its disassociation from Hamas, would pave the way to the return of foreign aid for the Palestinian economy.

Leading moderate Salam Fayyad, an ex-World Bank official who is now prime minister and finance minister, told Palestinians that the government would try to restore order. "Security of the citizen is the priority on the basis of the sovereignty of the law," he said in a televised address. Hamas, using the language much of the world has used to describe its action against Fatah in Gaza last week, said that Abbas's steps amounted to a coup.

In the lobby of Ramallah's Grand Park Hotel, a popular place for political gatherings, dozens of Fatah officials embraced each other as they were reunited since fleeing Gaza in fear of arrest and execution. They spoke by cellphone with worried family members who were forced to remain behind in Gaza because they couldn't get Israeli security authorization to leave.

Hundreds of Palestinian Authority (PA) members were given special permission by the Israeli army to cross over from Gaza to the West Bank. On Saturday, dozens of Gazans were caught just outside the Israeli gate of the crossing terminal.

Ashraf Eid al-Ajrami, a journalist who was appointed minister of prisoner affairs in the emergency government, says that one of its goals was to lift the aid boycott of the PA, which has been in place since Hamas took power in March 2006.

At the same time, Mr. Ajani says the government will try to topple Hamas in Gaza by encouraging an international political siege.

"We will make sure they are besieged internally, locally, and regionally," he says. "What we will try to do is to strip away the legitimacy of the Hamas entity. We want to alienate the people from Hamas."

• Correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Ramallah.

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