West Bank Palestinians cheer on their Gaza counterparts

Palestinians in the West Bank have staged solidarity marches, praising Gaza's rocket strikes on Israel and calling for an end to the diplomacy track with Israel – an indirect blow to President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
Palestinian youths take cover during clashes with Israeli troops against Israel's operations in Gaza Strip in the West Bank city of Hebron, Tuesday. As Israel and Hamas traded blows across the Gaza Strip, Palestinians throughout the West Bank cheer on their Gaza counterparts.

As Israel and Hamas traded blows across the Gaza Strip, angry demonstrators throughout the West Bank staged solidarity marches praising rocket strikes and calling for a new uprising and the abandonment of diplomacy with Israel.

"We cheer for the all rockets, especially the ones on Tel Aviv," chanted a voice from the booming sound system at the head of a parade of about 300 demonstrators in Al Manara Square, at the center of Ramallah. "Negotiations are dead.''

Sentiment like that is a blow to the prestige of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has spent seven years in office trying to convince his countrymen that talks with Israel are the only route to Palestinian statehood. It is also generating sympathy with Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and is a bitter rival of Mr. Abbas.

Though beset by a two-year impasse in the negotiations, rejection by the Israeli government, and a budgetary crisis, Abbas was poised to mount a controversial bid for international recognition at the United Nations, which could have revived support. But the Gaza fighting is making him look like a spectator rather than a central player to the regional events; the Palestinian Authority isn't believed to be a part of the cease-fire talks, which are led by Egypt and include Qatar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

"The UN bid of the Palestinian Authority is one of the early casualties of this war... the political significance of this move is going to be much less than it could have been. All the attention is going to this war,'' says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst and former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority.

Escalating war?

"If this war will continue, I think the protests will expand and escalate. It has a radicalizing effect on the population," Mr. Khatib adds.

There were unconfirmed reports of hundreds of demonstrators in Hebron, in villages south of Jerusalem, and outside of the Jalameh crossing into Israel in the northern West Bank. Yesterday two Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces at West Bank demonstrations, and the body of one of those killed was carried through Manara Square under a thicket of Palestinian flags and with an escort of Palestinian security forces.

Not surprisingly, legislators from the West Bank allied with Hamas portrayed the demonstrations as support for their party. "In every street and every alleyway, Palestinians from all factions are coming out," says legislator Abduljaber Fuqahaa. "For them, the resistance is the only way."

 But the demonstrations seem far from mushrooming. In Ramallah, there were no green banners signifying support for the Islamist militants, and most of the people in the square did not join the protest, although it was unclear whether that was more due to fear of a Palestinian Authority crack down against supporters of its rival, or broader unease toward the Islamic militants.

 "People in the West Bank are extremely demoralized," says Ashraf, an office clerk who watched the Ramallah demonstration. "The reason why they are demoralized is because the PA says no resistance."

As long as Abbas is president...

Just last month Abbas, the leader of the US-supported Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, spoke to Israelis directly in a local television interview, promising that there would be no new intifada, or uprising, as long as he was president. 

 Those comments and other mollifying remarks suggesting he'd give up the right of return for Palestinian refugees still ring in the ears of Palestinians. They stand in stark contrast to the repeated rocket attacks on Israeli cities coming out of Gaza, which have given them a sense of empowerment.  

Mahmoud Labadie, an official from the international relations branch of Mr. Abbas' Fatah party, remained diplomatic today when asked about Hamas's militant tactics, saying it was an understandable response from Gazans. Although Hamas could not hope to defeat Israel militarily, he said, maybe the fighting with Israel would boost support for the bid at the UN.

President Abbas has a better environment to go to the UN with," says Mr. Labadie. "He will get more sympathy." 

Weakening credibility

In the days before the outbreak of the fighting, Israeli government ministers had launched a public relations offensive against Mr. Abbas. Israel's finance minister threatened to stop the flow of tax money that Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority – a move that could seriously destabilize Mr. Abbas' government, which is already struggling financially – and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Abbas's UN initiative "diplomatic terror" and released a position paper suggesting that he be toppled.

Given Abbas's weakening credibility among his constituents, Alon Liel, a dovish former Israeli diplomat, says that the government should consider softening their approach, and even give allow him a diplomatic victory at the UN.

"Abu Mazen gave up on the armed struggle, he did a diplomatic struggle," says Mr. Liel, using Mr. Abbas's nom de guerre. "If Abu Mazen gets this recognition by diplomatic means, he will balance the damage caused to him by this war.... I think it’s very important to let Abu Mazen have his diplomatic win, rather than let Hamas have its military win."

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Jerusalem. 

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