Why Hamas is even more popular after the Gaza war

Reconciliation talks between the Palestinian Islamist group and its rival, Fatah, began this week in Cairo.

TEL AVIV – A month and a half after the end of the war in Gaza, Hamas is gaining in popularity.

According to a survey released this week, public support for Hamas jumped to 33 percent compared with 28 percent before the war, while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh closed a 10 percentage point gap with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, according to a leading Palestinian pollster.

Mr. Abbas's sagging fortunes are considered among the main factors behind the decision to hold talks in Cario that started this week aimed at healing the 21-month rift with Hamas.

The Islamists also seek a compromise because they're aware that the bump in sympathy could dissipate if the $4.48 billion in reconstruction funds for Gaza is held up due to internal wrangling, says Khalil Shikaki, who runs the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

"Hamas gains additional standing because it was seen as the victim,'' he says. "On the other hand, Hamas is worried. The continued misery in Gaza will continue to hurt Hamas as well. Both Hamas and Abbas will feel a need to reach some sort of accommodation."

During the war, Hamas's stature in the Arab world got a boost under the onslaught of an Israeli offensive that killed about 1,300 Gazans.

Hamas portrayed Abbas and his Fatah Party – who are backed by the US – as complicit in the Israeli attack.

Since the end of the war, both Hamas and Fatah have been vying to control the dispersal of the rebuilding funds, and reconciliation talks are seen as a way to create a modicum of cooperation.

Reconciliation talks

The unity talks started Tuesday in Cairo and are scheduled to run through the end of March. The negotiations are also focusing on setting up a unity cabinet, and arranging a date for new elections. Last weekend, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said he would step aside to make way for a unity government.

A Hamas-Fatah reconciliation could provide the first test for the policy of the new Obama administration toward the Islamic militants. Under the previous Fatah-Hamas unity government, the Bush administration continued to boycott Hamas while propping up Abbas. Participants in the current round of talks hope that Obama's decision to engage Iran and Syria diplomatically portends a change for the Palestinians.

"There is an Obama effect," said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister, who is participating in the negotiations. "The region expects a more of an inclusive approach from the president.''

Khatib added that expectations for the mending of a rift between Egypt and Syria at a summit today in Saudi Arabia has also given a boost to the Cairo talks.

Observers have mentioned that expectations for a rightward shift in the next Israeli government have dimmed expectations for a peace deal in the coming years and further undermined Abbas's support.

A word of caution

The polling numbers contain some notes of caution for Hamas. Undermining Hamas's claim of victory, more than two-thirds of the respondents believe that the situation of Palestinians has deteriorated as a result of the three week war.

"Both camps are in crisis," says Eyad Sarraj, who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. "Hamas is unable to continue rule Gaza when it is destroyed and bankrupted."

Hamas and Fatah will discuss sharing control of the PA's security services and the Palestine Liberation Organization – two institutions dominated by the secularist Fatah. Even if the two parties can cobble together a cabinet and set a date for elections, a true reconciliation may prove elusive, says Mr. Shikaki.

"There is no way these talks can bring the sides together. The positions are too far apart," he said. "They are not going to give up their ideology and their political views. They will agree to disagree."

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